I have to admit something from the start. I have sometimes been one of those Packer fans who whined and cried every time Ted Thompson passed up on a big name free agent like Julius Peppers, or more embarrassing, Lavarr Arrington(…I’m dumb).

It can be very frustrating to follow a team that doesn’t make any big, exciting moves in the off season. Free agent signings and trades are always more exciting than the draft, because there are instant expectations, and the players involved have NFL track records (sometimes). But, as we learned last season, there’s nothing more satisfying than when a group of homegrown players comes together at the right time.

What does this have to do with anything? Uh, I don’t really know actually. I was reading Bob McGinn’s Journal Sentinel article about the return of Morgan Burnett to the Packers’ defensive backfield this year,  and it got me thinking about all of the breakout Packer players of last season.

Highly-regarded players like Josh Sitton, B.J. Raji  and Clay Matthews climbed their way to elite status. Desmond Bishop took full advantage of a Nick Barnett IR stint and locked up a starting spot for the foreseeable future, making Barnett expendable. Tramon Williams earned a reputation as one of the few lockdown corners in the game, and in the eyes of some, surpassed Charles Woodson and Nick Collins as the team’s best defensive back.

But the real story may have been the “nobodies” – players who you and I probably could not have picked out of a lineup twelve months ago – that contributed to the Super Bowl run. James Starks, Sam Shields, Frank Zombo, Charlie Peprah, Erik Walden; the list goes on. The key ingredient of the Packers’ magical season was Mike McCarthy’s ability to plug the many holes in his lineup with young players ready to make an impression.

Fast forward to the 2011 season. With several veterans from last year’s team now wearing different colors, the Packers may need some breakout stars yet again. Who are the candidates?

Morgan Burnett, SS – Well, duh. If you didn’t read McGinn’s article, check it out if you want to get pumped for this season. The thought of a second safety in our backfield with as much natural talent and athleticism as Nick Collins should do the trick. Because the Packers had tremendous success without Burnett last year there’s a temptation to wonder how important a player like him could possibly be.

There is no doubt that Charlie Peprah surprised many with his solid play in Burnett’s absense; enough to earn him mentions as a possible trade candidate for teams looking for safety help. However, as McGinn states, Peprah has physical limitations that Burnett does not. In fact, the Packers success with a player like Peprah should only make you wonder what Dom Capers would accomplish with a full season of Burnett.

Erik Walden, OLB – Though I included Walden’s name on the list of important young players for the 2010 stretch run, I wouldn’t quite say he “broke out”. After all, he spent most of the year on the bench and recorded only three sacks, all against Chicago in the regular season finale. By the end of the year Walden was yet another casualty, with an ankle injury sidelining him for the Super Bowl.

Even before Frank Zombo’s broken shoulder blade sidelined him indefnitely, Walden was the frontrunner to start week 1 against the Saints. Packers coaches have been thoroughly impressed with Walden throughout training camp, and there is a general feeling that he is a more complete player than either Zombo or Brad Jones. Sporting a new, bulkier frame, Walden hopes to improve his pass rushing ability and provide a consistent threat opposite Clay Matthews.

TJ Lang, LG – Replacing the thoroughly average Daryn Colledge at left guard, Lang won the job over first round pick Derrick Sherrod mostly because of the latter’s poor performance in training camp and the pre-season. He might be the most important player on this list, since his job involves keeping Aaron Rodgers alive. Almost as important is whether or not he can be an improvement over Colledge in run blocking. As the lone new starter on the offensive line, many eyes will be on him, and rightfully so. Every Packer fan remembers the horrors of bad guard play following the releases of Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera prior to the 2005 season.

But the versatile Lang was a candidate to start at both left guard and right tackle in 2010, and has a lot of fans in the Packers front office and the local media. If he’s as good as his coaches think, the Packers offensive line, which already boasts 2010 NFL Alumni Offensive Lineman of the Year Josh Sitton, Scott Wells, Chad Clifton and Clifton’s likely successor Bryan Bulaga, could be quite intimadating.

James Jones, WR – This one’s a bit different. Everyone already knows what Jones is capable of, including his quarterback, hence why Ted Thompson felt compelled to bring him back on a three year deal despite the fact that he plays the team’s strongest position. But Jones is likely to have a big chip on his shoulder after hearing all offseason about his struggles hanging onto the ball last season. In reality, Jones had less drops than Donald Driver, who has a reputation for being sure handed and coming down with just about everything thrown his way.

But some of Jones’ blunders were higher profile, especially the almost-touchdowns against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the postseason. It will be difficult for any receiver other than Greg Jennings to rack up big stats with the depth the Packers have and Jermichael Finley back in the fold, but Donald Driver once mananged to do it. Will Jones officially take his place this year?

Mike Neal, DE – Along with Lang, Neal is a player the Packers need to justify his place on this list, and has the biggest shoes to fill of anyone. When Cullen Jenkins joined the “Dream Team” in Philadelphia, many Packer fans’ “In Ted We Trust” mantra was tested. Jenkins was absolutely key to the team’s postseason run, and has proven himself, when healthy, to be an elite pass rushing defensive lineman. If Neal struggles, it hurts Erik Walden.Teams will be able to bring more help to stop BJ Raji. The Packers secondary will probably be tested more than it was in 2010.

Luckily, that’s probably not going to happen. Neal is the very reason the Packers felt comfortable letting Jenkings go, with size and pass rushing ability that bears a resemblance to his predecessors’. In addition, the Packers feel good about their depth here, with Super Bowl starter C.J. Wilson behind Neal.

Honorable Mentions

James Starks, RB – A few days ago, Starks would have been one of the top five. But with Ryan Grant re-structuring his contract and probably saving his football life (well, his Packer life) Starks should be, at most, splitting carries with him. I consider Ryan Grant to be an extremely underrated halfback and feel he should have a lock on the position, so it’s hard for me to envision a scenario in which Starks becomes the Packers’ primary halfback, barring injury. But the presence of Starks makes the Packers’ running back depth the strongest it has been since the trio of Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher.

Alex Green, RB – Pass catching ability and speed should make him an eventual upgrade over Brandon Jackson, but with Grant and Starks both likely to make the team, he might have a tough time making an impression this year.

Jordy Nelson, WR – The Super Bowl hero. I think Jones is the better bet to secure a long term starting spot, but it was Nelson who caught 9 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in the biggest game of his life. Even if he doesn’t beat out Jones in the long run, he has a chance to be one of the better slot receivers in the league once Donald Driver rides off into the sunset.

Sam Shields, DB – The fact that Shields is not on the above list will probably cause some spit-takes, but allow me to explain. I wasn’t quite sure where to put him, as his performance last year as the Packers’ nickel back already earned rave reviews and earned him mentions as one of the better young corners in the league. So, if he does continue to impress this year, I don’t know if it would be considered a “break out” or not. But I do know it would make a lot of Packer fans happy, especially with Charles Woodson’s days as a starting NFL cornerback likely winding down.

Predicting what players are going to make the leap from obscurity to stardom in the NFL is pretty hard to do. One year ago, Erik Walden was a free agent, Sam Shields was fighting for a roster spot, and not many NFL fans could have told you who Josh Sitton was. A player poised to break out for the Packers this season might currently be fighting for a roster spot on a different team for all we know.  That being said, these are my current candidates. Feel free to leave yours in the comments section.