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Youth On Offense Has Room To Grow


For as productive as the Green Bay Packers were on offense in 2009, they were still very young at several key spots.

That bodes well for the idea that this unit can continue to improve from within, which has been a steady, team-wide theme during Head Coach Mike McCarthy's and General Manager Ted Thompson's tenure in Green Bay.

In his extended season-ending media session last week, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin touched on a handful of players on the offensive side of the ball - all of whom have been regular contributors for two seasons or less - who have the potential to take another significant step forward in 2010.

Here's a quick look at those players:

QB Aaron Rodgers

Rodgers of course made the Pro Bowl this past season, but having started just 32 regular- season games thus far he'd be the first player to say there's still room for growth.

With numbers that nearly eclipsed the franchise record for passing yards (4,434) and led the league in interception percentage (1.29), Rodgers may be hard-pressed to improve statistically, and Philbin acknowledged as much by saying it's on him and quarterbacks coach Tom Clements to "challenge" Rodgers next year in ways that can elevate his game.

One area Rodgers took a lot of criticism for was holding the ball too long, resulting in a fair share of the 50 sacks he absorbed. But there's a fine line there, because it was Rodgers' ability to extend plays - by holding the ball and getting outside the pocket - that created some of the offense's big plays and made the unit so dangerous as well.

"His statistical production was outstanding," Philbin said. "I'd love to sit here and say we could cut his interceptions - what did he have, seven in the regular season - could we get it to five? That would be great.

"There will be some things when we go through the cut-ups on certain particular routes we can work on or throw a little better, maybe the timing on a certain pass concept that needs to get out quicker, or a progression versus a coverage. There will definitely be things there for him to work on."

TE Jermichael Finley

No one made a bigger leap production-wise on either side of the ball for the Packers than Finley, who went from six catches for 74 yards and one TD as a rookie to 55 receptions for 676 yards and five TDs in his second year (plus a franchise-record 159 receiving yards in the playoff game).

But considering he missed three entire games and most of a fourth with a knee injury, and in 2010 he'll be entering what would be his rookie NFL season had he been a traditional five-year college player, there's no telling how good he may become.

The biggest skill for Finley to focus on, according to Philbin, is his blocking, which he termed "OK" at this point. Because the more the Packers are able to confidently employ him in run formations against run-defense personnel, the more play-action opportunities he could create for himself.

"I'd like to see him be a little more complete tight end," Philbin said. "I talked to him about it (when he left), and let's be honest, he's an impact receiving tight end at this stage of his career. You have to be a complete tight end though, because some of the advantages are if you can keep him in the game and they play their regular defense, boy you've got some mismatches.

"But if all he is is a receiver, then teams will start playing nickel and they'll start playing extra DBs on him and you'll lose a little bit of that speed advantage he might have over an inside (line)backer, those types of things. I think he needs to be a little more complete, and I think he could be more precise in the passing game. That would certainly be an asset to him."

OL Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang

The two youngest offensive linemen with playing experience one way or another could be fixtures up front for a long time to come, depending on how the next season goes.

Sitton started every game at right guard in 2009 and was the only member of the offensive line to start every game at one spot. His drive-blocking in the run game is probably his biggest strength, and his pass-blocking has been solid.

{sportsad300}"When I talked to him (last week), we talked that he's been a rookie, he was a first-year starter, and now it's time to elevate his game to different level," Philbin said. "There will be guys like that."

Lang could be another one, particularly if the Packers don't have either Chad Clifton or Mark Tauscher next season and will ask Lang to step in and be a full-time starter at one of the tackle spots.

"We'd love to see guys like T.J. Lang make a huge leap," Philbin said. "It's just harder to quantify because they're offensive linemen."

FB Quinn Johnson and WR Jordy Nelson

Johnson was pretty raw as a rookie fullback, and with two other veterans on the roster at his position, he wasn't even active every game. But the coaching staff commented on the progression he made as a lead blocker as the season went on, and he did have a hand in Ryan Grant's increased production down the stretch - a 5.3 yards per carry average over the final three regular-season games.

If Johnson can prove more reliable as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and a pass protector against the blitz, his playing time should only increase.

Nelson took a small step back statistically as a receiver in his second year in 2009, going from 33 catches, 366 yards and two TDs as a rookie to 22-320-2 this past year. But he did miss three games due to a knee injury, and his late-season production could be a sign of things to come as well.

Nelson had a career-high 71 yards receiving in Week 15 at Pittsburgh, career bests with a 51-yard catch and 54-yard kickoff return in Week 17 at Arizona, and a TD catch during the playoff comeback against the Cardinals.

There's only one football to spread around amongst the many talented skill players the Packers have on offense, but Nelson will have a chance to become a more frequent target.

"We have a lot of confidence in our guys," Philbin said. "I'm sure there will be some of those stories next year."

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