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Will 2011 Be Donald Driver’s Swan Song?

August 1, 2011

Either Donald Driver is the ultimate team player, or he is extremely confident in his ability to beat out his teammates for a spot atop the depth chart. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

Prior to the Packers re-signing wide receiver James Jones, Driver and quarterback Aaron Rodgers publicly pushed for the return of their teammate. According to Jones’ agent, Frank Bauer, the duo played an integral role in Green Bay retaining the fifth-year receiver.

“He and Driver really stepped up,” said Bauer. “That’s rare for a quarterback and receiver to do that. That’s really neat. James is really excited about coming back. He’s very happy.”

Jones’ talent on the football field is obvious, but why did Driver push so hard for his return? Was it a selfless act knowing that Jones may very well surpass him on the depth chart, or did Driver realize that maintaining one of the best – if not the best – wide receiving corps in the league was his own best shot at returning to the Super Bowl?

Regardless of his reasons, the result of Driver’s actions will result in less passes thrown in his direction. After suffering a knee/ankle injury in the Super Bowl, which put him in a walking boot for almost three months, the coaching staff will be watching how quickly the usually elastic Driver can bounce back from an injury that would end the career of many other 36-year-olds. Coupled with his declining statistics, Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin has no other choice but to keep an eye on Driver during training camp.

“If he’s healthy, he’s been a productive player here for a long time,” Philbin said. “But I’m sure he understands the nature of the business. He will have to prove how ready he is during practice just like everybody else.”

Even if Driver is able to return to his old self, his current contract could work against him in the future. His five million dollar salary cap number has made the cut thus far, but the same number for next season may see him following in the footsteps of another fan-favorite, Nick Barnett. Barnett was released by the Packers this offseason after proving to be too costly for a backup player.

Bunched within a receiving group overflowing with talent, Driver will once again have to prove his place on this team. With the re-signing of James Jones, the emergence of Jordy Nelson, the return of Jermichael Finley, and Greg Jennings already entrenched atop the depth chart, Driver could find himself as the fifth option at times.

Rookie receiver Randall Cobb has to fit in somewhere as well, but barring injury, his time should not come for at least another year. Just as the NFL lockout allowed Driver time to heal, it should allow him to stay ahead of the second-round draft choice. Rookie receivers rarely make an impact in the NFL, and without a full offseason to learn the playbook and get comfortable in the offense, Cobb will not put roster pressure on Driver this year.

Next year could be a different story, however. If general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy feel confident in Cobb’s abilities going into his second season, I would not be surprised to see Driver become a cap casualty and be released by the team.

Driver’s saving grace may be his leadership. Always the consummate professional and tireless worker, his locker room presence cannot be measured in dollars. On a team with few veteran leaders, Driver’s stature may just earn him his final contract year. But Ted Thompson has never been the sentimental type, and Driver will have to earn every penny on the field of play.

Given his history, it would be foolish to bet against Donald Driver. So when the 13-year veteran says he wants to be a starter for two more seasons, it’s difficult to be a skeptic.

“I know I can play at a high level,” said Driver. “I’m going back to have fun. I have two years left on my contract; I want to play those two years out – as a starter.”

Driver is undoubtedly a leader on the field and in the locker room. In the business of football, however, and especially under Ted Thompson’s reign in Green Bay, on-field performance is what maintains a spot on the 53-man roster.

While Donald Driver’s ability should keep him on the roster this year, this may be his final hurrah on the only team he has ever known.

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