Preps Talk

Big changes coming for the Packers

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Big changes coming for the Packers

From Comcast SportsNetGREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) -- One by one, Greg Jennings took down the photos of his wife and children that lined his locker, careful not to rip them as he removed the tape. Below him, two plastic bins were filled with shampoo, lotion, toothpaste and deodorant.Still numb from the rout in San Francisco that ended their trying season, the Green Bay Packers headed into an offseason sure to bring change -- some of it big. Jennings and Donald Driver, key parts of the team that won the Super Bowl two years ago, are all but gone, and Charles Woodson may have played his last game for Green Bay."At the end of the day, you know the Packers are going to do what's best for the Packers. And that's not going to change whether you're No. 4, No. 80, No. 85, No. 77. That's going to be the case," Jennings said Sunday, referring to Brett Favre, Driver and Cullen Jenkins, as well as himself. "And as the other half of the businessman sitting down at that table, I have to do what's best for myself and my family."Jennings finished with career lows in receptions (36), yards per catch (10.2) and total yards (366) after missing half of season with a torn muscle in his groin. He remains Aaron Rodgers' favorite target, however, and he reminded everyone why with one big catch after another when he returned from the injury. He led Green Bay with six catches and a score in Saturday night's 45-31 loss to San Francisco in an NFC divisional game.But the Packers have perhaps the deepest receiving corps in the NFL, and breakout seasons by James Jones and Randall Cobb have made Jennings, an unrestricted free agent, expendable."Everybody in this locker room is trying to win Super Bowls, but everybody in this locker room is trying to take care of their family as well," Jones said. "Football is our job and football is how we do it, and we understand that we've got four or five No. 1 receivers that are going to want money at some time. So we know it's going to be hard for this organization to pay everybody what they want, which (stinks) ... because I wish we could stay together for the rest of our career and go on a run and win some Super Bowls."Driver is Green Bay's all-time leading receiver, and is adored by fans. But he will be 38 next month, and had only a bit role in the offense after restructuring the final year of his contract. His eight catches for 77 yards were his lowest totals since his rookie season, and he was inactive for four games, including the NFC wild-card, possibly his final game at Lambeau Field.Driver would like to play until he's 40, and thinks he can still help a team. But he said he'll talk with his wife and children before making any decisions on his future."If (Saturday) is my last game, then it was a true honor just to put that uniform on once again," said Driver, who played on special teams Saturday. "I wore that uniform for a long time and it's truly a blessing to be wearing the green and gold."Woodson, linebacker A.J. Hawk and big tight end Jermichael Finley are all under contract for next year. But they're all due raises, too, and the Packers have to begin making tough decisions because they need to lock up long-term deals with Jones, Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji. The three, considered cornerstones of the franchise, all will be free agents after next season.Woodson, the 2009 defensive player of the year, is one of the most-respected players in the Packers locker room -- by players and coaches alike -- and he's still disruptive. But he turned 36 in October and missed nine games with a broken right collarbone, the same one he broke in the Super Bowl. Youngsters Casey Hayward and M.D. Jennings made big impressions this season, and the Packers may decide they're enough to make up for Woodson's absence.The Packers were repeatedly torched by Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers, and Hawk looked particularly overmatched.Then there's Finley. He set a franchise record for receptions by a tight end this year, and few Packers were better down the stretch. But he's mercurial, and general manager Ted Thompson may decide he's not worth the big bump in payroll."We just finished losing, man," Finley said. "Hopefully I'm here forever. I'm good for next year, as far as I know."Regardless of what the roster looks like, the Packers have to find a way to finish better next year. This was the second straight year they were bounced out in the divisional round, and neither game was close.In fact, finishing was a season-long problem for Green Bay. The Packers fell to 2-3 after blowing an 18-point halftime lead at Indianapolis. They also struggled to put away less-than-mediocre teams like New Orleans, Jacksonville and Detroit. After securing the No. 2 seed with a rout of Tennessee, the Packers gave it up to San Francisco by losing to Minnesota in the regular-season finale.And after Mason Crosby's 31-yard field goal midway through the third quarter tied Saturday's game at 24, the 49ers steamrolled the Packers, scoring three straight touchdowns."We didn't finish. That's the bottom line, we didn't finish," Jones said. "We had a chance to do something great and get back to the Super Bowl. (But) we didn't finish our season strong. So got to start all over."NOTES:RB Cedric Benson, who played only five games before a season-ending foot injury, hopes to return next year. "Absolutely. I don't have a preference to be anywhere else," he said. "This is what I know and I'm excited about winning Super Bowls, too, and everybody around here is as well." ... RT Bryan Bulaga, who suffered a season-ending hip injury Nov. 4, expects to be ready for next season. "It's a little bit far out in advance to tell what I'm going to be doing, but I'm pretty confident training camp is a good goal."

Edgy Tim’s Team of the Decade: Kickers

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EDGY TIM

Edgy Tim’s Team of the Decade: Kickers

You may not picture Illinois as a hotbed for kickers. But we have been fortunate to witness so many that have done well on the prep level.

This is our final position in the “Team of the Decade” series (2010-2019). This position should produce more debate: Do you factor in just strictly high school production and program winning/success, or does a particular player's post high school success also become a factor? Let the debate begin.

Jake Elliott, Lyons Township’s Class of 2013 (Memphis): Elliott, who had never played football until his junior season at L-T, made the most of his limited time on the field. He was named an All-State kicker his senior season. Elliott ended up signing with Memphis and was a four-year starting kicker for the Tigers. Elliott was a fifth-round selection of the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2017 NFL Draft and was then signed off their practice squad by the Philadelphia Eagles. Elliott has remained the Eagles kicker since the 2017 season.

Austin Seibert, Belleville West’s Class of 2015 (Oklahoma): Seibert was ranked as one of the nation's best prep kickers in the Class of 2015. He ended up signing with the Oklahoma Sooners after drawing multiple scholarship offers. Seibert had an impressive career kicking for the Sooners and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He made 25 of 29 field goal attempts and 30 of 35 extra points this past season.

Tucker McCann, O'Fallon’s Class of 2016 (Missouri): McCann was a nationally sought-after kicker in the Class of 2016 and signed with Missouri after considering offers from Alabama and Illinois. McCann is also listed in several IHSA kicking records including career field goals made (28), field goals made in a season (12), field goals made in a game (four) and still holds the state record for the longest field goal made in a game (60 yards). McCann also made at least one field goal over 50 yards in all three years he kicked at the varsity level for the Panthers.

Jack Olsen, Wheaton Warrenville South’s Class of 2020 (Michigan State): Olsen, who graduated early this fall and is already enrolled at Michigan State, was a four-year letterman for the Tigers and head coach Ron Muhitch. He was named as an All-State kicker in 2018 and 2019 by EDGYTIM/Rivals.com. During his time at WWS, he set new IHSA records for the most field goals made in a game (eight) along with the most field goals made in a single season (22).

Dominic Dzioban, Lincoln-Way East’s Class of 2020 (Miami OH): Dzioban, otherwise known as “The Dominator,” was 18-of-20 on field goals and 50-of-51 on extra points last season. Dzioban's kickoff and punting game was a major weapon for the Griffins, who won the Class 8A state title this past fall. Dzioban also earned All-State honors as a senior and owns the school record for most field goals made (37) and is the school's all-time leading scorer (340 points). He possesses 50 yard-plus field goal range and was one of the best two-way kickers in the Land of Lincoln over the past several seasons.

Next in?

Ron Colucci, Naperville North’s Class of 2012 (Central Michigan/Iowa)

Kai Kroeger, Lake Forest: Class of 2020 (South Carolina)

Caleb Griffin, Danville’s Class of 2018 (Illinois)

Josh Pollack, Highland Park’s Class of 2014 (Arizona)

John Richardson, Brother Rice’s Class of 2018 (Northern Illinois)

Focus shifting to major league White Sox, but they still have some of baseball's best prospects

Focus shifting to major league White Sox, but they still have some of baseball's best prospects

White Sox fans suddenly have reason to stop focusing on the minor leagues.

Rick Hahn's front office has done an incredible amount of work this winter adding impact veterans to the team's young core, and because of it, there are realistic playoff expectations on the South Side. The summer figures to be spent focusing on what Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease are doing at the major league level rather than what the potential stars of the future are doing in the minors.

In other words, the future is here.

But it's worth noting that the White Sox still have some of the best prospects in the game. It's true that a few of the biggest names among that group won't be prospects for much longer. Luis Robert just got a high-priced contract extension that clears the way for him to be in the lineup on Opening Day. While Michael Kopech will be limited in some fashion as the White Sox manage his workload in his return from Tommy John surgery, it's hardly out of the question that he could be a part of the 26-man group that leaves Glendale at the end of March. And Nick Madrigal, Hahn has said, figures to be the White Sox second baseman for the bulk of the 2020 campaign after he reached the doorstep of the majors last year.

The point is, however, that the White Sox core is not done growing. Moncada, Giolito, Anderson and Jimenez all broke out in big ways in 2019, and the veterans added to that group could push the team into contention mode as soon as this season. But Robert, Kopech, Madrigal and Andrew Vaughn are set to join that core, too, expanding it to one the White Sox hope will power championship contenders for years to come.

The Athletic's Jim Bowden ranked Robert as his No. 1 prospect in baseball, picking the 22-year-old center fielder to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award. And that's no stretch after the way Robert lit the minor leagues on fire in 2019. Playing at three different levels, he slashed .328/.376/.624 with 32 home runs, 92 RBIs, 31 doubles, 108 runs scored and 36 stolen bases. He's a true five-tool threat who receives rave reviews that peg him as potentially the best of all the White Sox young talent. MLB Pipeline is in the middle of rolling out their rankings ahead of the 2020 season, and we'll learn where Robert ranks on the site's updated list next weekend during SoxFest. But most recently, Robert was the site's No. 3 prospect in the game.

Kopech still has prospect status despite the fact that he made his big league debut in August 2018. That Tommy John surgery limited his major league experience to this point to just four games, wiping out his 2019 season. Whether he'll be the same elite pitcher that was promised prior to his surgery is one of several important questions facing the 2020 White Sox, but it doesn't seem to be deterring the rankers. Bowden has Kopech as the No. 11 prospect in baseball, and MLB Pipeline ranked him as the No. 4 right-handed pitching prospect in the game. Kopech is said to still be capable of unleashing the blazing fastball that made him such a tantalizing prospect in the first place. The big question now is how often he'll be able to use it, with the White Sox planning to limit him in some capacity. We'll have to wait until spring to find out exactly what those limitations look like.

Madrigal might not spend a long time at Triple-A Charlotte, expected to be manning second base for the big league White Sox for the majority of the 2020 season. But like they did with Moncada, Jimenez and Robert before him, the White Sox have no plans to rush Madrigal to the majors. Bowden has him ranked as the No. 14 prospect in the game, and we'll find out soon where MLB Pipeline has him among second basemen. We already know they think the world of his glove — which was touted as Gold Glove caliber by the White Sox the night they drafted him in 2018 — naming him the second baseman on their all-defense team (he won a minor league Gold Glove for his work last season, too). MLB Pipeline also polled general managers, scouting directors and executives across all 30 teams, and Madrigal's name popped up often, voted to possess the third best hit tool, the third best glove and the highest baseball IQ among all of the game's prospects. The guy struck out just 16 times in 532 trips to the plate last season, so he's obviously doing something right.

Vaughn is receiving similarly rave reviews this winter. Bowden ranked him as the game's No. 35 prospect, and MLB Pipeline might end up putting the White Sox most recent first-round pick even higher, naming him the top first-base prospect in baseball. A slugger whose bat earned high praise when he came out of Cal last summer, Vaughn might not reach the South Side in 2020 like the rest of the guys discussed here. But he does figure to have a similar impact when he finally does. He played just 52 games between Class A Kannapolis and Class A Winston-Salem after joining the organization, hitting a combined five homers at those stops. He's still swinging the bat that launched 50 homers and drove in 163 runs over three seasons in college. That aforementioned MLB Pipeline executive poll? In it, Vaughn was picked as having the second best hit tool in the game. The White Sox just gave Abreu a three-year contract extension that will keep him on the South Side through at least the 2022 campaign, but the 37-year-old Encarnacion could be here as briefly as one year (his contract has an option for 2021), potentially opening up a spot for Vaughn should everything go right in the minors.

And this is without even mentioning guys like Dane Dunning, Jimmy Lambert and Jonathan Stiever, who could all wind up playing important roles on the pitching staff.

So while there is plenty of reason for your minor league interest to wane — because meaningful baseball is expected to be happening at the major league level in 2020 — know that the White Sox farm system (at least the tippy top of it) is still worth salivating over. These guys should be on the South Side soon, only adding fuel to the fire Hahn has built this winter.

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