For the past month, the Green Bay Packers have been hard at work implementing their 2014 program through a series of organized team activities (OTAs) as well as a three-day mandatory minicamp, which concluded this past Thursday. As a resident of the city otherwise known as Titletown, USA, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend three of these practices that were open to the public/media, and came away with five impressions to keep in mind as we head toward the start of training camp on July 26.
1) Rumors of Julius Peppers’ demise are being greatly exaggerated
Peppers at age 34, was thought by many NFL observers to be entering the downside of his career when the Packers unexpectedly swooped in to sign him to a three-year free agent deal this past March following his release from the rival Chicago Bears. However, as was apparent from his first OTA practice, that line of thinking may be very premature. Peppers (pictured above in his new No. 56 jersey) looked naturally fluid while playing in a stand-up linebacker position, especially during the implementation of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ “Pyscho” sub-package, which features only one down lineman.
But this season Capers plans to include the “Elephant” position not only within the “Pyscho” look, but within all other defensive sub-packages as well. The “Elephant” will feature a rush linebacker who will be allowed to place his hand on the ground to generate a quicker, more powerful pass rush. Peppers looked strong in this role during the drills I observed, often roving around line of scrimmage until placing his hand down on the ground in the later stages of the offense’s pre-snap operation, undoubtedly a move to try to confuse the offense and hamper their audible capabilities.
2) HaHa Clinton-Dix won’t be handed the starting free safety job
When the Packer’s had the good fortune of being able to draft Alabama’s Ha’Sean (HaHa) Clinton-Dix with the 21st pick in May’s NFL Draft, it was widely assumed he would be inserted immediately into the starting lineup to fill the team’s hole at free safety. And while that may still occur come the start of training camp in late July, it was not the case during the OTA and mini-camp sessions. The player currently manning that void is second-year pro Micah Hyde, who enjoyed a successful rookie year playing primarily in the slot cornerback role.
However, with the expected return of cornerback Casey Hayward to that position in 2014, as well as the deep cornerback group the Packers currently possess, the team is giving the promising Hyde the chance to remain a three-down player in their defense by trying him out at safety ahead of Clinton-Dix. Will this still be the case when the team opens the NFL season in Seattle on September 4? Likely not, but having Hyde learn to play safety increases the defense’s flexibility, both schematically and in case of injury. It will be interesting to see how both these young talents perform in their roles come pre-season.
3) JC Tretter is the front runner to be the team’s new starting center
When the Packers let starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith leave for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the off-season, it was widely speculated the team would target a center on draft day to be his potential replacement. And when All Big-10 performer Corey Linsley was snagged in the fifth round out of Ohio State, you couldn’t help but begin to wonder if Aaron Rodgers had found a new big hoss to man the football on the line.
However, what went largely under the radar was that the Packers had already been grooming a replacement on their current roster in former 2013 fourth round draft choice, J.C. Tretter, a converted tackle from Cornell University. With his versatile athleticism and Ivy League smarts, Tretter has, from every report, looked sharp this off-season with the position change. He made no bad snaps from my vantage point during any of the three practices I attended this spring, and with a year head start over Linsley in knowing the Packers playbook, bet on it being his job to lose as we head toward the fall.
4) There is suddenly an open roster spot at running back
The Packers received bad news on the status of talented young running back Johnathan Franklin’s neck injury which he suffered returning a kickoff vs. Minnesota last November. Franklin’s injury has been deemed severe enough to where it will be too risky for him to continue his playing career, prompting the former UCLA star to announce on Twitter that he had “been ruled out returning for the 2014/15 season and returning to play in the NFL.” The news hit the locker room hard, as Franklin was a popular player who many had hoped would be able to form a dynamic 1-2 bunch with reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy.
Franklin’s injury does open up a roster spot at what was widely considered to be the Packers deepest position, and despite his departure, there is every reason to believe that RB will be just as deep in 2014. 2012 late season hero DuJuan Harris is back after missing all of last season due to a knee injury, and has looked very sharp and explosive in the spring practices, making him the odds on favorite to take over Franklin’s change-of-pace role. There are also two strong undrafted free agent options in Rajon Neal from the University of Tennessee and LaDarius Perkins from Mississippi State. Do not be surprised to see one of them make a charge at making the team, especially the intriguing Neal, who has three-down potential with his good size (5’11”, 212 lbs) and strong receiving ability.
5) Rodgers, offense, look primed for big season
What more can be said when it comes to Aaron Rodgers? He is the engine, the identity, the essence of the Green Bay Packers in every way possible. The team simply needs him healthy for all 16 games and beyond to remain a championship contender, and Rodgers certainly looks the part this offseason. Claiming that a better diet, and increased yoga sessions, allowed him to shed 10 pounds and enter the offseason in the best shape of his career is a supremely encouraging sign for the team as he begins to enter his “prime” years as an NFL QB. Additionally, talented reinforcements were added to the WR-corps during May’s NFL Draft in the form of DeVante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis.
That influx in pass catching talent, combined with Lacy’s star-caliber rushing ability, has many speculating that this might be the most talented offensive squad ever assembled during Head Coach Mike McCarthy’s nine seasons in Green Bay.