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Thursday, June 12
Updated: June 20, 10:54 AM ET
Offseason Overview: Green Bay Packers

By Kieran Darcy
ESPN The Magazine

2002 RECORD: 12-4
TEAM RANK (NFL): Defense (12th); Offense (12th)
Free agents -- FB Nicolas Luchey (Bengals), LB Hannibal Navies (Panthers), OL Grey Ruegamer (Patriots), DE Chukie Nwokorie (Colts), OT Reggie Coleman (Bengals), RB Lamar Smith (Panthers), OT Marcus Spriggs (Dolphins), CB Al Harris (Eagles), QB Akili Smith (Bengals).
Draft picks -- 1. OLB Nick Barnett (Oregon State); 3. DE Kenny Peterson (Ohio State); 5a. DT James Lee (Oregon State); 5b. MLB Hunter Hillenmeyer (Vanderbilt); 6. OT Brennan Curtin (Notre Dame); 7a. CB Chris Johnson (Louisville); 7b. WR DeAndrew Rubin (South Florida); 7c. WR Carl Ford (Toledo); 7d. LB Steve Josue (Carson Newman).
LB Nate Wayne (Eagles), S Matt Bowen (Redskins), CB Tyrone Williams (Falcons), CB Tod McBride (Falcons), DE Vonnie Holliday (Chiefs), LB Hardy Nickerson (Packers), WR Terry Glenn (Cowboys).
Team news | Roster | More on Packers draft

Thu., June 19
Are Ferguson and Walker legitimate threats or is Favre still lacking quality receivers?
Until one of the two youngsters demonstrates that he is ready to take over a starting role, and the offseason leader appeared to be Ferguson, the Packers will continue to be at least one brick shy of a full load in their passing game. On the optimistic side, Donald Driver took a few years to develop, and then made a quantum leap in 2002, when he caught 70 balls. There is no reason, given their respective physical skills, that either Ferguson or Walker can't make similar progress in 2003. Ferguson had 22 catches in 2002, after zero as a rookie, and his three touchdowns offered a nice ratio. Walker is the more explosive, in terms of straightline speed, of the two but is not as polished running routes. Head coach Mike Sherman was publicly complimentary of Ferguson in the spring, so there is reason to believe the light has gone on above the head of the former second-rounder, and that he can provide Driver a viable complement. There is, though, a degree of urgency in all of this. At age 33, Favre doesn't have nearly as many miracles left in his bag of tricks, and could use some expanded options. He also needs to have confidence in one of the two young wideouts. Without that, he'll keep focusing in on Driver and, when he isn't open, will just dump the ball to tailback Ahman Green or tight end Bubba Franks.

The Packers tied Philadelphia and Tampa Bay for the best record in the NFL last season at 12-4. But while those two teams met in the NFC championship game, Green Bay got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Falcons, 27-7, their first-ever postseason loss at Lambeau Field.

Still, the Packers accomplished a lot, considering some of the major injuries they endured. Both starting offensive tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, missed significant time. So did defensive end Joe Johnson. And quarterback Brett Favre wore a knee brace for much of the second half of the year after spraining a ligament -- although he kept his amazing starting streak (173 consecutive games) alive.

Some young players continued to emerge as stars -- Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila recorded double-digit sacks for the second straight season, while Donald Driver became Favre's go-to receiver and made the Pro Bowl. But best of all for Green Bay fans, Favre put those retirement rumors to bed and will be back for 2003.

What they've added?
On offense, Green Bay has vastly improved its depth at several positions. Protecting the 33-year-old Favre is a top priority. All the O-line starters are returning, but in case Clifton and Tauscher have setbacks, the Packers added several pieces: Grey Ruegamer, David Brandt, Marcus Spriggs and Reggie Coleman.

Elsewhere on offense, former 1,000-yard rusher Lamar Smith will back up Ahman Green. And Green Bay took a chance on former first-round pick Akili Smith, cut by the Bengals. Doug Pederson is Favre's veteran backup, but perhaps Smith can resurrect his career here down the road.

There will be several new starters on defense. First-round pick Nick Barnett, out of Oregon State, should immediately step in as the team's starting middle linebacker. He's very athletic and active. Hannibal Navies from the Panthers will also likely start at linebacker, with Chukie Nwokorie from the Colts sliding into a starting slot on the defensive line. The one concern is that the latter two have been injury-prone thus far in their careers. And former Eagle Al Harris will step in at cornerback.

Third-round pick Kenny Peterson, a defensive end from Ohio State, and fifth-round choice Hunter Hillenmeyer, a linebacker from Vanderbilt, should also see action.

What they're missing?
The Packers are not nearly as deep on defense this year, especially in the secondary. Cornerbacks Tyrone Williams and Tod McBride are gone, as is safety Matt Bowen. Bryant Westbrook will be relied upon more at corner -- but can he handle it after his Achilles injury a couple of years ago?

Fantasy Focus
Ignored in numerous fantasy drafts, wide receiver Donald Driver surprised many by becoming the first Packer to surpass 1,000 yards since 1999. He finished as fantasy's No. 10 receiver by scoring nine times as well. Green Bay may unveil another unexpected receiver this season. Third-year pro Robert Ferguson is the Packers' best bet to be their No. 2 wideout. He has strong hands and is built solidly (6-foot-1, 209 pounds) to cross the middle and withstand the punishment given by defensive backs. Brett Favre will likely look to Ferguson inside and allow Driver and second-year speedster Javon Walker to run on the outside. Ferguson showed he could make a fantasy impact when he started his only career game in Week 14 and caught six passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns. Draft Ferguson as a sleeper in the late rounds and be surprised by his solid stats.
-- Roger Rotter, fantasy editor

Defensive end Vonnie Holliday has departed, along with lineman Billy Lyon. So Joe Johnson must bounce back and be effective after his injury problems. And linebacker Nate Wayne, their leading tackler, took off, while middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson retired. So the Packers will rely on rookies, injury-prone vets and former backups at several key positions. And they were already weak against the run last year, relinquishing almost 2,000 yards on the ground.

On offense, besides the health of the offensive line, the one major question mark is the receiving corps. Driver had a career year in 2002, but can he repeat that performance? The Terry Glenn experiment failed, so Glenn's now a Cowboy. The Packers have a pair of talented young wideouts in Robert Ferguson and Javon Walker -- but neither has distinguished himself in the NFL so far, and one or both will have to step up this year for Green Bay to be successful.

What it all means?
The Packers are still the class of their division -- so a playoff berth is well within reach. But are they Super Bowl contenders? That's unclear. They'll need to take care of business against their division foes, because the schedule does them no favors -- they even play back-to-back games on the West Coast in Weeks 15 and 16 (Chargers and Raiders).

The defense will have to hold things together as best it can. And Green Bay's fate will depend largely on Favre once again. If he feels too much pressure, or can't establish chemistry with another receiver besides Driver, beware.

Kieran Darcy works for ESPN The Magazine.

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