By Jason Wilde, ESPN Wisconsin
-July 26th, 2013
~GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy appeared to start chuckling even before the question had fully been asked. The Green Bay Packers coach knew what was coming – a variation on What’s with all of Greg Jennings’ comments about his former team? – and McCarthy had his answer at the ready.
“Well, you know, when you put on that purple, something happens to you,” McCarthy said, referring to the suddenly outspoken ex-Packers and new Minnesota Vikings wide receiver. After the mild laughter in the Lambeau Field media auditorium died down, McCarthy added, “I don’t know. Greg was a great player for us, we had a lot of great moments, and he was fun to coach.”
If you’ve been keeping track, Jennings has had a lot to say about his former team ever since signing a five-year, $47.5 million deal with the archrival Vikings in free agency. He’s been especially critical of his former quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, and what seemed to some initially to be playful jabs back and forth has now been exposed as some sort of rift between Rodgers and Jennings.
Jennings, who missed eight games last season with a torn lower abdominal muscle and posted career lows in receptions (36) and receiving yards (366), began by referring to Rodgers as “the guy they have now” in an interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press in early June. Then Jennings went on SiriusXM NFL Radio and made similar comments. Then Jennings appeared on ESPN’s First Take and had more to say about his former quarterback (“You get respect when you give respect”) and said that one of the reasons he left Green Bay was to give other receivers a chance to spread their wings.
But Jennings’ most pointed remarks came this week to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, as Jennings compared the Packers’ environment to that of the Vikings, calling the Packers’ approach “cookie-cutter” and saying that players “walk on egg shells” in Green Bay. Then in an interview published in the newspaper on Thursday morning, Jennings again took aim at Rodgers, saying: “I was kind of that comfort blanket so to speak. But this is a quarterback-driven league, so people forget about the guys around the quarterback. Maybe I need to go back to my college days where the quarterback wasn’t just viewed as oh-so-great and still prove that I can be successful.
“A lot of times when you have a guy who creates that spotlight for himself and establishes that and takes a lot of that, it becomes so-and-so and the team,” he said. “It should always be the team.”
Asked in a later conversation to clarify those sentiments, Jennings told NFL writer Dan Wiederer: “For me, I’m such a team person, I’m going to defer to my teammates,” he said. “I’m going to defer to the team, to the team, to the team. And I think when you reach a point where you’re not deferring any longer, it’s no longer really about the team. … “Don’t get me wrong, ‘12’ is a great person. But when you hear all positives, all positives, all positives all the time, it’s hard for you to sit down when one of your teammates says ‘Man, come on, you’ve got to hold yourself accountable for this.’ It’s hard for someone to see that now because all they’ve heard is I’m doing it the right way, I’m perfect. In actuality, we all have flaws.”
Jennings’ sister, Valyncia, famously criticized Rodgers on Twitter during a game in 2012, so there were breadcrumbs that may have led to Jennings’ most recent comments. Rodgers is scheduled to speak with reporters on Friday after practice, but he spoke glowingly about Jennings before last season, when he may have disappointed the wide receiver by speaking as if Jennings was sure to leave in free agency.
“I think you have to be realistic about it and think that it might be (our last year together),” Rodgers said. “I have loved my time with Greg, Greg and I are going to be buddies whether he’s here or not.
“Greg is one of those unique talents who’s both extremely gifted physically but also mentally he really understands the game and understands route leverages and coverages and where the soft spots in zones are and what my timing is for when he’s got to get his head around. Just timing with the quarterback consistently is something that takes somebody who really cares about his craft and wants to put the time in.
“It’s been great having him; we’ve had a lot of great memories, from big touchdowns like against the (Chicago) Bears in the opener (in 2009), to the catch he made in the playoffs against Arizona when we were coming back (in January 2010), on that back shoulder fade I threw way too hard, to some of the pretty deep balls we put together – just a lot of fun memories.
“Obviously the big throws and catches in the Super Bowl, a couple of my biggest throws and best throws of my life, and he was on the other end of them. It’s been great throwing to him, but there’s a lot of guys who may or may not get paid the next few years, and obviously with Jordy (Nelson) and his contract situation, I think you have to think about whether or not there’s room for all of us. If there’s not, obviously you wish Greg the best. He’s a great guy and will be a great friend.”
McCarthy was asked Thursday about Rodgers’ leadership, which was also criticized on Twitter last season by Blake Baratz, the agent for tight end Jermichael Finley. While McCarthy praised Rodgers’ leadership, he also acknowledged that the quarterback has grown into the role.
“He obviously puts a lot of time and energy into it and it’s really reflected in the little things that no one really sees. To me that’s really the definition of a true leader, the ability to stack the individual moments with individuals throughout not only the locker room but throughout the building,” McCarthy said. “I just think it’s really an outstanding role of going about it. Now, everybody grows and hits some bumps and twists and turns along the way, but he is very committed, very in tune with what’s in the best interests of the football team. I’m very proud of him, just the way that he has taken that responsibility and feels that it will be greater than ever going into this season.”
Original story HERE
By Bob McGinn, TwinCities.com
July 25th, 2013
~GREEN BAY, Wis. — Desmond Bishop and Erik Walden were the type of linebackers that might have played the game for nothing.
When opportunity arose after anxious years of waiting, their mindset was simple: kick butt and take names.
Together with Clay Matthews and a few other teammates, Bishop and Walden were unselfish street fighters in an increasingly sanitized game. Limited somewhat in technique, stature and athleticism, the pair provided no-holds-barred nastiness that was vital for a Green Bay Packers’ defense trending softer by the year.
Now they’re ex-Packers, and their old defense needs a tone-setter or two. Who is it going to be?
Nick Perry is the logical candidate. Anybody who saw him lower the boom on Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck early last season remembers Perry’s destructive burst.
“That was about as explosive and violent a hit as we had all year last year,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers. “You look for a guy that can play consistent, but then maybe two, three times a game you go, ‘wow.’ I’ve seen him do the things you want him to do.”
Perry, a 262-pound physical specimen, has the body and the athletic gifts that Bishop and Walden could only dream of having. Kevin Greene, the outside linebackers coach, is looking for hitters above all else, and Perry is well-equipped to deliver a blow.
As a rookie, Perry basically split time with Walden on the left outside before needing season-ending wrist surgery after 197 snaps. Flash he did, but the overall impression was mediocre.
Capers chalks up some of Perry’s problems on making the frequently thorny transition from collegiate defensive end to NFL linebacker.
“When it’s all new to you you’ve got to think a lot,” said Capers. “It has to become second nature. The second year is when you see the greatest stride with a guy that’s made a position move. I liked the way he looked in the off-season.”
So did Greene, who is confident Perry will play harder and better.
“He can do everything within the scheme to be a dominant player,” said Greene. “He has turned up his work ethic, his attitude, his hunger. He is in so much of a better place this year.”
Walden, who got $8 million guaranteed in free agency from Indianapolis on March 12, and rookie Dezman Moses both outperformed Perry last season.
Last on the depth chart at this time a year ago, Moses was so physical in camp that the staff couldn’t cut him. He went on to average 42.3 snaps in the last 10 games, an intense competitor whose pass-rush production belied his pedestrian 4.9 speed.
Clearly, Perry is being groomed to start and play full games. If he struggles or goes down again, the Packers don’t appear worried about playing Moses.
“No.1, he’s got pass-rush instincts,” said Capers. “He knows how to set a guy up and get on the edge, and he’s going to be intense.
“If he had to go out on a wide receiver or a real fast tight end and we ask him to stretch a guy up the field, that’s not his strength. But he will fool you with his quickness and he can run (stunts).”
Perry needs to have an injury-free camp, cut his mistakes and expand his pass-rushing repertoire.
“He’s a power player,” one personnel director said. “He powers his way through everything. At the end of the day, I don’t think he can do it because I don’t think he’s got enough quick twitch.”
Perry would do well to pattern his tempo and approach after Matthews, his former teammate at Southern California and one of the NFL’s premier defensive stalwarts.
“Clay’s having a great career,” said Greene. “He’s going to be in a leadership role more now than he ever has been before. He has to keep leading this defense and let his voice be heard.”
Veteran Frank Zombo departed for Kansas City, leaving rookies Nate Palmer and Andy Mulumba competing for the No.4 job.
“They both have some pass-rush ability and the size you’re looking for,” Capers said.
Defensive end Mike Neal was down 15-20 pounds in June as Capers experimented with him at outside linebacker in various defenses.
“He’s probably more natural where you saw him in the spring than maybe where he was a year or two ago bulked up in the 290s,” said Capers. “He moved pretty good. He’s got quick twitch in his body.”
The plan is for Neal to work with both the linemen and linebackers in camp. According to Capers, he has the aptitude to handle diversification.
“He’s going to have the ability, literally, to play any position on that defensive front,” said Greene.
Little did anyone know that when Bishop suffered major hamstring and knee damage on the eighth defensive snap of the exhibition opener it would be the last play of his career in Green Bay.
“Well, I think it’s more about A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones playing the second half of the season for us and knowing what they can do,” Capers relied when asked about Bishop’s departure. “Along with a group of young guys in behind them.”
The Packers’ first off-season move at inside linebacker was extracting a three-year, $7.25 million pay cut from Hawk on March 16. His restructured deal averaged $3.533 million.
Five days later, they reeled back Jones from the unrestricted free-agent market with a three-year deal averaging slightly more than Hawk at $3.75 million.
Finally, on June 17, the Packers released Bishop, whose deal had two years remaining and averaged $4.544 million. Sources said the team’s medical staff was confident Bishop’s leg was healed but said the decision-makers had reservations he could ever be the same player.
They also were worried about Bishop’s history of other leg injuries.
An executive for an NFC team wondered why the Packers didn’t renegotiate with the emotional, head-hunting Bishop, who eventually signed with Minnesota for one year at $750,000 ($50,000 guaranteed).
The answer probably was Ted Thompson’s deep-seated belief in Hawk, the staff’s belief in Jones and an attractive six-man depth chart.
Thus, Hawk enters camp backed by Rob Francois and Terrell Manning on the strong inside, and Jones goes in backed by Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington on the weak inside.
Even though Hawk allowed just 2-1/2 plays of 20 yards or more compared to Jones’ 6-1/2, Capers said the plan is for Jones to play base, nickel and dime and for Hawk to play base and nickel.
“I really felt we had the best role for A.J. last year that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Capers. “And I like the way Brad matches up against tight ends and backs as much as anybody we put in there.”
Playing fewer snaps and 5 to 7 pounds lighter, Hawk blitzed and covered better. His ratio of one pressure for every 7.57 snaps was by far the best of his career and surpassed Jones (one every 10.75).
Bishop, however, did more than just hammer the run. In 2011, he was a force on cross blitzes, averaging one pressure every 6.85 rushes. Coach Mike McCarthy called him his best pressure player.
“One thing that gets overlooked many times about A.J. is his availability,” said Capers, well aware that Hawk has missed two games in seven years. “I also thought he was pretty aggressive and pretty physical at times last year.”
Before free agency, scouts for several teams said they evaluated Jones not as a starter but as a top backup. The Packers disagreed, and now anticipate him improving markedly in just his second season inside.
“He has some pass-rush ability to get on the edge of a block,” said Capers. “Plus, he’s done a nice job in dime. He can make the calls and he’s got pretty good length.”
The Packers also jettisoned inside linebacker D.J. Smith in April, five months after his reconstructive knee surgery. Now four players will vie for the No.1 backup job.
“Rob will go in there and throw his body around,” Capers said. “He ain’t going to back away from anybody.
“Lattimore will get an opportunity to step to the plate in the pre-season games. Athletic guy. He’s been a very good special-teams player.
“Then Manning and Barrington both have some athletic ability. Manning is healthier now and has been around for a year. Barrington is a 235-pound guy that can run.”
By Wayne Larrivee, TMJ4
July 25th, 2013
~GREEN BAY – In the NBA, we talk so much about the “Big Three” three stars or standout players who lead the way. The Packers receiving corps has a “Big Three” of it’s own:
– Randall Cobb who led the team in receiving yards last year
– James Jones who led the NFL in touchdown catches with 14
– Jordy Nelson who led the club with 1,263 yards and 68 catches with 15 TDs in 2011. He missed 4 games and parts of 2 others due to a hamstring injury last season but still caught 49 passes for 754 yards and 7 TDs.
Depth at receiver is a bit of a question mark after the retirement of Donald Driver and the free agency exit of Greg Jennings to Minnesota.
Looking to step into the breach are young veterans Jeremy Ross who came on to return kicks and punts at the end of last season, and Jarrett Boykin – a lanky prospect who caught 5 passes for 21 yards last year.
Two 7th round draft choices, Kevin Dorsey out of Maryland and Charles Johnson from Grand Valley State, are potentially two very good prospects.
These two kids missed time due to injuries this spring, but should be ready to go by the start of camp. They both bring a combination of size and speed to the party.
Johnson at 6’2” and 215 lbs. has run a 4.3 forty.
Dorsey’s production at Maryland last year was impaired by a number of injuries at the quarterback position. In two years as a starter he made 81 receptions for 1,088 yards 13.4 average and 9 touchdowns.
I believe the Packers have plans to use tight end Jermichael Finley to take up the slack at receiver when they flex him off the line.
Bottom line, the Packers will be fine on the field at wide receiver despite the loss of Jennings and Driver.
The Packers are bringing seven – count ‘em – seven tight ends to camp this year, led by Jermichael Finley who last year set a franchise record for most catches by a tight end with 61.
As mentioned, I believe “J-Fin” will see a lot of action in a wide receiver role.
He appears to be in fine form coming into this season having had a good off-season. The Packers are paying him $8.25 this season so he will be featured.
D. J. Williams, a third year player out of Arkansas, had a very good off-season and this is a big camp for him. The Packers believe he has the ability to have a break out season.
Ryan Taylor is a special teams coverage ace and a jack of all trades in this corps. Position coach Jerry Fontenot says Taylor can do whatever they ask of him.
Matthew Mulligan is the lone veteran free agent acquisition by the club. He is a massive blocking tight end at 6’-4” and 267 lbs. and is evidence the Packers are serious of establishing an effective running game.
Andrew Quarless was the Packers’ most complete tight end when he went down with a devastating led injury at the Meadowlands in December of 2011.
Quarless missed all of last year, but in the off-season appears to be ready to resume his career.
Brandon Bostick is a down field receiver who was on the practice squad last year.
Jake Stoneburner, a rookie free agent out of Ohio State, showed up in the rookies mini camp in early May with his ability to stretch the defense downfield.
With Finley’s role both at tight end and wide receiver, how well Williams comes on along with the muscle of Quarless and Mulligan, the Packers appear to be well stocked at this position.
They should be. They’ve stocked seven quality players at this position.
By Jason Wilde, ESPN Wisconsin
July 25th, 2013
~GREEN BAY – Whatever you think of the Green Bay Packers decision to shuffle their offensive line deck – that it smacks of desperation, that it was an overreaction to the 51 sacks Aaron Rodgers absorbed, that it absolutely had to be done or that it’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard – you have to acknowledge this much: The idea is predicated primarily on the belief that Bryan Bulaga will be a significant upgrade at left tackle.
If Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, offensive coordinator Tom Clements and offensive line coach James Campen didn’t believe that, then it’s hard to imagine the point of making any of the moves, which not only shifted Bulaga from right tackle to left tackle, but moved Josh Sitton from right guard to left guard, T.J. Lang from left guard to right guard and Marshall Newhouse from left tackle to right tackle, where he’ll compete with Don Barclay, David Bakhtiari and Derek Sherrod to keep his spot in the starting lineup.
The moves came after Rodgers was sacked a league-high 51 times last season and the Packers’ running game ranked 20th in the league in rushing yards per game (106.4) and 22nd in yards per attempt (3.9).
McCarthy said it himself when the news broke (“I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have full confidence in Bryan”) and reiterated that stance multiple times this offseason, including during organized team activity practices (“I feel Bryan is our best tackle”) multiple times. McCarthy also gave other reasons, too, but if McCarthy didn’t think Bulaga would be an appreciable improvement over Newhouse, he probably doesn’t pull the trigger.
Even though he played left tackle in college at Iowa and will admit when pressed that left tackle is his preferred position, Bulaga never once complained about being a right tackle, as he was thrust into the starting lineup there as a rookie first-round pick in 2010 after longtime starter Mark Tauscher went down with what ended up being a season-ending shoulder injury. Bulaga had actually made his NFL debut at left tackle when veteran Chad Clifton had struggled against Buffalo, and he’d spent virtually every practice working at left tackle before Tauscher went down, forcing the move.
“You wouldn’t have heard a peep out of me. You haven’t heard it for four years,” Bulaga said of not complaining about waiting so long to move to the left side. “I think it took me a little while longer my rookie year (to get used to right tackle) because I was still trying to get the playbook down and grasp the playbook and get on the same page with Josh. He’d been playing with ‘Tausch’ for a couple years and he was used to ‘Tausch.’ It was him and I both trying to get on the same page and me trying to grasp the playbook and switching sides.
“I think this will be a little more smooth. I know the offense a lot better. It’s just a matter of switching sides now – footwork and technique. But it’s going to take reps. That’s all it is.”
Bulaga only played 587 snaps last year because of the hip injury that ended his season, but before going down against Arizona on Nov. 4, he had allowed four sacks, three quarterback hits and 20 pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Of those, two sacks, one hit and eight pressures came in the Packers’ Week 3 loss at Seattle, when Bulaga had the worst night of his career.
Bulaga said during OTAs that he was 100 percent recovered from the hip injury, and he did take all of the first-team reps set aside for him during offseason practices.
“I feel good. I feel the hip healed very well. In the offseason, no issues with it, no setbacks,” Bulaga said. “It felt great the entire time. Obviously, not initially when I first did it, but every week it seemed to progress and get better.
“I’m just trying to get comfortable with what I’m doing out there again. It’s going to be a little bit more of a transition. It’s going to take a little more time to get that back.”
If there is a concern about Bulaga, it’s how he’ll handle speed rushers. There were questions about how he’d handle speed rushers coming out of Iowa (it even mentions it in his official draft profile from the league) and his poor performance in Seattle came against lightning-quick, undersized rusher Bruce Irvin, who beat him for both sacks and one pressure.
Among the athletic pass rushers Bulaga figures to face this season are San Francisco’s Aldon Smith, Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson, Minnesota’s Jared Allen, Chicago’s Juilus Peppers, the New York Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul and Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware.
“I mean, you never want to hear your name being called in that sense, negatively. But, it happens,” Bulaga said of the Seattle game. “I think the important part is learning from it and moving on. I think I settled down in the second half. I didn’t use any fundamentals for most of the first half. I was just out there, I don’t know what I was out there doing. I just wasn’t playing my game, and that’s what happens. I know that’s not going to happen again.”
Original story HERE
By Pete Dougherty, Green Bay Press-Gazette
July 25th, 2013
~GREEN BAY – Defensive back is at once the Green Bay Packers’ thinnest and deepest position area.
At safety, the Packers were light going into this year’s draft, with a starting job open and a neck injury threatening the career of their No. 4 from last season. Yet it’s the lone position of need general manager Ted Thompson didn’t address among his 11 picks.
But at cornerback, Thompson’s recent draft classes are contributing to an abundance of mostly young talent. Just two years after the Packers gave up the most passing yards in the NFL, defensive coordinator Dom Capers can go at least four deep with starting-caliber cornerbacks, which is critical for matching up nickel and dime personnel with the spread passing games that dominate the league.
“I certainly feel better about where we are than last year at this time,” Capers said of his secondary. “I knew last year we were going to be putting a lot of young guys out there.”
The potential soft spot at safety begins with the starting job opposite Morgan Burnett, who last week signed a contract extension through 2017.
Going into the draft it looked like a strong bet Thompson would select a safety in the first four rounds to add competition for starting candidates M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian. But Thompson passed, so when training camp opens Friday morning Jennings and McMillian will begin a battle for playing time that goes back to last year.
They split time, though Jennings, a third-year pro, finished ahead of McMillian on the depth chart. In 16 games, Jennings had one interception, six passes defended, no fumble plays and according to ProFootballFocus.com, five missed tackles.
McMillian also played regularly, some at safety and some as a slot cornerback in dime personnel, which is a sign he’s the more dynamic athlete. McMillian ended up playing more defensive snaps than Jennings (586 to 561), and had one interception, 13 passes defended, a fumble recovery and five missed tackles.
Jennings has a thinner build (6 feet, 195 pounds to McMillian’s 5-11, 203) but at least last season was better versed in the defense. The Packers, though, drafted McMillian in ’11 as a possible starter down the road.
“As a young player there’s some technique things we need to clean up (with McMillian), but mentally he knows what we’re doing, he knows what his responsibilities are,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “So that won’t be an excuse. The big thing I’m talking about is consistency, and along with that comes the focus. You have to be dialed in every play to do your job to the fullest. If you’re not, you get a little sloppy, miss a tackle or give up a big play or allow a catch that we can’t have back there. That’s something we’ll have an eye on as we get into the preseason games.”
Behind Jennings and McMillian, the Packers look especially thin. Second-year pro Sean Richardson, an impressive size-speed prospect (6-2½, 216, 4.50-second 40) who made the team as an undrafted rookie last season, is recovering from neck surgery in January. It’s far from given that he’ll even pass a physical and play this year.
The only other safeties on the roster are Chaz Powell, who played in college at Penn State and spent four regular-season and two playoff games on the Packers’ practice squad last season, and David Fulton, an undrafted rookie from Chowan.
“We feel like we’ve got three good (safeties), a lot of people can’t say that,” Perry said. “Yeah, you’d like to have four good ones you feel good about. Obviously I’m not a doctor, and Sean’s situation is still up in the air. But we don’t make excuses. We play the hand that’s dealt and make the most of it. If we go in there with four good ones, three good ones, that’s what we’ll do.”
At cornerback, the battle for the starting job opposite Tramon Williams should be fierce.
As a rookie last year, Casey Hayward showed playmaking ability as Woodson’s replacement at nickel cornerback. That figures to be Hayward’s main position for years to come, but he also is in the running with third-year pros Sam Shields and Davon House for the starting job in base personnel.
If Hayward is the starter, then either Shields or House will bump him into the slot in the nickel, and the other likely will play the second slot in the dime. McMillian also could be in the running for the dime job.
“If somebody gets hurt or if we need to get a different look,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said, “we have multiple guys that know both positions, and we’ll be able to play at the same level as the first group of guys.”
Hayward was one of the keys to the Packers’ improvement from the No. 32 ranking in passing yards allowed and No. 9 in defensive passer rating in 2011 to Nos. 11 and 4 (76.8) last season. He was an upgrade over the aging Woodson in the playmaking nickel role in Capers’ scheme after the latter’s collarbone injury in Week 7 and led the team in interceptions (six) and passes defended (25).
All things being equal, the Packers might want Hayward solely in the nickel role, but if he outplays the others he also could be teamed with Williams in the base. Whitt said that three of Hayward’s six interceptions last season were at outside cornerback, not the nickel slot.
“(Hayward’s) best football is still in front of him,” Whitt said. “Might he give up more plays? He might, because that’s one thing he didn’t do, he didn’t give up many plays last year. But I think he can be more impactful and pull the ball off someone. He can be a double-digit interception guy here in the future. Am I saying he’s going to do that next year? I’m not saying that, but he has that type of skill set.”
Shields rebounded from a shaky sophomore year in ’11 to regain the starting job opposite Williams by Week 2 last season. He missed six games because of a shin and ankle injury but finished with three interceptions and 10 passes defended in 10 games. The Packers tried and failed to sign him to a contract extension in the offseason, so the former undrafted rookie will be a free agent in March.
“(Shields) has a rare skill set with his speed and ability to see and catch the flash of the ball,” Whitt said. “So I’m not going to set a ceiling on him. But the thing he has to do is understand that there are eight other guys in that (cornerbacks meeting) room that are really, really good football players.”
Last year House (6-1, 195) was the early leader in training camp for the starting job opposite Williams but lost his bid when a shoulder injury in the preseason opener cost him two months on the sideline. He missed the first six regular-season games, then as an injury backup wearing a restrictive harness played 311 of the team’s 1,088 defensive snaps, and had 13 passes defended (no interceptions).
House had surgery in January that prevented him from practicing in the offseason, but he’s expected to be ready for the start of camp. If he plays like he did early in camp last year, he could make a strong run at a starting job.
“I think I have a guy that can really play,” Whitt said of House. “I’ve never coached a guy that’s improved as much as he has from the time I got him until where he is now with play style, attitude, focus.”
Behind that group are the 29-year-old Bush, who has been the team’s best special teams player the past few years, and three young players who this offseason looked like viable NFL cornerbacks: fifth-round draft pick Micah Hyde, practice-squad holdover James Nixon and former CFL player Loyce Means.
Whitt said Nixon can challenge Shields as the team’s fastest player, and Nixon and Means are the biggest threats to displace Bush from his special teams role. Hyde isn’t as athletic as Hayward but showed some of the same instincts in offseason practices.
Original story HERE
2013 Packers Defensive Backs Roster
By Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel
~Green Bay — The Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl three years ago even though opponents sometimes took advantage of speed and athletic deficiencies evident in the play of cornerback Charles Woodson and safety Charlie Peprah.
By adding key players in 2010, ’11 and ’12, the Packers now have outstanding speed across their secondary. No longer must they fear matching up against spread formations.
But Woodson, an all-time great, and the resourceful Peprah also brought elements of toughness and moxie that their successors didn’t exhibit often enough last season.
Tramon Williams is the only top cornerback older than 25, and the three safeties atop the depth chart are 24.
This secondary ranks among the swiftest in the National Football League. Now it’s time for the young players to develop the esprit de corps that the finest groups possess.
“I think we’re talented,” said Darren Perry, the safeties coach since 2009. “With greatness comes consistency.
“We had our moments last year where we were pretty good. But the ultimate measure is doing it week in and week out.”
Questions abound in the back end for a defense that improved from 32nd to seventh in opponents’ passing average but also took the ball away just 23 times, the Packers’ lowest total since the 4-12 season of 2005.
At 30, does Williams have another solid year in him, let alone a superlative season like 2010?
Will Sam Shields improve, as he did last year, or fall back into his skittish ways of 2011?
Rock-solid Casey Hayward would seem immune to the sophomore jinx, but the Packers will be asking much more from the talented Davon House. Is he confident and tough enough to come through?
The Packers could have gone another year without paying safety Morgan Burnett, and perhaps used a portion of his $24.75 million in “new money” from last week on an unrestricted veteran such as Ed Reed, Michael Huff, Glover Quin, Patrick Chung or Kenny Phillips.
In March, those five players all left teams for starting jobs elsewhere with modest contracts averaging between $2 million and $5 million.
Instead, general manager Ted Thompson handed the mantle of leadership and responsibility to Burnett, who generally has been effective but seldom overwhelming as the successor to Nick Collins in center field.
In January, quarterback Aaron Rodgers urged management to bring back the 36-year-old Woodson, calling it a “top priority” for the organization in the off-season. Three weeks later, Woodson was released, the victim of declining speed and skills as well as a $10 million contract for 2013.
Oakland gave Woodson a job in May with a one-year, $1.8 million deal that included a $700,000 signing bonus.
Because Thompson added nary a veteran at safety, Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings will get another training camp and regular season to see who’s the better man.
One personnel director recently labeled strong safety as a “void” in Green Bay.
Another scout might have been reading Thompson’s lips when he said, “In my mind, they’ve already got people there they’ve been training. McMillian is a fourth-round pick.”
McMillian runs 40 yards in 4.51 seconds, just a tick ahead of Jennings’ 4.53 (Burnett also clocked 4.51). Having three safeties with good speed no longer means coordinator Dom Capers must try to hide people in coverage, as he did with Peprah and Woodson.
“That’s something a lot of people can’t say,” Perry said of having three fast safeties. “The ability to run is exciting to see. With our speed nothing should get out the gate on us.”
McMillian is thicker but didn’t tackle any better than Jennings, who might be thin but isn’t hesitant to hit. Both players missed six tackles a year ago, Jennings in 604 snaps and McMillian in 594.
“I think (Jennings) could be a starter in this league,” said Perry. “They’re very close. We don’t know who that guy will be right now.
“I think his height (5 feet 11 inches) is an advantage for Jerron. It gives him natural leverage. I’d say his (issue) was more focus.”
Since undergoing reconstructive knee surgery a month into his rookie season, Burnett has played all but 18 of 1,097 regular-season snaps in 2011 and every one last year.
Besides durability, Burnett has applied himself wonderfully in the critical component of preparation. Serious and committed, he has the physical gifts to make more plays even while staying within the framework of the scheme.
“I think he’ll become even better with experience,” Perry said. “He’s got command of the defense. I think the big plays will come because he has just as good ball skills as we have back there.”
Since taking the cornerbacks job in 2009, Joe Whitt says his unit’s best season was 2009 and that ’11 was the worst. He equates the performance of 2012 with ’10, when the Packers won it all.
“There’s so much competition in the room,” said Whitt. “I’m very pleased with what I have.”
It starts with speed. Shields has run a shade under 4.30, House clocked 4.41 and Hayward ran in the low 4.5s. Williams hasn’t run a 40 in eight years but his speed has never betrayed him.
Assuming Hayward plays the slot in nickel, the Packers must determine if he deserves to play outside in base as well. Hayward played 750 snaps compared to Williams’ 1,212 in their 18-game season a year ago, but it’s possible Hayward might become the No. 1 cornerback this year.
“Casey isn’t going to make mistakes,” Whitt said. “Very smart. He should be a guy that gets the ball in his hands and makes big plays.”
Williams bounced back somewhat from a disappointing season but still generated just two takeaways compared to 12 in his breakout campaign of 2010.
In his off-season studies, Whitt concluded that he should give each cornerback the freedom to play press or off coverage based on what they do best. Last year, the Packers often forced players into the bump zone.
“Tramon can press, but Tramon does not get the ball from press,” Whitt explained. “Sam can get the ball from press. Tramon and Casey, they get the ball better from being off.
“When Tramon is in press he can’t see the whole offense. He is so smart. He can get the ball and match guys.”
Shields, according to Whitt, is better in press coverage. On June 3, he signed his restricted tender of $2.023 million after the two sides didn’t come close to agreement on a multi-year extension.
“Sam is probably a better press player,” said Whitt. “He can match anybody if he wants to. He’s still improving his zone skills, but they have improved.
“He’s a true DB now. He’s not a receiver playing DB.”
As the tallest and heaviest player among the big four, House undoubtedly would be attractive to trade offers if he plays well in August. Given the uncertainty of Shields’ future and Williams’ age, House isn’t going anywhere unless one or two of the speedy “street” free agents makes a name for himself this summer.
“House can press,” Whitt said. “He’s working on his off game. He has very strong hands and wrists.
“Will he be a big intercept guy? That’s something we have to see, but he should be a guy that percentage-wise they shouldn’t necessarily be able to catch a lot of balls on. He has length and he has speed.”
Enthusiastic Jarrett Bush will try to squeeze out an eighth season as No. 5 cornerback and leader of the special teams. A challenge should come from rookie Micah Hyde, who isn’t nearly as fast as prospects James Nixon, Loyce Means and Brandon Smith but arrives from the fifth round.
“One thing I know about (Hyde) is he’s smart,” Whitt said. “He can play either the nickel or dime. He has enough ability to play outside.”
Original story HERE
By Stephen O’Brien, TodaysTMJ4.com
~GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers are a community. They are not just a Wisconsin community, they are a global community. As with all communities, there are different kinds of people who make up it’s diverse fabric.
There are those who drive SUVs, drink skinny lattes and vacation in Europe.
Then there are those who were not so fortunate, those who grew up down on their luck. For these people, dreams are a little more modest, goals are a little more short term and stomachs may be a little more empty.
James Jones, a league-leading wide receiver for the Packers, had one of those groaning stomachs. Hunger is what he did have, but a home is what he didn’t.
The manner in which Jones worked his way from nothing to something is inspiring, but not surprising to see in Green Bay. It is not surprising because James Jones is exactly the type of player Ted Thompson goes for.
James Jones is “Packer People.”
Jones was born in San Jose, California to Janet Jones. From birth, James’ story was one of hardship.
He grew up in an unstable environment. Along with his mother, he moved from homeless shelter to homeless shelter due to a rule that said you could not stay longer than 3 months in any one refuge.
Jones credits his laid back attitude to why he wasn’t overly upset by it, but it really seems like this is all just part of his tough and modest demeanor.
It did affect the young man. We see that in his drive to go from homeless street kid to NFL player.
Jones’ mother found it hard to get or keep a job. This would later give Jones the pleasure of providing for his mother and ensuring she would never have to look for work again.
Jones tells so many stories about his rough upbringing. He talks about the instability and indignity that a life on the streets brought him, but he says it rather matter-of-factly.
His mother begged on the streets. At times, James would get a cup in his hand and beg with his mother.
He told one story to Fox Sports’ Pam Oliver of going into a Pizza delivery place and begging with the owner for some scraps. The owner gave him two large pizzas after James told him of his plight.
He got two free pizzas that day, but I am sure he receives that same treatment now wherever the Super Bowl winner goes for very different reasons.
Jones was eight years old when life sent him a lifeline. A man called Marion Larrea spotted Jones playing with his kids and asked him if he wanted to play ball.
Jones was taken in to the Larrea family, almost as if he were their son, and experienced his first taste of what it was like to be part of a happy family.
Larrea encouraged Jones to play football and even bought the young boy his first pair of cleats as his mother couldn’t afford them.
Janet recalled how happy her son was, and that even at such a young age, he pledged to her that he was going to play in the NFL some day.
At the age of 15, he decided that he had to leave his mother’s side and live with his grandmother Bernice while in high school. Although instability was all he ever knew, the future star wideout knew that he needed some grounding if he had any chance of graduating high school. He managed just that.
In fact, his mother saw some good fortune shine into her life too when she managed to get a job and an apartment in San Jose and be close to her son.
She attended all of Jones football games while but little did she know that soon enough, her flimsy bleacher seat in a small high school would be exchanged for a VIP seat at Super Bowl XLV.
Jones went to San Jose State to play football. Three of those years were played in relative obscurity, but his senior year in 2006 catapulted Jones to college stardom.
He caught 70 passes for 893 yards and ten scores. His blistering run of form earning him offensive MVP in the New Mexico Bowl and a spot on the All-WAC second team.
The NFL scouts, however, were not won over.
Like it was for Jones whole life, he had all the potential and positive outlook anyone could ever hope for, but still had to earn his place the hard way.
He told the cast of NFL AM recently that it wasn’t an easy trip to transition to the NFL. He wasn’t even invited to the NFL Combine until the night before, and even then he couldn’t sleep at the thought of running the 40 yard dash.
When he went to the combine, he didn’t have a lot of interviews. He said that scouts thought he was too slow, that he couldn’t get behind people. After he ran a 4.6 forty-yard dash, the scouts still were not overly impressed.
It seems one man was taken by Jones though. That man was Ted Thompson.
Thompson, being a very successful scout for Green Bay for 7 years during which time they played in two Super Bowls and won one, knows what it is to pick great players.
He picks “Packer People.”
There are some characters that on paper may look like liabilities, but Thompson sees through all that.
Take this player, for instance, that comes from a large poor family. Imagine this guy has a criminal past. Imagine that this guy used to steal cars and deal drugs for money. Would you hire that guy to be on your ball team?
Ted Thompson did. That guy was Donald Driver.
Now answer this: would you give that guy a statue in Green Bay and name a street after him? Yes, you would.
In fact, you can go to your local book store and buy a book to read to your children that this guy wrote!
Donald Driver needs no introduction. He was one of the most beloved Packers of all time along with the likes of Starr, Lombardi, Nitschke, Favre and the great Jerry Kramer.
Thompson didn’t look at the indiscretions in isolation. He looked at the substance of the man and his motivations.
Driver was from a poor family living on food stamps out of the back of a U-Haul truck. He turned to a life of crime to help support his family financially.
In fact, throughout his whole career, he took the father mantle of the whole family and carried then on his back both morally and financially.
In high school, Driver used his freakish athletic ability to excel at all sports. In college, he won Athlete of the Year five times. He carried this ability through his whole career and became the Green Bay Packers all time leading receiver. That is quite an achievement in such a storied franchise.
Driver is “Packer People.”
He is a community man, a family man. He was driven by the need to supply for his family, to pull them out of the life that they were dealt. Every spiral that slapped against his palms in a game meant more food for his family.
Driver became one of the most consistent wide receivers ever to play that game in a Packers uniform, and at the heart of it all was his will not only to be a better player, but a better person for all of those around him.
This is exactly what Donald Driver and James Jones have in common.
They know the importance of having stability. They know what it is like to have absolutely nothing.
When Jones got the call from the Packers that he would be drafted in the 3rd round of the 2007 NFL Draft, he knew that he had to use this opportunity as a platform to provide for his family.
But, just like always, Jones made a rough start to his career. On the depth chart as the 3rd wide receiver behind Driver and Jennings, Jones got somewhat of a reputation for dropping balls.
Not only did he get a reputation for dropping balls, they were seen as soft drops, drops in the open field.
When Jones got on to the biggest stage in his profession at the Super Bowl in 2010, he made a relatively easy drop after shaking off his defender, much to the dismay of Rodgers and McCarthy on a 3rd-and-5.
There was fan frustration that he should be carted off. He became a free agent in 2011 and was signed by the Packers on a three-year-deal.
2012 was Jones year. He silenced all of the doubters and posted the best numbers of his career.
Not only did he smash all his personal bests, but he also led the entire NFL in touchdowns with 14. Last season, Jones simply confirmed what Thompson already knew.
Jones, like Driver, was doing it for his family. Jones now not only has a mother and grandmother to support, but also a beautiful wife and baby son.
He has remarked in interviews that being able to provide for his family is paramount. Jones knows what it is like to live on the streets, move from shelter to shelter and beg for money and food.
Every pass that Rodgers rainbows his way is an opportunity for him to further solidify his place as the stand out wideout on the Packer roster.
Jones doesn’t take it all for granted. He earns millions of dollars yet still lives in a modest house. This is the measure of the man and is the true epitome of what it is to be a “Packer Person.”
Another thing that fills the hearts of Packers fans across the world is the way Jones gives back to the community.
Jones runs a charity in the area called Love Jones 4 Kids. He runs football camps and fundraising the kids that were just like him growing up with hard circumstances.
He also visits the Milwaukee Rescue Mission regularly with his family and donates large sums of money to the kids there.
He is a family man, a community man. He catches passes like his life depends on it and is a loyal and committed man both on and off the field.
He has the appreciation for things as if they are all going to disappear tomorrow because he knows what it is like not to have them.
In fact, he knows what it felt like to not have a tomorrow to look forward to. Now, he has a beautiful family and a community of children in need that depend on him. I think we can trust that, just like with his family, he wont let us down. He is a true Packer.
James Jones is Packer People.
Original story HERE
By Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin
~GREEN BAY – Nick Perry walked into the locker room after an organized team activity practice last month and there was impossible not to notice how different he looked. It had been harder while he was on the field, even though he was only wearing a jersey, shorts and a helmet, but in normal civilian clothes – a fitted t-shirt and sweats – the difference was striking.
You look great, someone told him.
“Oh yeah? Thank you,” the Green Bay Packers second-year outside linebacker replied with a smile. “Just playing games out there, it takes a toll on you, having all that weight on you running around. So I trimmed down a little bit, but I’m still strong, still explosive. Those things might even be multiplied. It’s just been taking care of my body and looking forward to the season. Everything is going good. I feel great.”
And others have noticed the change in appearance, too.
“Absolutely. He looks different, he moves different,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. “To me, he moves with more of a sense of urgency and purpose. His eyes are different. His jaw set, his gaze is different. I can just look in his face and look in his eyes and see that he’s not happy with what transpired last year and he’s determined not to let that happen again. I really feel good about where Nick is at this point.”
On the team roster at Packers.com, Perry is still listed at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, although it’s possible the website staff hasn’t gotten updated heights and weights yet in advance of Friday’s opening training-camp practice.
The Packers’ 2012 first-round draft pick estimated he was “probably around 260-ish” at OTAs, meaning he had to have been playing at or north of 270 last season. That, of course, would make sense, since coming out of USC Perry was hoping to go to a 4-3 defense where he could play defensive end.
“I just came in bigger,” Perry said of last season. “I thought that I felt comfortable playing the position.”
Whatever his weight was, Perry was just starting to look more comfortable at outside linebacker when his season ended. He left the Oct. 14 game at Houston with a knee injury, but it turned out it wasn’t his knee that was the problem – it was his wrist, which he’d injured in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener and played through. He wound up undergoing season-ending surgery that week and wasn’t heard from again.
Now, the Packers not only need him healthy, but need him to be the difference-making player they hoped they were getting when they took him in the first round. The team is conspicuously thin at the position – after Perry and Clay Matthews, only Dezman Moses is a quasi-proven commodity. (Inside linebackers Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore were moved from the outside and could move back in a pinch.)
“When it was taken away, it was devastating, just because I never have been out. So I was pretty bitter and pretty pissed that I couldn’t get on the field and help,” Perry said of last season. “Now, I’m back, back in the mix of things, and I’m still, I still have a (monkey) on my back because I still have something to prove, I have to stay healthy and do what I need to do.”
While they knew there would be growing pains as he transitioned to outside linebacker, it appeared Perry was turning the corner at the time of his injury. Against the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 7, not only did he have a violent sack of quarterback Andrew Luck (one that drew a questionable personal foul and fine) but he also showed what he could do in coverage, working against the tight end but also carrying wide receiver Reggie Wayne downfield on a play. For a guy who looked completely out of sorts the first time he dropped into coverage at the rookie orientation camp and still in training camp, it was a significant step forward.
“I think that’s as good as it gets. He carried the wide receiver vertical in a hip-trail position. He covered the tight end outside-in and covered him on a center route and Clay comes in and got a sack on it,” Greene said. “Yeah, he can do everything he needs to do.”
Although Perry won’t have to do everything wearing the protective cast that he wore throughout OTAs and minicamp – and will wear for every training-camp practice, too – he said he will always wear something to protect himself.
“I do that (wear a cast) only in practice. I’m doing everything else without it,” Perry said. “Things are coming along great. I’m just trying to protect myself out here because freak accidents can happen any given day. It won’t be a cast like that (in games), but most importantly protecting myself with anything I’m doing now, just my first time having surgery, I want to make sure I’m protecting my body. You have to protect your hands.”
Perry finished his rookie season having played 211 snaps, per ProFootballFocus.com. He was credited by the Packers with 29 tackles and two sacks in six games – numbers that all must go up for the defense to be better this season. ProFootballFocus.com also had him for 10 quarterback hurries, one batted pass and zero missed tackles. The question is ….. Full story HERE
Written by Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette
~GREEN BAY – From 2007 to 2011, the Green Bay Packers went 40-24 and won a Super Bowl with Greg Jennings as their best playmaker in the receiving game.
But last season started a transition in which Randall Cobb has become the Packers’ No. 1 threat. This year the changeover should be complete for a receiving corps that as recently as 2011 was probably the NFL’s deepest.
Jennings has left for the Minnesota Vikings in free agency after an injury-diminished 2011, and Donald Driver has retired after hitting the wall in the last year or two. So even more than last season, when Cobb caught 80 passes, quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ priority will be getting the ball in the hands of a player he’s said is capable of catching 100 passes on a yearly basis.
Coach Mike McCarthy no doubt will continue to facilitate Cobb’s touches by aligning him all over, including in the backfield, to keep defenses guessing. And he and his coaching staff think Cobb is made of the mental and physical stuff to handle as big a load as any receiver in the league even though only one (5-foot-9 and 185-pound Wes Welker) among the 16 who caught more than 80 passes last season was smaller than Cobb at 5-10 and 192.
“No. 1, I wouldn’t classify Randall as just a receiver,” said Edgar Bennett, the Packers’ receivers coach. “I think Randall is an excellent football player, period. I think he’s one of the toughest guys in the building, period. He has everything you look for.
“He’s extremely smart, detailed, understands the game, and that’s a big part of it. Obviously you want the physical attributes, but you want also a student of the game that gets it, that’s going to prepare a certain way, so when he’s in a certain situation you know how he’s going to respond.”
Last year, Cobb was the NFL’s leader in all-purpose yards (i.e., yards from scrimmage and on returns) with 2,342. But the Packers are looking for someone, most likely Jeremy Ross, to replace him on returns so the team can fully exploit Cobb’s versatility in their offense. Last year Cobb had 90 touches from scrimmage, including 10 rushes for 132 yards, and he appears headed for more this year.
“We move him around a lot,” Bennett said, “so it would be quite difficult for a team to say, ‘We want to double that guy,’ without putting other people in a compromising position.”
Especially with Jennings gone, a key factor in whether the Packers return to the blistering offense they were in 2011 is tight end Jermichael Finley. Whereas Cobb showed last year in his second NFL season that he’s dependable week in and week out, Finley still hasn’t done so in five previous seasons.
Even last year, Finley needed a promising finish to convince the Packers to keep him for 2013 at a cost of $8.25 million. His 61 receptions last year were a career high but tied for only No.9 among tight ends in the NFL, and his 10.9-yard per carry average was a career low.
Early last season Finley had the yips — he dropped seven passes in the first eight games, then had only two thereafter — but came on down the stretch with 26 receptions in the final five regular-season games. Finley has the talent to be one of the team’s primary playmakers, but at age 26, he no longer can be excused for his youth.
“(Finley’s) confidence level was probably at an all-time low (the first half of last year),” said Jerry Fontenot, the Packers’ tight ends coach. “Our main focus was to try to make football fun and make it a game. Now that we’ve established some confidence there, our next step is to really get fine tuned as far as how we’re running our routes, not just being where we’re supposed to be (and) when we’re supposed to be there, but the way we’re going to do it getting there.”
Finley also seems to have abandoned his thinking from the last couple seasons, when he aspired to be as much a wide receiver as tight end.
“Physically, he’s put on a few pounds from last year, so he looks a little bigger, a little faster, a little stronger than last year,” Fontenot said. “Physically the guy has talent. We still have a ways to go in some areas of his game. We’re kind of happy with where we are, but we still need to get better.”
At receiver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson are back to share the roles as the Nos. 2 and 3. Each has had a big season in the last two years – in 2011, Nelson caught 15 touchdown passes and averaged an excellent 18.6 yards a catch; last season Jones led the NFL in touchdown receptions with 14.
Nelson at age 28 and Jones at 29 aren’t as dynamic as Cobb or Jennings, but along with Finley could allow McCarthy to spread defenses with four pass catchers who can take advantage of the best match-up.
“I still like the guys we’ve got,” Rodgers said in June. “We have a lot of talent at that position.”
The front-runner for the No. 4 receiver is Jarrett Boykin, who made the roster as an undrafted rookie last season. His speed is marginal for the position, but he has great size (6-2, 218) and made as big of strides as anyone on the roster in the offseason.
“I like what Jarrett Boykin brings,” Rodgers said. “He’s a big, physical receiver who’s going to get some opportunities this year.”
Ross also has a good chance to make the team, though more as a return man than receiver. General manager Ted Thompson also spent two seventh-round picks on size-speed prospects, Charles Johnson and Kevin Dorsey.
Both rookies missed most of their offseason practices because of unidentified injuries, so the Packers have no early read on them as NFL players. But Johnson (6-2, 215), who at age 24 started his college career at Eastern Kentucky and then played at a junior college before finishing at Division II Grand Valley State, is impressive on the hoof. He’s tall (6-feet-2) with a cut build (215 pounds), a reported 4.35-second 40 and a 39 ½-inch vertical jump.
“Sometimes you see a guy, he’s 6-2 ½, 215 to 217 and they’re built almost like basketball players,” Bennett said. “That’s not the case with this kid. This kid is physical. When you watch his tape you see a man that catches the ball away from his body, uses his hands, extends and pluck the football. You talk about high-pointing the ball, he has that ability.
“Now it’s more about getting him acclimated to what we ask him to do. It’s going to be extremely competitive, really is. I don’t B.S. about it, I’m excited about these young kids. Kevin (Dorsey) as well. I think it’s going to be extremely competitive, and they know what’s at stake.”
Behind Finley, Andrew Quarless and Matthew Mulligan stood out most at tight end in the offseason. The Packers signed Mulligan (6-4, 267) to a one-year deal mainly because of his size and strength as a blocker, but he looked OK catching the ball also this offseason.
Quarless, who missed all of last season while still recovering from knee-reconstruction surgery in 2011, made a couple of attention-getting catch and runs at practices open to reporters in May and June.
“Q has dropped a few pounds to help facilitate …… Full story here
By Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
~GREEN BAY — Can Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin balance a Green Bay Packers offense that slumped to 13th in total yards last season, easily the poorest finish in the Mike McCarthy administration?
The Packers drafted two running backs in the first four rounds for the first time in 34 years, intending to do exactly that.
“Lacy was an excellent pick,” said a personnel director for an AFC team. “He and Franklin have a chance to be a great combination.
“Lacy can’t be the guy all by himself. He was always spelled at Alabama. But it’s a really nice mix with Franklin. Really good value there in Franklin. He can eventually be your starter.”
Twelve months ago, James Starks was atop this depth chart. When Starks was injured again, Alex Green finished as the leading rusher.
Today, Lacy, Franklin and late-season find DuJuan Harris would all appear ahead of both Starks and Green in the pecking order. Barring injury, the Packers might be able to deal Green at the end of camp because his injury history isn’t as long as Starks’.
“They have trade material,” another personnel chief said. “Green, not Starks.”
Of course, no one knows how the youngsters will fare, at least based on what happened the last three times the Packers had two highly touted rookie backs in camp.
In 1966, Donny Anderson and Jim Grabowski debuted as little-used reserves for a Super Bowl team. Anderson’s six-year rushing total of 3,165 yards ranks 11th in club annals, whereas Grabowski battled knee injuries to finish with 1,582 in five seasons.
In 1971, coach Dan Devine drafted John Brockington in the first round and Virgil Robinson in the second round.
Brockington powered for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, making the Pro Bowl every time. When he started dancing rather than steamrolling, his career quickly fizzled out.
Cut by the Packers before his first season, Robinson played briefly for New Orleans in 1971-’72.
And, in 1979, coach Bart Starr used his first- and second-round picks on Eddie Lee Ivery and Steve Atkins.
Ivery still ranks 12th on the Packers’ rushing charts with 2,933 yards, testimony of his unflagging determination. He looked like a star in the making before blowing out his left knee in both the 1979 and ’81 openers at Soldier Field.
Atkins, a strapping 6 feet 1 and 220 pounds with fine speed, was described by backfield coach Zeke Bratkowski before his second season as “a freight train with shoes on… I think he’s going to be one of the great running backs in pro football.”
After averaging 5.7 yards per carry in the first half of his rookie season, Atkins suffered a season-ending knee injury before being KO’d by a bum ankle the next year. Starr released Atkins three games into ’81, and after one carry for the Eagles his career was kaput.
Brockington and Anderson are in the Packers Hall of Fame. Ivery could be. Grabowski never measured up, and Robinson and Atkins will go down as busts.
In 1966, ’71 and ’79, the Packers expected the top back to carry their offense. That’s no longer the case, but it was obvious from their draft that McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson want their run game to be respected this year.
“I always go back to what I know, and that was the ‘K-Gun’ with Jim Kelly,” said running backs coach Alex Van Pelt, a quarterback and assistant coach in Buffalo. “You think that was a throwing offense, but they were always in the top five in rushing every year.
“That’s what gives you chances to win a Super Bowl.”
Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas was the perfect counterpoint to Kelly. From 1990-’93, when the Bills reached four straight Super Bowls, they ranked seventh, first, first and eighth rushing and 10th, fourth, sixth and 11th passing.
Last year, the Packers ranked 20th in rushing (106.4) and 22nd in yards per rush (3.9), par for the course during the McCarthy years. Just once in the last 25 years (2003, 159.9) have the Packers finished a season ranked in single digits in rushing.
St. Louis tried trading running back Steven Jackson to the Packers last year for a seventh-round draft choice, but Thompson didn’t want to assume his contract.
Harris, diminutive but tough, offered spark down the stretch, but when the oft-injured Lacy dropped late into the second round Thompson decided that he had put off acquiring a real ball carrier long enough.
“He’s more of a powerful, pounding back,” said Van Pelt. “But he can make you miss and run away from as well.”
Lacy will have to watch his weight; he was an ill-defined 238 this spring. He needs work in every phase of the passing game, too.
“It’s snowing and cold up there, and he’s banging it inside,” the AFC scout said. “Man. He can wear you down pretty quick.
“He may be a four- or five-year guy. But you know what? They drafted Franklin to protect themselves. They did a good job getting the extra guy.”
Franklin, according to Van Pelt, isn’t the prototypical big back the Packers have played with for 20 years.
“But he runs hard and he’s tough to tackle,” said Van Pelt. “He’s always cutting and moving forward. What he lacks in size he makes up for in quickness.”
Van Pelt appears to value the ability to pass protect as highly as the ability to run and catch. That’s why fullback John Kuhn was the third-down back almost all of last season.
Would the Packers prefer a better athlete on third downs than Kuhn?
“If you can get a guy you can trust and protect as good as John Kuhn,” replied Van Pelt. “He’s a safety blanket out there at times for Aaron (Rodgers). He knows if John’s in the game he’ll be protected.”
Whereas Green and Starks were spotty as pass blockers, Franklin was solid at UCLA.
“He was probably the best in pass pro of any running back that I saw in the draft,” said the AFC scout. “He’s got the knack to pass pro. Does everything. Catches the ball well. His speed is decent enough. Not great.”
After failed stints in Jacksonville and Pittsburgh, Harris got the most of what was there from his 71 touches. Counting playoffs, his 4.15 average per carry was well above the 3.59 of the second-place Starks.
“He’s short, but for a little guy he knocked guys back,” another personnel director said. “He has that short-area acceleration to the hole. Things happen when he gets in the game. Little guys like that, it’s hard (for tacklers) to find them.”
Van Pelt said Harris stepped up aggressively in protection, too.
Green didn’t smash into holes as recklessly as Harris, but a balky post-surgical knee was a limiting factor. If Green runs with more violence, he’ll be back in contention.
“It will be important for him to show his explosiveness,” said Van Pelt. “I think he’s regained that. We’re excited to see him coming off a year where he wasn’t quite 100%.”
Unless Starks can find a way to stay on the field, he’ll be categorized in club lore with someone like Chuck Mercein as a back whose only moment of glory came in the playoffs. He averaged 20 carries and 79 yards as a rookie in the four-game march to the Super Bowl.
“This is a big year for him,” Van Pelt said. “He’s got some talented guys pushing him. He is explosive, powerful.”
Meanwhile, Cedric Benson, the Packers’ featured back for the first month a season ago, sits home, a 30-year-old with a presumably rehabilitated foot but no job.
“Very good player, but we’re in good shape right now,” said Van Pelt. “With the people we have here there’s a lot of depth, a lot of good runners. There will be good battles through camp. It will be fun.”
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