I'd like to preface this post by pointing you in the direction of an excellent preview piece CheeseheadTV editor Brian Carriveau wrote over at Bleacher Report. It's the most in-depth preview of Packers training camp you'll find, and I'm not going to attempt to top it here.
Instead, I'll let you know what I think you should be watching at Packers training camp, which begins Thursday.
Here we go:
Harrell's new role
Much has been made about the Packers' backup quarterback situation leading into 2012. And most of it has been negative. Yes, Graham Harrell is currently the only backup quarterback that has zero career passing attempts. And yes, the Packers would be in for a drop off if Aaron Rodgers missed any time next season.
But there is other, more complete ways of looking at this.
For starters, roughly 80 percent of NFL teams would be in for a downgrade if their starting quarterback went down with an injury. Who is the New Orleans Saints backup? Former Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel. The dropoff from Rodgers to Harrel is probably comparable to Drew Brees to Daniel. The moral of the story here: Very few teams have starting-caliber backups. The Packers were blessed to have Matt Flynn for an important stretch, but there was also a time when people were up in arms about Flynn being the backup.
And that's a perfect lead in to the next point: Developing a younger player in your system is almost always better than adding a veteran who has bounced around the league. Flynn proved that over his four years in Green Bay. There were cries for a veteran back in 2008, especially after Flynn was terrible in a spot appearance in Tampa Bay when Rodgers dinged up his shoulder. But it's much easier to mold a young player into the kind of quarterback you want, opposed to trying to make an established, veteran player fit into your specific system.
That brings us to Harrell, a record-setting college quarterback who struggled to stick even in Canada before landing in Green Bay. Despite his early career turmoil, Harrell has now spent three seasons with the Packers. That's three seasons (even though the 2011 offseason was mostly erased) that Harrell has spent learning the quarterback position from arguably the two best in the business, Mike McCarthy and Tom Clements. If those two were legitimately worried about Harrell's ability to handle the role, I am confident a veteran (and by veteran, I mean a 26- or 27-year-old no one has heard of) would have already been brought in. That hasn't happened.
Unless rookie B.J. Coleman has a big camp, or Harrell absolutely regresses when real-time playing situations start, this is Harrell's job. I expect a confident and more well-rounded player to show up in camp.
Forget the receivers, whom I'll touch on next. Green Bay's cornerback depth chart is the most fascinating position I see heading into camp. Just look at the characters.
You have Charles Woodson, the second-oldest defensive back (turns 36 in October) in the NFL behind only 37-year-old Ronde Barber. He's coming off a season in which he tied for the NFL lead in interceptions, but he's lost a step athletically and skills can diminish rapidly at his age.
Tramon Williams is coming off a disappointing season, but he also played 15 games with a nerve issue in his shoulder. He's admitted on several occasions that the nerve probably won't be healed fully by camp. For Williams to revert back into his 2010 self—a player who could have claimed to be one of the game's best cover corners—the shoulder has to be 100 percent. His ability to press at the line of scrimmage was lost for much of 2011 because of the shoulder, and it showed.
Sam Shields was one of the brightest spots during the Packers' Super Bowl run in 2010-11. Defensive backs coach Joe Whitt even went as far as predicting that Shields would become one of the NFL's star corners. Well, that never happened in 2011. Shields seemed lost technique-wise, and his tackling reminded me of a 110-pound eighth grader trying to tackle the fullback who hit maturity three years earlier. It wasn't pretty. Now, Shields will head to camp with a lot at stake. A good camp will solidify Shields as the primary outside cornerback opposite Williams in the nickel and dime, but more of the same gives 2011 fourth-rounder Davon House and 2012 second-rounder Casey Hayward the opportunity to jump Shields on the depth chart.
Back to House, who missed much of 2011 camp with a hamstring issue and never recovered. According to the coaches after OTAs and minicamp, House was one of the standouts. At a lanky 6-0, it's hard not to see a little of Al Harris in former fourth-rounder.
What about Casey Hayward? The Packers second round pick in April, Hayward was plugged in as a slot cornerback during the spring and appeared to be a natural. I won't sugarcoat it—I think Hayward has a chance to be a guy who plays a lot of snaps as a rookie, even with the log jam at cornerback. As Whitt told the Green Bay Press-Gazette, "he doesn't make mistakes." The Packers will have a hard time keeping him on the sidelines if that's the case.
Veteran Jarrett Bush rounds out the group. Remember, Bush essentially replaced Shields late last season, and he's the team's top blitzing defensive back not named Woodson. Bush also has the ability to play safety and is one of the team's core special teamers.
There's a lot of talented football players in this group. Camp is going to give us a pulse on a few things: Has Woodson lost any more steps? Is Williams' shoulder getting better? And finally, who plays the most behind the big two? Buckle up, corners.
The Packers' receiving debate has been beat into the ground this offseason, so I won't spend a lot of time on it. Here's a couple of my own quick opinions:
- Heading into camp, the Packers likely have seven NFL-quality receivers.
- Re-signing Donald Driver made this a very complicated situation for GM Ted Thompson.
- But Thompson didn't give him $1.25 million as a "thank you" parting gift—Driver's making the 53.
- Trading James Jones would end up being a mistake.
- Randall Cobb needs to be third among receivers in total snaps by the end of this season.
- Tori Gurley's body type and special teams ability give him a very realistic chance of sticking.
- Keeping any more than six receivers is overkill. Six is pushing it. Only an injury or two necessitates seven.
I struggle to see the comparisons between Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, two players who couldn't have looked like different in their respective first looks.
Matthews, an explosive athlete coming out of USC, played outside linebacker in a 3-4 front before landing in Green Bay in 2009. He looked very comfortable in coverage and playing standing up to start his NFL career. Even though Matthews didn't start right away, he still racked up 10 sacks as a rookie.
The same can't be said for Perry, a thickly-built edge rusher who looks much closer to a 4-3 defensive end than a 3-4 outside linebacker. The transition for Perry from playing with his hand down to standing up and dropping into coverage looks like a much steeper curve than it was for Matthews, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. In fact, the Packers need it to be a speedy one.
Perry will start on the left side—a side that leans more towards the run than the right, where Matthews will go back to—and he's almost certain to be the starter. If the Packers are to improve on their defensive rankings from last season, Perry's play will be the key. We'll see how far he's come along in camp.
Locking in at left
There's a lot of talk about the "changing of the guard" at left tackle, but I don't see it that way. While the Chad Clifton era technically ended in April when the Packers released him, his time as the left tackle in Green Bay was done when he blew out his hamstring in Week 5 of last season. Clifton confirmed it when he was pulled in the divisional round loss to the Giants. This camp is more of an extension of that change that the start of it.
Marshall Newhouse, a former fifth-rounder, took over as starter last season and played as well as anyone could have expected. The stats weren't pretty–especially if you trust the guys over at Pro Football Focus—but there wasn't much more Green Bay could have ask for. The season could have went down hill fast after Clifton was injured, but the Packers instead went on to score the second-most points in NFL history.
The Packers staff seems to have a lot of confidence in Newhouse, and he's the clear leader heading into camp. But you have to believe the Packers want to get a long look at 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod, who broke his leg late last season in a nasty injury at Kansas City. If he's healthy—and I mean 100 percent healthy—Sherrod could give Newhouse all he can handle. Either way, the added competition there should only mean good things.
Also, don't sleep on seventh-rounder Andrew Datko. He's more raw than Newhouse and Sherrod and there's some injury concern, but I've had a number of personnel people I trust tell me he can be the real deal. I think there's a place for him long-term on this club.
With a passing offense as prolific as Green Bay's, it's easy to forget about those guys lining up behind Rodgers. But there's going to be a lot of eyes watching the running back position this August. Veteran Ryan Grant is gone and unlikely to be coming back, and the rest of remaining depth chart has more question marks than even Ken Jennings could answer.
I've always said that Thompson is a Jenga master; he knows when to take out a block from his roster and reposition it masterfully at the top. Could his running back tower collapse on itself at some point this season after taking Grant out of mix?
Thompson is certainly taking a risk with a depth chart consisting of James Starks (missed 16 games in two years), Alex Green (coming off a torn ACL), Brandon Saine (UDFA in 2011) and Duane Bennett and Marc Tyler (UDFAs in 2012). But it's obviously more calculated a risk than most make it out to be.
Starks was an impressive runner to start 2011 (if you don't believe me, check out his "elusiveness rating" from PFF), and it was painfully obvious how much recurring ankle injuries sapped his effectiveness late. If he can stay healthy—again, maybe a reach—Starks is capable of producing 1,000 yards of total offense fairly easily. His bad luck on the injury front is due to change, right?
Most are high on Green, too, and I'm definitely a supporter of that camp. On the surface, Green appears to be the most talented running back the Packers have had since, say, Ahman Green (no relation). However, backs returning from ACL surgery are generally risky, especially in the first year, so there's a need to temper too high of expectations. If he can get 100 carries next season, that's a big win for everyone involved. By the start of 2013, Green should be the "starter," which is a dying term these days when talking about backs.
For this camp, however, there's plenty to feast your eyes on.
Is Green healthy? Most have him on track for participation in camp. Is Starks going to see the majority of snaps? Will Brandon Saine see a big third down role? Are either of the UDFAs from this year worth keeping around? By the end of camp, each question should have a corresponding answer.
The more the merrier
There may not have been a defensive line that played worse as a group last season than the Packers' collective group. Thompson was obviously cognizant of this fact this offseason, drafting two defensive linemen and signing three others to help add depth.
Jerel Worthy, a second-rounder with first-round talent from Michigan State, will be expected to add a push in the nickel package. Mike Daniels is a never-quit guy who probably has more natural talent than both Jarius Wynn and C.J. Wilson.
The free-agent pickups are also worth a mention here. Anthony Hargrove has big upside as a pass-rusher but could (and likely will) miss eight games to start the season. Daniel Muir might just be a guy and his roster spot is far from locked up. Finally, Phillip Merling was taken in the second round but fell off the map after an Achilles injury. I doubt Thompson expects all three to stick, but he desperately needed to add competition this group.
We'll know more as camp gets rolling, but Thompson can confidently say he's done everything he could have to improve the defensive line.
Riding the Green Wave of momentum
Those who don't know the story of Dezman Moses, Green Bay's UDFA linebacker, either haven't been paying attention the last two months or found a nice rock to live under. Signed out of Tulane after the draft, Moses used his opportunities this spring to open some eyes. With Matthews sitting out OTAs and minicamps, Moses played a number of first-team snaps and wowed coaches with his ability to rush the passer off the edge.
However, there's a list longer than the Nile of guys who look dominant in shorts and shells and then disappear once the pads come on and everyone starts going full speed. Moses has certainly put himself in a great position to win a spot on the 53-man roster as an UDFA, but those performances he gave in June need to carry into August for that to happen.