10 takeaways from Packers’ spring practices
By Tyler Dunne, outgoing Journal-Sentinel writer
~Green Bay — Practice concluded, lockers were cleaned out and players broke for summer.
Next up, training camp.
There aren’t too many pressing issues with the Green Bay Packers. The offensive starters are essentially set. On defense, the team needs cornerbacks to develop but will be returning mostly unchanged. That’s how a team that came so close to reaching another Super Bowl probably wants it, too — limited change.
So as the team heads into summer here are the top 10 takeaways from organized team activities and minicamp.
1. Davante Adams may be on the verge of breaking out.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said in a Q&A with The Journal Sentinel that wide receiver Adams “could be a star.” Head coach Mike McCarthy called Adams the “MVP” of the off-season. It’s not mere bluster, either. With Jordy Nelson easing back from off-season hip surgery, Adams was Rodgers’ go-to guy all spring.
His route running has always been smooth and sudden. His size (6 foot 1, 215 pounds) is ideal. And athleticism? Replay the 360-degree dunk Adams posted on social media. Now, it appears he’s gaining Rodgers’ trust, mentally, within the offense. It could all equate to a breakout season from the second-year receiver out of Fresno State.
2. At OLB, Adrian Hubbard caught the McCarthy’s eye.
Asked who stood out in practice, the coach said Hubbard “has had a heck of a spring.” With Nick Perry and Mike Neal sidelined and 35-year-old Julius Peppers taking it easy, the 2014 undrafted pickup Hubbard has gotten a lot of work at outside linebacker. As he said at rookie camp, Hubbard decided to stay in Wisconsin all off-season.
The pads weren’t on in this setting, but he was able to hone his technique. And Hubbard sees the time in town paying off.
“You reap the rewards,” Hubbard said. “You come in and just keep chopping the wood and eventually things happen.”
When the pads come on, pass-rushing men are promptly separated from the boys. But Hubbard found ways to refine his game in this setting.
“You can be a technician,” Hubbard said. “You can work on the little, minute things that you usually don’t. With pads on, you turn into a wild man. Sometimes, you have to work on your finesse moves also.”
3. Rajion Neal has the inside track on the No. 3 running back job.
With DuJuan Harris off to the Minnesota Vikings, there may be a roster spot up for grabs behind Eddie Lacy and James Starks. Neal stood out as a receiver. At Tennessee, Neal caught 66 passes for 626 yards and five touchdowns, and he’s clearly been working on his hands since. On Thursday, he had a touchdown during a red-zone drill and another long gain in the 2-minute drill, in addition to multiple difficult catches in one-on-one’s vs. linebackers. Right now, he has a clear step on the other running backs. Undrafted signee John Crockett pulled out of practice this week with an apparent ankle injury.
4. Micah Hyde will have a role in the defense again.
The Packers might’ve drafted two cornerbacks in the first two rounds in Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is now entrenched at safety next to Morgan Burnett but count on the third-year pro Hyde seeing a lot of snaps again. He had 59 tackles and two interceptions last season and has picked up where he left off. Inside the 20-yard line Thursday, Hyde broke on one ball for a pass breakup that should’ve been intercepted by a teammate and then picked off an underthrown Brett Hundley ball in the corner of the end zone. He also averaged 15.8 yards per punt return last season.
5. Yes, Clay Matthews will be seeing snaps at inside linebacker.
That much was clear the first day of OTAs in May. The Packers continued to work their best defensive player inside and outside. He slid in for 28.5% of the snaps the last half of the 2014, a number that could grow in 2015. Maybe Jake Ryan, Carl Bradford or someone else develops into a source of reliability, but the Packers want Matthews on the move again in their defense.
6. Don’t expect Aaron Rodgers to confine himself to the pocket.
In two straight seasons Rodgers suffered two serious injuries. But the fractured collarbone and strained calf won’t be forcing the league MVP to stay exclusively in the pocket. While he proved he can play that way — burning Detroit and Dallas for 542 yards and five touchdowns — Rodgers made it clear he’ll continue to make plays outside the pocket.
“Extending plays has always been something I’m pretty good at,” Rodgers said. “I’ve been able to keep a play alive and run or make a play outside the pocket.”
7. Eddie Lacy is looking large.
Again. But it probably doesn’t matter. The Packers running back has carried a few extra pounds into OTAs before and still rushed for 2,317 yards and 20 touchdowns. Generously listed at 230 pounds again by the Packers, Lacy said he’s not worried at all about his weight.
Rather, he focused on rest and recovery after another grueling season of contact.
The Packers probably just hope he doesn’t enjoy his mom’s crawdads too much this next month.
8. The young cornerbacks have a long way to go.
Position coach Joe Whitt Jr. feels good about Sam Shields and Casey Hayward, the two cornerbacks who have played a combined 116 games. Everyone else? Not so much.
Whitt has been hard on his first- and second-year corners all spring on and off the field. With reporters, he’s been blunt. Randall, Rollins and even 2014 sixth-rounder Demetri Goodson, he insists, aren’t ready yet.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Whitt said.
9. Defensive linemen are counting on newfound flexibility.
Both B.J. Raji and Datone Jones said they made a commitment to yoga this past year to help their flexibility. Raji believes being too tight might’ve been one reason he tore his bicep tendon, while Jones says his tightness was a major reason he missed at least five sacks in 2014. So with the help of Ryanne Cunningham — who’s not affiliated with the Packers — at Flow Yoga Studio in De Pere, they’ve become more limber.
10. Last year’s finish will be motivation.
For all the cliché responses from players on “moving on,” a few players admitted the way last season ended — heartbreaking fashion at CenturyLink Field against Seattle — will serve as motivation this season. How could it not? It was arguably the most crushing loss in franchise history.
Leave it to Sam Barrington to keep it real on this subject.
“That’s fuel to the fire,” Barrington said this off-season. “That’s firewood right there. So next year, when were trying to rebuild this thing back up, we’ll just throw that into the mix and make the fire even bigger. We won’t forget that.”
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