The Top Storylines For the Packers as Training Camp Begins
Saturday will officially begin the 2009 Green Bay Packers season as players show up for the first day of training camp. Coming off a lackluster six win season in 2008, the youngest team in football is ready to rebound and prove that they can win without a certain number four behind center (don’t worry, that’s the last he will be mentioned in the article).
As it is for most teams entering training camp, the next two weeks will prove who belongs on the final 53 man roster and who does not. Players will step up, some will flop, and others will look to improve their skills and make the Packers a playoff team come 2010.
With a new scheme in order and many draft picks looking for roster spots, headlines are sure to be everywhere on this football team. Here are the top five to watch for heading into tomorrow’s camp.
Packers Transition to the 3-4 Defense
Easily the biggest story heading into camp this year is the overhaul of the Packers’ defense. Ranked 20th in yards allowed and 22nd in points allowed, defensive coordinator Bob Sanders was fired and replaced with veteran coach Dom Capers.
At 58, Capers is as experienced as they come with over 30 years of coaching, including three defensive coordinator stints and two head coaching jobs with the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans.
Along with Capers came former Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac to coach the defensive line and former All-Pro Kevin Greene who will coach the outside linebackers.
The 3-4 defense that Capers is installing this summer is the first change to a Green Bay Packers’ scheme in 15 years. The change may be a bumpy one but it looks as though most of the pieces are there for the Packers.
Just about every player involved in the front seven will be changing roles and the big question is whether or not progress can be made in just one off-season.
Newcomer B.J. Raji, who specifcally played defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme at Boston College will rotate between both line positions in the new alignment.
Former tackles Justin Harrell and Johnny Jolly will both move to defensive end positions, something neither have done their whole careers. While the end positions in the 3-4 are similar to the tackle spots in the 4-3, new terminology and assignments will make for a challenging camp.
Cullen Jenkins, who was having an outstanding year at defensive end before suffering a season ending injury, now moves to the end position in the 3-4. The same goes for Mike Montgomery as well.
Ryan Pickett looks to man the ever-important nose tackle position in the 3-4 after spending his first five seasons as a tackle in the 4-3.
At the lineback position, Aaron Kampman and Brady Poppinga will man the left side as rush linebackers. Kampman’s transition has been a bumpy one in the media, but all signs point to him having a successful season. He is a hard worker and has never been one to pout, and while his stats may be down his production on the field will not.
Jeremy Thompson has the perfect body for a 3-4 linebacker and is showing great signs in his transition to the two point stance. He will battle the latter of the Packers’ first-round selections, Clay Matthews III, for the starting outside linebacker spot.
In the middle, A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett will hopefully make a smooth transition to the new defense. Barnett has been on in the inside his whole career and Hawk showed promise inside when Barnett went down with his injury last year.
The Packers will need a solid rotation on the defensive line and will need to be quick at linebacker. Battles for the right outside linebacker spot as well as at defensive end will showcase the preseason, but even bigger will be the mental aspect.
A new coordinator means new schemes and terminology and just two weeks to figure it all out. While OTA’s seemed to go smoothly, real football starts when the pads come on and the players go full speed.
Third Wide Receiver Spot Up for Grabs
Greg Jennings has solidified himself as a number one receiver in the league and was rewarded with a huge contract extension this off season. The extension will keep him in Green bay for the next four years and will continue to burn defenses with passes from Aaron Rodgers.
Donald Driver is becoming the definition for an “ageless” wonder and has shown no signs of slowing down despite being 34 years old this coming year. While he did not go deep as often as he had in the past, he has become an excellent slot receiver perfect for the Packers’ West Coast offense.
Past the top two positions on the depth chart, the rest of the unit is a mystery. James Jones and Jordy Nelson will compete against each other over the coming month to see who will step up and become the third option for the Packers.
Jones had an excellent rookie season and showed tons of promise for the future before struggling in his sophomore season. Slowed by injuries, he appeared in just ten games and catching just 20 balls.
Fully healthy this year, he looks to get back in the swing of things and become a flanker opposite of Jennings. With decent size at 6’1″ and 218 pounds and a whole lot of toughness, he will probably get the first look in camp.
Aiming for the third spot on the depth chart right behind Jones will be second year receiver Jordy Nelson. In his rookie season, Nelson finished with 366 yards and a couple of touchdowns as the third option in the offense.
Head coach Mike McCarthy loves to spread the field use a ton of different packages so both should see ample playing time this year, but it would help the offense if one of the two would step up and become the more reliable option.
My money is on Jones because of experience, but Nelson has all the physical tools. If one of them can step up and deliver on the flanker position, it will keep Driver in the slot where he is best.
Questions Regarding the New(er) Offensive Line
Last year, the Packers’ offensive line gave quarterback Aaron Rodgers very little time to throw and even less time for Ryan Grant to get through holes.
This year, the line will look somewhat different with acquisitions of Duke Preston and draftees T.J. Lang and Jamon Meredith.
Like most linemen on the Packers last year, left tackle Chad Clifton had a below average season as he gave up 6.5 sacks. That number ranked 21st amongst left tackles but the position is his to lose.
Daryn Colledge may be the future at left tackle, but he will continue to shine at left guard as long as Clifton is on the roster. Newcomer T.J. Lang has the versatility to play multiple positions and will back up Colledge if he does not win a spot outright.
The progression of Josh Sitton has allowed Jason Spitz to see time at center. He will battle Scott Wells for the job and has the upper hand to start camp.
Sitton or free agent signing Duke Preston will be relegated to the right guard duties, with Sitton expected to come out on top.
Right tackle will be the biggest battle on the offensive line, with Allen Barbre and Breno Giacomini battling it out. Meredith and Lang might also see time there, but their true positions are at left tackle and guard, respectively.
The unit will need to improve in a huge way if the offense is going to get anywhere, but a younger and more athletic line this year should get the job done. Experience will still be an issue but there is a lot of promise and this unit could be the highlight of camp if a few players step up in a big way.
All Three Quarterback Must Improve Their Play
For the second consecutive season, Ted Thompson and the Packers will head into camp with three young quarterbacks with very limited experience. Outside of the seven games back-up Matt Flynn appeared in, Aaron Rodgers is the only quarterback with any NFL experience.
True, another year of film study, practice, and Mike McCarthy quarterback coaching will do wonders for Flynn and Brian Brohm, but they both must improve from what they did last year.
In the Tampa Bay game, Flynn looked completely lost and many wondered how ugly next week would have been had Rodgers not played. Despite starting all 16 games last year, AA-Rod will have his nicks and bruises all year and Flynn will need to prove he can manage a game.
As for Brohm, this camp will be huge for him because he needs to start living up to his second-round billing. Once thought of as a first overall pick, he has not shown any indications of being a future quarterback anywhere in the league.
Patience will be key with both young quarterbacks, as even Rodgers looked terrible his first couple of years. The difference is Rodgers was playing behind The Ironman (OK, sorry I mentioned him again) and Flynn and Brohm are not.
As for Rodgers, he had a great first year as the true starter for the Packers, but his late game decisions left a lot to be desired. Yes, the defense put him in terrible spots and he was forced to try to make plays, but his fourth quarter numbers were terrible and if he wants to make the jump to the elite quarterbacks in the league, he needs to find ways to win games on his own.
The Future of the Secondary is Now
While veterans Al Harris and Charles Woodson will enter this year as one of the league’s best duos at cornerback, the future is uncertain and this year’s training camp could go a long way in getting a sneak peak at what is to come.
At 32 and 34, Woodson and Harris are on the later stages of their careers and will need to soon be replaced.
Last year, Tramon Williams stepped up in a huge way and proved he is ready to step in for either of the two, whenever that is. Last year, it was for Harris and he did an exceptional job. The sky is the limit for Williams as he looks to be one of the heir apparents for the starters.
Aside from Williams, former second rounder Pat Lee looks to improve on an injury-ridden rookie season that saw him play in just five games, primarily on special teams.
He has good size and played his college ball in the rough and tough SEC and will be asked to step up as the dime back in this year’s system.
Will Blackmon has become an above average punt returner that will guarantee him a spot on the roster, but if he can work on his skills as a cornerback and become a viable option there, his value would increase even more.
My prediction is that Lee’s progression is going to take longer than just this year. Losing time your rookie season is the worst time to lose and it will take him longer to get into a rhythm.
At the safety position, Nick Collins will enter camp unhappy but will be there. This shows a lot to Ted Thompson that, despite his desire for a new contract, he is still a team-first player that wants to win.
If he goes out and repeats his performance early in the year, I could see him getting a contract extension worth big money.
On the other end, Atari Bigby will be coming back from a season-ending injury that limited him to seven games. Battling with him for a spot will be Aaron Rouse who looks to be more of a special teams specialist than anything else.
This year will be important for the secondary and could determine how it looks two or three years from now.