Paul Imig’s Packers mailbag

Question: Even with Eddie Lacy showing promise of being capable to handle a starting running back role, do you think that the Pack will actually give him that job or resort to a running by committee situation that we have been in for the past few years?
— Anthony Pollman, St. Norbert College

Answer: Despite Eddie Lacy’s very impressive preseason debut (the eight carries for 40 yards doesn’t even do justice to how good he was), coach Mike McCarthy is still sticking by his classification of DuJuan Harris as the starter. Personally, I’m not sold that this will actually be the case when the regular season begins.

Harris was very dependable and consistent late last season and he’s definitely a well-above-average NFL running back, but Lacy seems like the game-changer that the Packers have been looking for in the backfield for a long time. If Lacy stays healthy (and that was one question that pushed him down draft boards all the way to Green Bay at No. 61), he could be an NFL Rookie of the Year candidate with the right number of carries. I wrote it on draft night and I’ll mention it again now: I think Lacy will be a star for the Packers. But he’ll need the ball in order for us to find out whether that becomes an accurate prediction.

The most likely outcome, if the regular season started tomorrow, would be Harris as the starter and Lacy as the short-yardage and goal-line running back. At the moment, Harris and Lacy are Green Bay’s top two running backs, and then there’s a big gap behind them with Johnathan Franklin, James Starks and Alex Green.

Q: Can the Packers deal with Rodgers being out for a number of games with their current backups?
— Russ Johnson, Delafield, WI

A: The short answer is: No. Plain and simple. The Packers’ success this season depends greatly on the health of Aaron Rodgers. He’s that important. If Rodgers missed the entire season, my prediction for Green Bay’s record would probably be around 5-11.

The longer answer is that the Packers’ backup quarterbacks are backup quarterbacks for a reason. If they were up-and-coming stars, they wouldn’t want to be the backup QB on a team that has a star in place, especially not a star who is only 29 years old like Rodgers is. When Matt Flynn showed how good he could be, he signed a three-year deal with the Seattle Seahawks for $10 million guaranteed. If Harrell felt he could have a successful NFL career as a starter, he wouldn’t want to be in Green Bay and stuck behind Rodgers. The same goes for recently signed Vince Young. If Young had a ton of options across the league, playing for the Packers would be near the back of the list — based on the possibility of one day elevating to become a starter on that team. B.J. Coleman isn’t in the same category with Young and Harrell, because Coleman is still young (24 years old) and it’s unclear what his future looks like.

The question for Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson is: Which QB gives the Packers a better chance to win if Rodgers misses two games? Harrell or Young? With neither player really standing out, it’s going to be an interesting decision for the front office and coaching staff.

Q :  Paul, how many receivers do you predict make the roster and who makes it after Jones, Nelson and Cobb?
— Wade, Allouez, WI

A: I think they’ll keep six wide receivers. Part of that prediction is based on the injuries to Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, and therefore perhaps a slight concern from the team that Nelson won’t be 100 percent healthy right away in Week 1 after recently undergoing knee surgery.

There’s the obvious three: James Jones, Nelson and Cobb. Jarrett Boykin, who made the team in 2012 as an undrafted rookie, is the clear-cut No. 4 receiver right now. Then the final two wide receiver spots are between four players: seventh-round picks Charles Johnson and Kevin Dorsey, and undrafted rookies Tyrone Walker and Myles White.

If the season started tomorrow, I think the Packers would keep Johnson and Walker on the 53-man roster and then keep either Dorsey or White on the practice squad. Walker has been so consistent that he has earned a spot. Johnson is so talented that — even though he missed 15 practices with an injury — Green Bay will likely want to find a way to keep him around.

Q: Why is it taking so long for Derek Sherrod to come back from his broken leg? I realize football is a physical sport but it seems to be taking him longer than it does for most.
— Terrell Braun, Beaver Dam, WI

Q:  Has there been any update on Derek Sherrod lately?  I haven’t heard anything about what is keeping him from participating at this point.  I would be will to guess if he is not cleared in the near future it will be another lost season for him.
— Jeff, Green Bay, WI

A: Twenty months after breaking his leg, Sherrod is still not medically cleared. However, the team’s expectation is that Sherrod is able to return to practice at some point in the 2013 calendar year. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to be much more specific than that. After all, the Packers hoped that Sherrod could have been cleared midway through the 2012 season. That was nearly 10 months ago.

When Sherrod does return — and he will at some point, there’s no way of knowing where his performance level will be. Can he ever play like a guy who was worthy of a first-round pick just two years ago? Sherrod is still only 24 years old and is an incredibly smart player, and intelligence certainly isn’t lost with a broken leg. Sherrod isn’t a bust. He’s a young player who suffered a horrible injury. We’ll know in about three years whether he’s able to have a productive NFL career despite the unfortunate way his rookie year ended.

Q: I remember watching J. Jolly play before his suspension, and remember thinking “man, this guy can eat up some space and blocks”. Is this the game changer that our D has been lacking the last two years?
— Joe, Fargo, ND

Q:  Has Jolly made the team? If so, does he have a shot at starting?
— Alan, Seattle, WA

A: Two weeks ago in the season debut of the Packers Mailbag, I wrote that Jolly had a chance to make the team but that he was a long shot. After the week that Jolly had — including a tipped pass leading to a Jarrett Bush interception followed by an interception of his own, then two batted passes in Monday’s practice, I think that Jolly will be part of Green Bay’s 53-man roster this season. He won’t be a starter, though. Jolly would likely be a situational player who specialized near the goal line and plays 15-25 snaps per game. But, if Jolly’s conditioning continues improving, perhaps he takes on an even bigger role by midseason.

It is possible that a player like Jolly is what the Packers’ defense has been missing since he was indefinitely suspended by the NFL after the 2009 season. Jolly’s knack for batting passes down at the line of scrimmage is something that’s very difficult for coaches to teach. It’s an instinctive move that Jolly has just about mastered. But Jolly can’t improve Green Bay’s defensive line by himself. Rookie Datone Jones and second-year player Mike Daniels will need to make big contributions this season — which they’re definitely capable of doing — if the Packers are going to get better in that area.

Q: With Johnny Jolly making plays and showing he is still the same player he was before his 3 year suspension, who do you think will make the team on the defensive line? My guess is Raji, Pickett, Jones, Jolly, Daniels, Boyd
— Dank, Madison, WI

A: If I was predicting the Packers’ 53-man roster today, the defensive line would have B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Datone Jones, Mike Daniels, C.J. Wilson, Johnny Jolly and the hybrid player, Mike Neal. That’s six or seven, depending on how Neal is categorized.

At the start of training camp, I thought that if Jolly was going to make the team, he’d have to outperform fifth-round pick Josh Boyd, and he’s done that. If that happened, Green Bay would definitely try to keep Boyd on the practice squad. Neal could be in some danger of not making it, but his new versatility to play outside linebacker or defensive end on passing downs is valuable to the Packers. Jerel Worthy will of course be kept around while recovering from a torn ACL, but if he plays at all this season, it won’t be until very late in the year.

Q: Do you think Nick Perry is gonna step up and take the pressure off of Clay Matthews.
— Kyanna, OKC, Oklahoma

A: Is ‘maybe’ a suitable answer? One year after being Green Bay’s top draft pick, Nick Perry is slowly but surely getting more comfortable at outside linebacker. Perry played on the defensive line in college, so the Packers knew that the transition would take some time for him to play outside linebacker in the NFL. That transition for Perry is far from over.

The thing is, Green Bay doesn’t need Perry to be as good as Clay Matthews. Hey, the Packers would obviously love that if it happened, but it’s not the expectation. What Green Bay’s defense needs from Perry is for him to be dependable on his edge and to provide enough of a pass rush that opposing teams can’t double- or triple-team Matthews. Perry doesn’t have to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player to effectively end the Matthews double-teams. Perry just has to show that he can occasionally be disruptive in the backfield. If he does that (and stays healthy), Matthews will have more room to work. And giving Matthews more freedom to work is going to be a key to the Packers showing overall defensive improvement this season.

Q : To me Mulumba looks much more like a pass rusher then Perry. I don’t think either is great in dropping back into coverage, but with his speed, it seems to me Mulumba could adjust to it. Would or could the Packers start Mulumba over Perry?
— Lee Krohn, Portland, OR

A: Andy Mulumba, an undrafted — unless you count him being drafted No. 2 overall in the CFL — rookie outside linebacker, has been terrific so far in training camp and preseason. Mulumba has been so good that he may now be above Dezman Moses and sixth-round pick Nate Palmer on the depth chart. Mulumba has certainly played better than Moses and Palmer. Unless the knee injury that forced Mulumba to miss Wednesday’s practice is serious, he’s close to becoming a lock to make the 53-man roster.

But even with all those positives, no, the Packers aren’t going to start Mulumba over Nick Perry. At least not in the early stages of this season. Green Bay’s investment in Perry is obviously significant. And, while Mulumba looks good in his current role, it’s possible that putting him in the starting lineup as a rookie would be too much too soon and expose his flaws. Either way, general manager Ted Thompson may have found another gem in undrafted free agency.

Q: If the Packers defense cannot handle San Francisco and gives up massive yardage in Week 1, will this be the beginning of the end for Capers?
— Edward Siedlecki, Rushville, IN

A: I wonder what the reaction from fans will be like after the Packers / 49ers Week 1 game. If Green Bay’s defense does a good job against Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco’s offense, will Dom Capers get a ton of credit for “fixing” what went wrong in last season’s playoff loss? Maybe. If the Packers’ defense has a repeat performance of last year’s game against the 49ers, will Capers be public enemy No. 1? I’m assuming so.

If the latter scenario happens, no, I don’t think Green Bay would fire Capers after one regular-season game. The Packers rarely operate with that type of instant reaction. However, if Green Bay’s defense doesn’t have a great season overall, it’s possible that the Packers begin the 2014 season with a different defensive coordinator. I don’t believe that will be the case, but it would probably take a full season of defensive struggles in order for Green Bay to move in a different direction.

Q:  Sam Bradford’s pick, fumble and overthrow are what kept Green Bay’s first team defense in the game. Is there any hope in the future for such a porous defense?
— John, Temecula, CA

A: Even though the 2012 season ended on an ugly note for the Packers’ defense, I wouldn’t consider it to be a bad group. Look at the statistics from last season. Green Bay’s defense finished 11th-best in the NFL in yards allowed and points allowed, fourth in sacks and eighth in interceptions. With the exception of the Packers finishing 31st in forced fumbles, the rest of those overall numbers are very good. I think their playoff loss in San Francisco was just a negative final chapter.

So, yes, there is hope for Green Bay’s defense this season, which returned all of its key players from a year ago and added Datone Jones, Johnny Jolly, Micah Hyde, and others.

Q: Paul, How close are the Packers to having Casey Hayward, Tramon Williams, and Randall Cobb back and why is it taking so long for Cobb to recover from a Bicep injury?
— Nick, Los Angeles, CA

A: Casey Hayward returned to practice this week after he was activated from the preseason Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. Hayward suffered a hamstring injury while working out on his own before reporting to Green Bay for training camp. He missed the first 15 practices and the first two preseason games. Hayward has his work cut off for him to get back into the main rotation of cornerbacks. Even after his tremendous rookie season (in which he finished third in the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year race), Hayward is — according to position coach Joe Whitt — currently fourth on the Packers’ cornerback depth chart behind Sam Shields, Davon House and rookie Micah Hyde.

That depth chart doesn’t even include veteran Tramon Williams, who has missed 15 consecutive practices with a knee injury. Whitt stated that he has more comfort with Williams, due to the fact that the 30-year-old cornerback is in his eighth NFL season. But if Williams doesn’t get healthy soon (and it’s unclear right now what his exact timetable is), it will be interesting to see how quickly — if at all — he’s able to return to a starting job.

Randall Cobb’s biceps injury kept him out for four practices and the preseason game in St. Louis. Cobb worked in a very limited fashion in Wednesday’s practice. It’s not an injury that will keep him out of any regular season games, but the team’s hope is that there isn’t much lingering pain by the time the Packers kick off the year in San Francisco.

(Note: Look for the next opportunity to submit mailbag questions in two weeks. Once the season begins, the mailbag will be a weekly feature excluding the bye week.)

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