2011 August : Packers Insider

Injury notes from Cleveland game

August 14, 2011 by  
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By Brian E Murphy

~Coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers had three injuries of unknown severity in Saturday night’s exhibition opener against Cleveland.

Tight end Andrew Quarless injured his groin, running back James Starks his ankle and tight end Tom Crabtree his ribs.

As always, McCarthy wasn’t sure of the severity of any of those type of injuries the night of the game.

McCarthy didn't sound too worried with the injury report following Saturday night's game in Cleveland. But the day after sometimes is a different story, as 2010 proved over and over.

“Tomorrow’s evaluation will always tell the story,” McCarthy said, “particularly on those fatigue injuries.”

Starks rolled his ankle but said after the game he had “no swelling” and wasn’t walking with any kind of limp. That’s a relief of contrast compared to Ryan Grant’s ankle injury in last year’s real opener in Philadelphia where it appeared somewhat minor initially by Ryan’s reaction, but it turned out to be a full season-ending injury.

Practice Game 1: Packers fall to Browns

August 14, 2011 by  
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By Peter Dougherty, Green Bay Press-Gazette

~CLEVELAND – Nobody’s going to suggest the Green Bay Packers were in midseason form.

But after two weeks of training camp, their 2011 preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns on Saturday night didn’t look any worse or more ragged than preseason openers of the past.

Backup QB Matt Flynn is sacked in Cleveland by the Browns defensive lineman Mitchell.

Facing one of the NFL’s struggling franchises in the Cleveland Browns, coach Mike McCarthy’s Packers came in with a big edge, and at times it showed.

His team, coming off a Super Bowl win, returns almost all its key players, is in its sixth season in McCarthy’s offensive system, and in its third season with Dom Capers as defensive coordinator. The Browns, on the other hand, won only four games last season and are adjusting to the new offensive and defensive schemes of new coach Pat Shurmur, who replaced the fired Eric Mangini in the offseason.

The Packers lost the game 27-17 at Cleveland Browns Stadium, and their starters didn’t dominate. Their No. 1 defense gave up one touchdown in two series against the Browns’ starters, but their offense looked good not just when Aaron Rodgers and the starters were on the field, but also with backup Matt Flynn at quarterback while taking a 17-14 lead into halftime.

“I thought the operation was excellent (on offense),” McCarthy said after the game. “I thought (Rodgers) performed very well in that second series. It was no-huddle, so he had command at the line of scrimmage with his (play) selection and so forth. I thought he was excellent.”

The Packers will have to wait at least another week to get a look at their offense with tight end Jermichael Finley back on the field. Finley, whose 2010 season ended because of a knee injury in Week 5, has a sore glute that sidelined him in practice starting Wednesday, and McCarthy wasn’t taking any chances with his playmaking tight end in a game that means nothing in the standings.

McCarthy also held two key defensive players from the game: starting cornerback Charles Woodson and No. 3 cornerback Sam Shields. Woodson was healthy and got the night off to keep him that way; Shields injured his hip in practice Thursday night.

Full article here

T.J. Lang fights for Packers left guard spot

August 12, 2011 by  
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By Tyler Dunne, Journal-Sentinel

~Josh Sitton made a grave mistake Tuesday. He left his cellphone unattended, with no password. This was too easy. T.J. Lang, his usual partner in crime, swiped the phone and fired off a tweet.

Viewer discretion is advised.

“Damn I just took a huge crap.. used a whole roll of t.p. was like mud.”

Yes, gross. Sitton couldn’t return the favor – Lang’s phone has a password. Nothing like a friendly hit-and-run to liven up training camp.

BJ Raji on Lang: "I think T.J. has that ability."

“He was just mad that I got to him before he could get to me,” Lang said. “That’s all he was mad about. I didn’t go overboard. It was pretty harmless.”

They’re already close friends, what with both pointing a red laser pen at James Jones during one locker room interview. Now comes the hard part for Lang – sticking around and overtaking that left guard spot opposite Sitton. Don’t let the pranks fool you. Lang realizes this is a critical camp for him. The third-year veteran figured to be the front-runner at the position heading into camp. Instead, coaches have given first-round pick Derek Sherrod, a tackle since high school, the first crack at the job.

Two weeks in, Sherrod has been erratic while Lang has impressed on the No. 2 offense. This is a sink-or-swim year for the 2009 fourth-round pick. After bouncing around at guard and tackle, this could be Lang’s best (and final) shot to earn a long-term spot.

Saturday is his opportunity to build on progress made at practice.

“My No. 1 goal is to get out and compete at the level I’ve been playing at,” Lang said. “I need to keep building on the things I’m doing well. You want to win every block you have out there. This will be a huge evaluation for me, going into the first preseason game.

“I need to go out there, finish and do the extra things to show them I want that spot.”

The conventional decision would have been to start Lang immediately at guard, the spot vacated by Daryn Colledge. Instead, the Packers are set on giving Sherrod every opportunity at the position with the No. 1 offense. The rookie has been understandably inconsistent.

Lang knows all about position switches. In two seasons, he has played in 28 games with three starts and some goal-line work on the defensive line sprinkled in. It hasn’t always been pretty. In 2009, the Packers allowed an NFL-high 51 sacks.

Most think Lang should be the opening day starter at left guard, but the team's new first round pick Sherrod is being given that chance and most GMs like to see their top picks start.

Cycling back and forth between guard and tackle was “overwhelming” for Lang.

“Looking back, I was frustrated,” Lang said. “My first two years, I was a swing guy and had to know multiple positions. You always want to come in, learn one spot and compete for it. Looking back at it now, I think it definitely helped me and my future. If anything happens, teams know I can play both tackle and guard on the left and the right.

“When you’re out there as a rookie, you’re thinking too much and it slows you down a little bit. When things slow down, your athletic ability can shine.”

That’s where Lang says he is now. He’s comfortable, finally settled into one position. During 11-on-11 segments, he has rarely given any ground to defensive tackles.

B.J. Raji has faced Lang plenty in practice, particularly in one-on-one drills. Raji likes what he’s seen in Sherrod, too. He said Sherrod is athletic and maintains good leverage.

With Lang, one quality stands out.

“The big thing with offensive linemen is, you’re going to get beat,” Raji said. “But he has the ability to recover. That’s what separates the good offensive linemen – if a guy beats you with one move and you’re able to slide back and get in a good position to keep him off the quarterback. I think T.J. has that ability.”

This past off-season, Lang trained with fellow lineman Nick McDonald and linebacker Frank Zombo in Canton, Mich. The trio worked out three to four times per week, including regular sessions at Dynamic Athlete Performance, where they had about 50 yards of turf. On the field, Lang and McDonald worked on specific line calls at all positions.

A cosmic knowledge base of the offensive line is essential, both say. The Packers’ line, dating back to Mike McCarthy’s first season in 2006, is built on versatility. Players must know multiple spots. So this mini crash course session helped.

All along, in the back of their minds, Lang and McDonald knew they could be competing against each for the left guard spot.

“If we went out golfing, it was a competition,” Lang said. “It definitely made us work harder.”

Camp came, McDonald was designated a center and Sherrod lined up with the first team. Lang says the news did not surprise him. He had a feeling this could happen. He knew nothing would be handed to him.

“T.J. understands it’s a business,” McDonald said. “They’re not just going to hand you a spot. He understood that. He wasn’t upset or sour about it. He’s going to do what he does and that’s work hard.”

And this experiment could have an ulterior motive – light a fire under Lang.

“Maybe,” Lang said. “If they are, it definitely worked. My goal is to start.”

Full story found here

Packers rookie Shaky Smithson prepared all his life for this role

August 8, 2011 by  
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By Lori Nickel, Journal-Sentinel

~These exchanges are usually pretty routine. Young, anonymous rookies churn out the sports clichés about opportunity and helping the team win.

The questions roll on predictably as well. So, this was asked of undrafted rookie free-agent receiver Shaky Smithson: What was the key to leading the NCAA in punt return yardage?

“I’m from Baltimore and there’s nothing harder than growing up in Baltimore,” Smithson replied.

“I have that mindset that there’s nothing that can kill you on the field. So you just concentrate on the ball.”

Right. OK.

Wait . . .


Here’s the story behind that statement:

Smithson surviving the poisonous tentacles of inner city life. And taking guardianship of his brother to save him, too. Meeting a Green Bay Super Bowl champion who is now his mentor. And turning down a chance to play at home because he liked Green Bay – the town as much as the team.

Smithson insists he’s good enough to earn a spot with the defending Super Bowl champion Packers because he has spent his entire life preparing for it.

“I didn’t want to go back home. I knew where I wanted to go,” Smithson said. “I love it here. And being here is not going to be a challenge because I know my talent. I know I can help this team.”

Antonio Freeman said: "Coming from Baltimore, being battle tested, he's ready - whatever his fate holds for him."

With a declining population now around 620,000, Baltimore doesn’t get the attention of New York, Washington, D.C., Detroit or Los Angeles.

But Smithson might as well have grown up in a war zone.

“You can be waiting at a bus stop at 9 o’clock and get a gun put to your head,” Smithson said. “I know a lot of people that are dead and gone right now.”

Rodney Coffield is a police officer and was Smithson’s high school basketball coach. Born and raised in Baltimore, he calls home desolate and oppressed. The city comes close to breaking his spirit sometimes.

“From the moment these kids come out of the womb, they’re just about done; they don’t have a chance,” he said.

He tried to give them one anyway by coaching high school basketball. In 18 years, he estimates maybe 40% of his players are doing well.

“And by doing well, I don’t mean they went on to play college basketball or the NBA,” Coffield said. “They are working; they have families.”

The rest are lost. He’s taken arrested men to jail only to see one of his own players already there.

“It’s disheartening. This city gets them and we’re never able to get a hold of them again,” Coffield said. “That’s really disturbing.”

The only thing that keeps him and his wife from giving up is knowing that he has stressed right from wrong, but all the kids won’t be saved.

Antonio Freeman knows East Baltimore well. He grew up there too, about 15 city blocks from Smithson’s childhood home.

“That is a rough part of town,” Freeman said.

Drive-by shootings. Abandoned buildings. The burden of poverty passed down the generations. Jobless, homeless and rudderless men and women. Teenage dropouts. No one walks down East Monument St. without glancing around with anxiety. HBO filmed a TV show, “The Wire,” on location in this neighborhood.

Freeman says the drugs – not just the using, the selling – have destroyed the neighborhood.

“Typical city life: guys want to find a quick way to get out,” Freeman said. “For the young, drugs is that outlet. You make a lot of money real quick. Kids see someone on the corner, selling drugs, and they like the car they’re driving, the tennis shoes they have, or their ability to give out money to the neighborhood.

“When you’re on the streets making a couple hundred bucks a day, that directly leads to missing school.”

Before Freeman became a Green Bay Packers receiver, before he won a Super Bowl, he was a survivor of East Baltimore, or, known to locals, as Little Beirut.

“My friends sold on the corner, wore nice shoes. But I had two working parents at home,” Freeman said. “All I had to do was go to school, get good grades and respect my elders. There was no need for me to sell drugs. And my dad was not afraid to kick my ass.”

Freeman still goes to the barbershop to check in. He often visits the schools. He begs the kids to forget the drugs; school is their way out.

About 13 years ago, he attended a youth football banquet and vaguely remembers a 10-year-old, Shaky Smithson, who won the most valuable player award.

“I always won MVP awards,” said Smithson, grinning.

They would meet again later. Freeman was watching kids practice and this fearless receiver was incredible. Who is that guy?

“That’s Shaky, you know Shaky!”

With a face made for camera close-ups, HBO filmed a documentary, “Hard Times at Douglass High,” with Smithson as the star point guard slashing his way through defenses.

That’s how he got the nickname Shaky, with all those moves he had to create to get by people because he was smaller. His birth name is Antoine.

The documentary was a modern tale of the 1994 Hoop Dreams out of Chicago. Shaky became a Baltimore celebrity.

Freeman doesn’t do this often, but he gave Shaky his phone number. Call at any hour, for any reason.

“Because chances are whatever you’re going through, I went through too,” Freeman said.

He found a reason to hope again in Shaky Smithson.

Smithson excelled in basketball and football in high school and took his skills to East Los Angeles College to play football. The NCAA Division I schools – like USC – came calling, but Smithson had enough of the big-city life.

“For a kid from Baltimore, to go all the way to Utah . . . the kid really wanted to get away,” Freeman said. “I knew this kid was serious.”

Smithson said he never did any of the drug selling and school skipping. Seeing him leave was hard on Coffield, because he really wanted to watch him play college football. But Baltimore probably wouldn’t have been good for Shaky, he said.

“Seeing that stuff every day in Baltimore, that’s not what I wanted to do,” Smithson said. “And that’s not who I wanted to be.”

So he went to Salt Lake City. Maybe it’s the tourism for all the skiing, or the hospitality from hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics, but everyone here is friendly, said Utah receivers coach Aaron Roderick.

Smithson was all in. He would join a great program, and he could bring his teen brother, Anthony “Fish” Smithson with him.

Shaky said his parents, Lori and Tony Smithson, along with grandparents, aunts and uncles and a half brother, kept watch over the youngest members of the Smithson family: Tamicka, Toni, Briana, Brittany, Antonio and Anthony. But in 2009, Smithson told USA Today that Tony, while supportive, lost his job as a construction worker and was in and out of prison.

“He is a good man who did some bad things in society’s eyes,” Smithson told USA Today.

It was Anthony, the math whiz and 14 at the time, who caused Shaky to worry. He didn’t want his brother going through the difficult teenage years in that environment.

Shaky brought Anthony to Utah by legally adopting him. Shaky was just 21. They got an apartment together and survived financially with Shaky’s football scholarship and the royalties from the HBO documentary.

The Salt Lake City community, churches and youth programs also helped them, after getting special approval from the NCAA.

Shaky paid the bills, asked Anthony to clean his room and led the nation in punt return average (19.1) and punt return yards (572). He has the build of an NFL player (5 foot 11, 202 pounds) and great ball skills. His hands are huge. He was sure he’d get drafted.

But he didn’t.

Maybe it was because he didn’t run 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Maybe it was because he had just 25 catches for 383 yards as a senior.

“He knew that was best for the team and bought in, no ego,” Roderick said.

But Chicago, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Kansas City welcomed him as a free agent. So did the Baltimore Ravens. Smithson even has good friends who signed with the Ravens: receivers LaQuan Williams and David Reed and running back Walter Sanders.

But he chose Green Bay, which needs another talented receiver about as much as it needs a new brand of beer. He picked the toughest roster in the whole NFL to make.

Rest of story here

Packers Preparing For Jermichael Finley’s Departure?

August 6, 2011 by  
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By Michael Dulka, Football Nation

~Jermichael Finley figures to be a key component in the Green Bay Packers 2011 title defense when the season gets underway September 8th in a matchup against the New Orleans Saints.

This season also happens to be the last of Finley’s rookie contract. Returning to the team after missing much of last season, the emerging star is receiving significant attention as one of the many reasons why the Packers are poised to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.

If he decides to test the free agent market in 2012, Finley will be one of the most sought-after free agents and surely be paid accordingly. As a team that is known to avoid overspending for players, the Packers may be forced to dish a large amount of money towards Finley if they want to keep him for the 2012 season. Faced with this dilemma, the Packers front office is doing significant work in order to make sure the Packers are in a position to succeed in 2012 whether or not Finley is on the team.

There is no question that Finley is taking his place among the top tight ends in the league. In 2010, Finley was the focus of coach Mike McCarthy’s offensive gameplan and terrorized defenses before a knee injury forced the organization to place the TE on IR. In the four games before being hurt in Week 5, the emerging star caught 21 balls for 301 yards and a touchdown. At that pace, Finley would have chased the NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end and finished the season with 84 catches and 1,204 yards. The record is held by Kellen Winslow, Sr. with 1,290 in 1980. With Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball, there is no reason to think Finley can’t break or even shatter this 30 year old record.

Mister Mismatch: The Packers would love to have Jermichael Finley back on the roster in 2012 as part of a quest for a possible three-peat, but if he demands too much money they are not only prepared to let him walk, but they are in position to be successful even if this is the case.

At 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, Finley is a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators. If you decide to cover him with a linebacker, he will burn you with his speed and athleticism. If you try to combat his speed by defending him with a corner, the man will bully the defender with his size to create space. The only way to properly defend him is to put two or three defenders on him and jeopardize leaving other receivers open.

The combination of size, speed, and power allow the Packers coaching staff to put Finley all over the field in order to exploit mismatches. It is clear the Packers would love to have Finley back to pair with Greg Jennings as reliable and lethal targets for Rodgers over the next five years. If money becomes the most important aspect of a new deal for Finley, the Packers are placing themselves in position to let him walk in order to spend the money more efficiently.

In the draft in April, the Packers organization drafted two TEs. In the fourth round, they selected DJ Williams out of the University of Arkansas. Three rounds later, they selected Ryan Taylor from the University of North Carolina. Not many analysts had listed the position of TE as one of need for the Packers coming into the draft. During the 2010 season, the Packers carried four TEs on the roster: Finley, Donald Lee, and two rookies: Tom Crabtree and Andrew Quarless.

Although not drafted by the Packers, Crabtree was a practice squad player until the Packers gave him a chance to play in 2010. So in the last two offseasons, the Packers have added four TEs and shed one as Donald Lee was cut by the organization on March 2. Another Packers draft pick, WR Randall Cobb, will feature as a new weapon that will create matchup problems for defenses based on his speed.

Coming into training camp the TE position is as follows: Finley, Quarless, Crabtree, Williams, and Taylor. It is unlikely that all five players make the roster, but the Packers have a good field of talent to pull from in grooming a potential replacement for Finley. Quarless is the player that most fits in the mold of Finley, as he is 6-4, 255 pounds.

He filled in for Finley after the injury with some success, but definitely had some rookie moments. Over the 2010 season, Quarless caught 21 balls for 238 yards. Although, Finley trumped Quarless’ numbers playing a quarter of the games, Quarless showed flashes of brilliance and potential with some even saying he looked better than Finley did during his rookie campaign.

With Finley going down in Week 5, the Packers offense was forced to reevaluate and refocus their attention. Instead of having Finley as the number one target, other players were forced to…   full story here

Rookie Cobb making early impact in Green Bay

August 6, 2011 by  
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By Ty Dunne, Journal-Sentinel

~Usually, Randall Cobb was a listener. Coaches conversed, he took mental notes.

One night, the Kentucky wide receiver spoke up.

During another coaches meeting, Cobb noticed something. All of them were right-handed and it was affecting their thinking. He was left-handed. Maybe, Cobb said, he could catch the defense napping. At this specific angle in the “Wildcat,” it made sense for him to throw the pass.

“We all kind of looked at him and said, ‘You know what? That’s right,’ ” Kentucky wide receivers coach Tee Martin remembers. “It was something small but it made a difference.”

NFL Super Bowl Champions Green Bay Packers' Cobb practices as the Packers take the field for the first training camp practice of the year in Green Bay

That following Saturday, the play resulted in a touchdown. From then on, Cobb’s input was always valued.

One week into his pro career, Cobb has dazzled. The speed, the hands, the athleticism. The Green Bay Packers’ second-round pick has been a pay-per-view attraction from Day 1.

On a loaded receiving corps, Cobb could become an X-and-O nightmare, a wild card on a Super Bowl offense. And the true reason isn’t seen on the football field, rather, inside the classroom.

Cobb is a student of the game. By far, that’s his greatest weapon.

“I’m a film junkie,” Cobb said. “I like to know the system, everything. I’m trying to learn all the aspects of the offense. Not just the plays.”

He became this way out of necessity, survival. Most wide receivers don’t need to “love” the boring, minute details of the game, Cobb said. There’s no need. They’re tall, fast, agile or some combination of the three. Studying the why’s and how’s behind plays is gravy.

Cobb didn’t have a choice. The runt of the class at Kentucky – Cobb is generously listed at 5 feet 10 inches – he found an edge elsewhere.

“I’m an undersized guy so I have to work that much harder at it,” Cobb said. “I’m talented but I’m not as physically gifted as a lot of other people. I have to use my strengths in other ways.

“I’m one of the smallest, but I can be one of the smartest.”

Kentucky practiced in the mornings, usually finishing around 11 a.m. Players ate and attended class, then most were done for the day. Academically, Cobb was always ahead, so he started to drop into the coaching meetings. Cobb grew up watching Martin lead Tennessee to a title, but he also liked watching his nemesis, the Florida Gators. The purity of the game always interested Cobb – never a particular team or player. Someday, he wants to coach.

So some nights, he stuck his head into coaching meetings for five minutes. Other nights, he was there for two hours. Laughed Martin, “We always knew he was going to poke his head in there.”

Cobb wasn’t coming to demand the ball, either. Martin said he provided raw, legitimate advice.

“I needed to see what the game plan for the week was going to be, how we were going to attack defenses,” Cobb said. “I processed as much information as I could.”

Green Bay Packers' rookie Randall Cobb rides a bike to NFL football training camp Saturday, July 30, 2011, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

He’s a quarterback at heart. That was Cobb’s first position at Kentucky. On a play-to-play basis, throughout college, Cobb directed traffic before the snap. He told other receivers and backs where to line up. In time, Cobb could go up to the board and diagram protections. He knew who was blocking whom. He knew everybody’s assignments.

More and more, Cobb reminded Martin of Hines Ward, another quarterback-turned-receiver whom he played with in Pittsburgh.

As a receiver, it’s easy to have tunnel vision. Get open, catch the ball, shut up. Not Cobb. His quarterback background demanded he pull back each layer of the onion on offense. A pre-snap acumen resulted.

He learned where blitzes were coming, where coverages were shading and found a way to always get open. In his final season, Cobb caught 84 passes for 1,017 yards and seven touchdowns.

“The game slowed down to a point where he was seeing everything,” Martin said. “He was making plays that only come with maturity and only come with a guy that has mastered that level of the game.

“It got to a point where people knew we were trying to get him the ball, they would know how we were trying to get him the ball and they still couldn’t stop it.”

Packers coaches are cloaking enthusiasm with reality. It’s August. No use revving up the hype machine. Cobb needs more reps with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, coach Mike McCarthy said. The offense is still being installed.

New wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett tapped the brakes while detailing Cobb’s potential impact. Still, the talents Bennett sees in Green Bay’s current crop of receivers, he noticed instantly in Cobb.

“He’s a smart player, an instinctive football player,” Bennett said. “He does an outstanding job in the classroom. He’s a guy that can jump in there and play multiple spots.”

In college, those big and fast receivers devoured all the attention. Georgia’s A.J. Green and Alabama’s Julio Jones were lauded as the game’s best wide receivers. When Martin heard something said about Green and Jones on ESPN, whenever possible he would try to relay it to Cobb.

When last season ended, Cobb did his homework, found out Jones and Green were training in Arizona and joined them.

“They were supposed to be the top guys in our class, which they are, and I wanted to see how they worked,” Cobb said. “Just compete with them.”

The Cincinnati Bengals took Green fourth overall in the draft. Two picks later, the Atlanta Falcons mortgaged their immediate future on Jones. Cobb went 64th overall.

Story found here

Packers DE Neal takes next step in recovery from shoulder surgery

August 5, 2011 by  
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By Pete Dougherty, Green Bay Press Gazette

~GREEN BAY – Defensive end Mike Neal graduated to doing team drills Thursday night in an encouraging but still early sign he’ll be ready to play in the regular-season opener.

Mike Neal has the talent to make fans almost forget about Cullen Jenkins. But he also has an early pattern of injury that scares fans in that his early timeline resembles that of Justin Harrell.

The Packers are looking for Neal to provide much of what they lost in their pass rush when defensive end Cullen Jenkins left in free agency last week. Neal, though, is coming back from a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his right shoulder from last October that required surgery, and he’s  he probably won’t be stength until early October.

For the first four days of practice he was taking part only in individual drills and some group work. But Thursday he took regular snaps in 11-on-11 with the No. 1 defense.

“I’m sure he was a little bit rusty on some of his techniques,” said Mike Trgovac, the Packers’ defensive line coach. “I’m not sure he’s throwing that right arm as much as he’s throwing the left, but that’s understandable. He was probably testing it out as he went along. But he looks like it’s better. Hopefully it will feel good in the morning and he gets confidence in it.”

As long as he suffers no setbacks, Neal should be on course to play in the opener against New Orleans on Sept. 8.

“Well yeah, he better be,” Trgovac said. “I can’t predict. Football-wise he could be ready for it. What’s he missed, five days? That doesn’t  help, but we still have four preseason games and a lot more practices left to go. It’s just whether the shoulder’s ready to go, and I don’t know about that.”

Full story here

Green Bay Packers have only 4 starting jobs open

August 5, 2011 by  
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By Mike Vandermause, Green Bay Press-Gazette

~GREEN BAY – The Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers are ready to defend their title.

Their roster is so deep, and their talent so plentiful, that only four of 22 starting jobs are up for grabs as they enter the second week of training camp.

Perhaps the most intriguing battle is taking place in the backfield, where halfback Ryan Grant missed almost the entire 2010 season with an ankle injury and rookie James Starks came on like gangbusters late in the season and the playoffs. The Packers also added competition with third-round draft choice Alex Green.

I still hate to look at it: Ryan Grant's season ended on this reckless tackle in the opener last year at the Eagles. The starting job ended up being James Starks' and the Packers ran the playoff table with him. Who will be the starter on September 8th?

The other starting position up for grabs on offense is at left guard, where rookie first-round draft choice Derek Sherrod is squaring off against T.J. Lang after Daryn Colledge departed in free agency.

On defense, the outside linebacker post opposite Clay Matthews features a three-man tussle involving Frank Zombo, Erik Walden and Brad Jones. At safety, Charlie Peprah will attempt to hang on to the job he assumed after Morgan Burnett went down with a knee injury in the first month of last season.

Injuries always can change the landscape, and there’s no telling which players might emerge from the shadows, but the other starting positions are all but locked up.
Training camp and the preseason will help shape the bottom end of the roster. Otherwise, the Packers are gearing up for another championship run.

Here is a position-by-position breakdown of how the roster should take shape. (The number in parentheses denotes how many players likely will be retained at each position).

Quarterback (3)

Matt Flynn will become an unrestricted free agent after this season, so his preseason performances will serve as a dress rehearsal of sorts for other teams that will consider signing him in 2012. Graham Harrell must prove he can become a credible backup, and it’s expected the Packers will keep him on the active roster all season. Meanwhile, the sky is the limit for Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers.

Halfback (3)

Grant has received the bulk of reps with the No. 1 unit early in camp, an indication his injury didn’t affect his job status. However, he must prove he hasn’t lost a step. It’s possible Grant and Starks will split carries and form a solid 1-2 combination, which will save on wear and tear. Starks also could become the primary third-down back. Rookie Alex Green could find a change-of-pace role depending on how quickly he learns the offense and develops.

Fullback (2)

There’s no way the Packers will keep three fullbacks again. I said the same thing last year and was dead wrong. However, with the departure of Korey Hall in free agency, chances are starter John Kuhn and Quinn Johnson will be the only keepers, which will enable the Packers to hang on to an extra tight end.

Tight end (4)

There’s too much talent at this position to keep only three players. Jermichael Finley should become one of the best tight ends in the NFL, which leaves five players fighting for three jobs. The guess is Tom Crabtree, rookie D.J. Williams and second-year player Andrew Quarless stick, but don’t count rookie Ryan Taylor out of the equation. If Quarless can’t stay healthy, he might not have a job at the end of camp.

Receiver (5)

This is another loaded position led by Pro Bowler Greg Jennings. Veteran Donald Driver, 36, isn’t getting any younger but he is expected to hold off James Jones and Jordy Nelson for the starting job for at least one more year. The addition of second-round draft pick Randall Cobb could spell the end of the line for special teams ace Brett Swain.

Offensive line (9)

Sherrod will be given every chance to win the left guard job, but it’s not a guarantee. Rookies sometimes struggle out of the gate on the line, which could open the door for Lang. Chad Clifton, Scott Wells, Josh Sitton and Bryan Bulaga will round out the starting unit. Marshall Newhouse has made an early impression in camp and perhaps could be Clifton’s eventual replacement. Nick McDonald and Evan Dietrich-Smith stand the best chances to fill out the depth chart.

Defensive line (6)

The Packers let Cullen Jenkins get away in free agency with little or no resistance, which serves as a glowing endorsement for second-year player Mike Neal. As long as Neal can stay healthy, the Packers should be fine. B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett bring considerable beef to the starting unit, and C.J. Wilson has a chance to emerge as a significant contributor. Howard Green and Jarius Wynn are good bets to earn backup roles.

Mike Neal's rookie season was pretty much a washout. He is being counted on to stay healthy in his second year, and to provide the interior pass rush that was lost to Philly in Cullen Jenkins.

Linebacker (8)

Brad Jones went down with an injury and may not get his starting job back opposite superstar Matthews. Jones will have to beat out Zombo, the likely frontrunner, and Walden. A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop are the inside starters, but a once deep position has been thinned by the departures of Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar. Rookie D.J. Smith is perhaps the next-best option on the inside but has much to prove. Holdover Robert Francois has a decent chance to stay, and it’s always possible the Packers keep a ninth linebacker at the expense of some other position.

Cornerback (6)

Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields form a solid 1-2-3 cornerback punch. Pat Lee, rookie Davon House and versatile Jarrett Bush, who remains one of the team’s best special teams players, should fill out the depth chart. Injuries would leave the Packers a little vulnerable, but that didn’t stop them from winning the Super Bowl when Woodson and Shields went down.

Safety (4)

Nick Collins is a three-time Pro Bowler and continues to make big plays, such as his Super Bowl interception return for a touchdown. The big question is who will be lined up alongside him. Peprah was a nice fill-in starter and could hold the job if Burnett is slow to return from his injury. Brandon Underwood was shifted to safety from cornerback and will fight Anthony Levine for the No. 4 spot.

Special teams (3)

Kicker Mason Crosby, punter Tim Masthay and long snapper Brett Goode have no competition in training camp, even though the Packers have extra roster spots available with the enlarged 90-man roster. Early indications suggest Alex Green will get first crack at kickoff return duties and Cobb the punt return responsibilities.

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Packers James Jones works to stop the drops

August 4, 2011 by  
Filed under News

~By Jason Wilde

~James Jones’ eyesight is fine, and so is his concentration. When the Green Bay Packers wide receiver looks back on the four would-be touchdowns that he dropped last season, he chalks it up to being “one of those years.”

But that doesn’t mean Jones, who returned to the team when he signed a three-year deal earlier this week, didn’t do something about it during the lockout.

James Jones may not have dropped the most Rodgers passes last year, but he dropped the most big plays, and he expects to cut that down in 2011.

“As I go back and I watch the film on the balls that I drop, most of them were the same routes, same catch – over the shoulder catch. I spent most of the offseason working on that over the shoulder catch,” Jones said Wednesday, in his first locker room media availability since re-signing. “It wasn’t a lack of concentration. I know how to catch; everybody sees that I know how to catch. Just, drops. I don’t make excuses for myself, I just dropped it. If he threw it to me again today, I’d catch it.

“Last year was just one of those years where I let a couple go, and this year I plan not to do that.”

Jones can recite from memory the four drops that stand out most: A potential 72-yard touchdown from Aaron Rodgers in the Packers’ 9-0 win over the New York Jets on Oct. 31; a possible 29-yard touchdown in the Packers’ 45-17 victory over the New York Giants on Dec. 26; a likely 63-yard touchdown in the Packers’ 21-16 NFC Wild Card victory at Philadelphia; and a potential 75-yard touchdown in the Packers’ victory over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV.

Statistically, Jones was not the team’s worst offender when it came to dropping passes. According to STATS, he dropped six of the 87 passes targeted for him during the regular season, while veteran Donald Driver dropped seven of 84 thrown his way. Jordy Nelson, who had nine catches for 140 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl, also dropped three passes in that game.

But Jones’ drops were considerably more memorable, especially as they piled up. And Jones said he understands folks’ frustration.

“Definitely. I’m harder on myself than anybody, any media. My friends are even harder on me than you guys,” Jones said. “I can’t blame it on concentration, I can’t blame it on anything, because I’d say I do have the best hands in this group. I let a couple go that I shouldn’t let go, and this year, I worked all offseason on that particular catch and I plan on letting none go this year.”

While home in San Jose, Calif., Jones caught passes every day, working out with anyone who’d throw to him, from the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks (including former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith) on campus at San Jose State, to driving to Fresno to work out with his college wide receivers coach who now works at Fresno State (Keith Smith), to his college quarterback (Adam Tafralis), who has played in the CFL and UFL.

“Any way I (could) get me some balls thrown to me, I tried to do that,” Jones said. “If they were 5-yard catches, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about my drops because I only dropped a handful of balls last year. But, since they were so big, everybody knows about them. And I know about them too. I haven’t lost any confidence in myself. But you can’t do that, and I can’t do that. But I ain’t lost my confidence in myself. I know how to catch. A-Rod throws it again, I guarantee you it’s going to get caught.”

The irony of those drops is that they are probably the reason the Packers were able to re-sign him. After early interest from the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets, Jones saw the market dry up on him after an initial frenzy of receiver signings. At 27, Jones is just entering his prime. In 65 career games and 18 starts (including playoffs), Jones has caught 166 passes for 2,305 yards and 16 touchdowns. Last season was his most productive, with 50 catches for 679 yards and five touchdowns in 16 regular-season games and 11 catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns in the Packers’ four postseason games, including Super Bowl XLV.

He went into free agency hoping to get a shot at being a team’s No. 1 receiver, but that never happened.

“That definitely ran through my mind. It did. I cannot lie to you,” Jones said. “As a competitor, you want to be a No. 1 guy, you want to be a starter. And going into free agency, that was definitely my plan. It still is my plan, being here. But at the same time, I wanted to pick the best situation for myself. And me and my wife felt like that was here, whether it may not be this year, but it could be down the road. It felt like that was here. Great quarterback, great organization, I felt like this was the right place.”

While his three-year deal will give him another bite at the free-agency apple, he will also have a chance to prove worthy of a starting role this season. With Driver, 36, in the twilight of his career, Jones could see his role in the offense expand significantly if Driver, whose six-year streak of 1,000-yard seasons ended last year, declines.

“I wasn’t out there chasing the money. I was looking for the best situation for myself,” Jones said. “I’m glad I landed back here. I truly believe it’s where I’m supposed to be.”

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