I'll be at practice tonight for the first padded practice of the 2011 campaign. While I am anxious to see, well, everything, the players I am most looking forward to seeing are the first and second year players. Obviously there are the "name" guys like Derrek Sherrod, Randall Cobb, D.J. Williams (who from all accounts has been lights out catching the ball so far) and Alex Green - but I'm also very curious to see some of the undrafted free agents, such as kick returner Shaky Smithson and offensive lineman Ray Dominguez.
As for guys returning for their second year, obviously all eyes will be on Mike Neal as he comes back from the torn rotator cuff that cost him most of 2010. He is being counted on to bolster a defensive line that saw Cullen Jenkins, the teams best interior pass rusher, bolt for Philadelphia in free agency.
Another second year player that I'll be interested in tracking throughout training camp is cornerback Sam Shields. Joe Whitt Jr. created a bit of a stir last year when, a few weeks into camp, he said Shields would prove to be the best cornerback in the 2010 draft class. Pretty heady stuff for a guy that wasn't even drafted. Obviously, Shields' play helped make Whitt look prophetic, but how has an offseason away from the Packers and their staff effected Shields? Will he come back as hungry as he was last offseason when nearly every day in camp he made a play that made you stop and say "Wow. That kid has got something"? Shields, and the Packers, can't afford for the young cornerback to plateau. He needs to keep refining his technique and keep getting better. Being around Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, two consumate pros, should help in this regard.
Getting back to the rookies for a moment, Matt Bowen of the National Football Post has a great run down of things to look for during this most unique of camps, where rookies will not only be running and hitting at the NFL level for the first time - they'll be doing so while trying to absorb an NFL playbook. No easy task.
Bowen's entire post is worth reading, but I particularly liked this:
Life as a rookie would be great if you saw base personnel on the field at all times. Line up in Cover 3 vs. Regular personnel (2 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) on defense and play football. But that isn’t reality in the NFL. Look for this: pre-snap movement. Why? Because that forces players on both sides of the ball to adjust. Can the rookies make the checks and get through the play? I tell young guys all the time to stay up all night studying for a simple reason: you would rather be tired and know how to line up. And if you can’t adjust, there is no way to show the coaching staff (and the veterans) that you belong on the roster.
This will be a particularly important point for guys like Cobb and Green, who will have to be on the same page as quarterback Aaron Rodgers when he starts going through his "check with me's" and the other various adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Not to mention Green will need to get up to speed on how the Packers' backs protect the quarterback. There's no quicker way to get a permanent seat on the bench than to miss a blitz pick up that would get your quarterback killed. As for Cobb, we already saw in practice last night a play where the rookie wide receiver missed an adjustment and Rodgers threw an interception. Cobb will need to demonstrate the ability to read defensive coverages when he is out on his routes before he becomes a regular in the rotation.
These are just some of the things to watch when the pads go on tonight. Helmets and shorts are nice. But now its time for some football.
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