2016 preview: Packers healthy, ready to contend again
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Randall Cobb bulked up. Eddie Lacy slimmed down.
And now that Jordy Nelson is back from a knee injury, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a full supporting cast again in Green Bay. The Packers have the pieces to make another Super Bowl run.
"You look at our offense and we're built in a way to have a great year," Cobb said. "It's just going out there and proving it. Going out there and executing to expectations."
That didn't happen last season, when the Packers uncharacteristically struggled with the ball. Their four-year reign as NFC North champions came to an end.
Green Bay still won a wild-card game and took Arizona to overtime on the road before losing in the NFC divisional round.
After the season, Rodgers had minor knee surgery. Rodgers, who turns 33 in December, also altered his diet as he tweaked his offseason conditioning routine.
Nelson only returned with a couple of weeks left in camp after what was described as a minor issue with his left knee; he tore the ACL in his right knee in preseason a year ago.
"I've been giving him a lot of opportunities to work on a couple things, but he looks good," Rodgers said.
So has tight end Jared Cook, an offseason free-agent signee from the Rams. The 6-foot-5 Cook has shown the potential to give the offense the big, athletic playmaking target that the Packers haven't had since Jermichael Finley in 2013.
If things go as planned, Nelson would give Rodgers the missing deep threat, while Cook and tight end Richard Rodgers would offer big targets over the middle. Also, one or more the Packers' corps of young receivers behind Nelson and Cobb would take steps forward in their developments.
The always tough Cobb, who added bulk but didn't appear to lose any quickness, would make catches in traffic. Lacy and James Starks would provide a one-two punch at running back, while the offensive line would stay healthy and keeps Rodgers upright.
"I don't think there's a cap or a limit you can put on it," Cook said about the possibilities for the offense. "Endless, it really is."
Here are some other things to watch with the Packers:
Clay Matthews is eager to move on now that the NFL has cleared him and fellow pass-rusher Julius Peppers in a performance-enhancing drug probe. The long-haired linebacker is headed back to the outside to rush the quarterback after spending much of the previous two seasons shoring up the run defense in the middle.
"Obviously, not happy with the entire situation and how it played out, but ultimately it's in the rear-view mirror now," Matthews said about the PED probe after the Packers' 17-7 loss to Kansas City in their final preseason game. "We can focus on football."
Matthews' move means a new look again at inside linebacker, a position that has been a trouble spot in recent seasons without Matthews. Coach Mike McCarthy looks like he'll start second-year player Jake Ryan and rookie Blake Martinez in the middle of the base 3-4 scheme. Martinez, a fourth-round pick out of Stanford, has been studying up on the playbook.
ON THE LINE
Veteran starters Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion figure to see a lot of snaps at the physically demanding position to start the season. Depth on the defensive front will be thinned out because of the NFL's four-game suspension of emerging third-year player Mike Pennel for violating the league's substance abuse policy. First-round draft pick Kenny Clark's practice time in camp has been limited because of a back injury.
ON THE LINE, PART 2
J.C. Tretter is the new center on offense with two-year starter Corey Linsley maligned by a hamstring injury. Tretter has been a versatile backup for the Packers the past three seasons, so there is little concern about how he'll mesh with Rodgers and the rest of the line. But the Packers made a surprise move on roster cut-down day when they released longtime starter Josh Sitton. There were a few nervous moments in the backfield for Rodgers last year behind a banged-up offensive line. Now, the line will start the year with new starters at two interior positions.
The defensive backfield has turned into a strength with the drafting of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and defensive backs Damarious Randall and Quentin Rollins the past few years. Sam Shields is one the NFC's top cornerbacks, and Micah Hyde is a jack-of-all-trades. Safety Morgan Burnett had a back injury in camp, though coaches think be ready for the Sept. 11 opener against Jacksonville.