Offensive linemen, RBs to be put in the spotlight in Packers' camp

BY foxsports • July 24, 2013

This is the 12th in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' July 26 start of camp.

Here are five major things that the Packers will look to accomplish during this year's training camp:

1. Get the offensive linemen ready at their new positions

There was more than one issue with the Green Bay Packers during the 2012 season, but the offensive line was atop the list. Aaron Rodgers was sacked more than any quarterback in the NFL and the Packers' running game finished 20th in league rankings.

Coach Mike McCarthy's solution this offseason was to do something unprecedented: swap the entire left side of the offensive line with the right side. Green Bay's 2012 right tackle Bryan Bulaga is now at left tackle, bringing former right guard Josh Sitton along with him to help solidify the left side of the line. That means T.J. Lang is now at Sitton's old spot and Marshall Newhouse will -- unless he loses the job in training camp -- be at right tackle.

It will take some time during training camp and preseason for Bulaga, Sitton, Lang and Newhouse to get comfortable in their new stances. There isn't a lot of change in playing the left or right side of the offensive line, but there are some basics that will require work for the four of them.

The end result has to be a much improved offensive line for the Packers this season. With Rodgers signing a $110 million extension, protecting him has never been more important for the team's success. If Rodgers gets hurt, Green Bay's chances at winning games is drastically reduced.

The Packers also made their biggest offseason commitment to a legitimate running game since Ted Thompson took over as general manager in 2005. Drafting Eddie Lacy with the 61st overall pick made him the highest-selected running back in Thompson's nine years. Then, trading up -- another Thompson rarity -- to select Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round has given Rodgers and McCarthy two weapons in the backfield that the team hasn't had since at least 2009 when Ryan Grant was a 1,000-yard rusher. Now, McCarthy's play-calling needs to reflect the talent level at running back. But, just as important in that equation will be how well Green Bay's offensive linemen -- few of whom have traditionally been very good run-blockers -- can perform to help give the Packers' offense more balance.

2. Pick a starting running back

That transitions well into another important training camp battle. Which of the running backs will emerge as the starter? Are any of them every-down type of players? McCarthy stated during the Scouting Combine that he'd like to have a running back that he doesn't have to take off the field, which he believes would help Green Bay's offense more effectively run a no-huddle offense.

Lacy is a bruiser with surprising quickness who had a lot of success against top-tier college competition. It's nearly impossible to find a running back who's entering the NFL with two national championships and was the Most Valuable Player in the most recent of those wins. If Lacy can prove to be a good pass-blocker, his versatility and style seem best-equipped to be the every-down running back that McCarthy coveted.

Franklin was also widely considered one of the top five running back prospects in this year's draft. He doesn't have Lacy's power or DuJuan Harris' quick bursts, but he's dependable in the backfield and will have every opportunity to be the Packers' featured running back this season. Rodgers singled Franklin out as the running back who may project most favorably as an every-down player.

Harris couldn't latch on with the Jacksonville Jaguars or Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2012 preseason, sending him out of the NFL and into a used car dealership for a real-world job in sales. By December, Harris showed his talent when Green Bay gave him a chance, and by playoff time, he was the Packers' starter. Harris didn't practice during minicamp or organized team activities due to a cyst that was found -- and removed -- on his lungs, but he may be the early favorite to start on the first day of training camp.

The other two possibilities are Alex Green and James Starks, who are actually the team's top rushers from the past two seasons. Starks led the way in 2011 with 578 yards and Green in 2012 with 464 yards. One of these two may not even make the active roster in September, yet it's possible that one of them is the Week 1 starter.

Clearly, there are a lot of questions as to which running back the Packers will use most frequently in an attempt to break out of the team's three-year streak of finishing in the bottom third of the NFL rankings in rushing.

3. Let the battles in the secondary play out

Both of Green Bay's starting cornerbacks and one of its starting safeties are still unknown. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt declared it to be an open competition, meaning that Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House will all be battling for the next five weeks to determine the depth chart order.

No matter how that shakes out, the Packers will be fine at cornerback. That group of four is about as good as it gets in the NFL at one position. At the most basic level, Williams offers a veteran presence, Shields brings speed, Hayward is always around the ball and House is the most physical.

Despite the talent of those four cornerbacks, each has a different question surrounding them.

Williams is not the same after a 2011 shoulder injury and had some tackling issues last season. At age 30, he's by far the oldest of the group and the fact that Whitt won't promise him a job is an indication that Green Bay doesn't view him as the lockdown, No. 1-type cornerback that the team did in previous years.

Shields needs to prove that he can build off a successful 2012 season, which was the best of his three-year career even with the six games he missed due to injury. Shields wants a long-term, big-money contract from the Packers, but he has little leverage right now considering the depth at cornerback.

Hayward excelled in the slot as a rookie and finished fifth in the NFL in interceptions despite not playing nearly as many snaps as most of the league's top cornerbacks. Hayward told FOXSportsWisconsin.com this offseason that he wants to start on the outside, but Green Bay might prefer to keep him in the slot. A standout performance from Hayward during training camp and preseason, though, would make the decision a lot easier to put the 23-year-old on the outside full-time.

House has to show that he can make it through training camp without an injury. House is big and physical, but he's yet to have an extended period of time with good health. It's very possible -- given what House showed during last year's training camp -- that he could emerge as the best cornerback on the roster. It's also possible that House finds himself fourth on the depth chart and playing very few snaps.

At safety, Morgan Burnett -- with a contract extension now signed -- is a lock to be a starter. However, will he be joined by Jerron McMillian or M.D. Jennings? Those are the only two choices, as the rest of the Packers' safeties are young, unproven players just fighting to make the team at all. McMillian had a hot start to his rookie year in 2012 but faded as the season went on. Jennings is consistent but doesn't have the overall toughness that McMillian has.

There are a lot of options of how Green Bay's secondary could look when it lines up in Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers, and the training camp performances of the players involved will decide that outcome.

4. See what Nick Perry can do in his second NFL season

Perry's rookie season was lacking in memorable moments. The Packers' 2012 first-round pick injured his wrist in Week 1, played in six games total and was placed on injured reserve by midseason after recording two sacks and 18 tackles.

Green Bay knew that Perry wasn't likely to be a great NFL player right away. He weighed 265 pounds (which is quite heavy for an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense) and even stated a pre-draft preference to play as a defensive lineman in a 4-3 scheme.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene worked with Perry, but the wrist injury never allowed much of an opportunity to show improvement. But, Perry's strength is undeniable. When he rushes the passer, opposing offensive tackles are in for quite a battle.

Clay Matthews once again had little help last season. After he picked up six sacks in two games, teams realized that Matthews was basically the only defensive difference-maker that the Packers had. Perry can change that. Green Bay's coaching staff and front office expects Perry to change that. The team understood there would be growing pains with Perry as he got comfortable at a new position and the expiration date hasn't yet been reached in terms of the patience that the Packers knew they'd need to show with him.

The importance of Perry's impact this season is elevated by Green Bay's decision to let Erik Walden and Frank Zombo depart in free agency and to not draft an outside linebacker until the sixth round (Nate Palmer). The Packers are "all-in" with Perry. He's their guy. If Perry succeeds, so does Green Bay's defense. If Perry falters in Year 2 of his career, the Packers' defense is unlikely to make a major jump and Matthews will continue getting double- and triple-teamed.

5. Find out which receivers step up to become No. 4 and No. 5 on the depth chart

Randall Cobb. Jordy Nelson. James Jones. It doesn't really matter the order in which those three fall on the depth chart, because each of them is going to get a lot of opportunities in the passing game. But, with Greg Jennings in a Minnesota Vikings uniform and Donald Driver retired, there is a chance for a couple young receivers to make an impact.

Jarrett Boykin seems like the top candidate to become the fourth option for Rodgers. Boykin surprisingly made the team as an undrafted rookie last season, just months after the Jaguars cut him after only three days. Boykin is a good possession receiver whose big hands serve as a nice target for Rodgers in third-down situations.

The Packers added two wide receivers in the seventh round of the draft. Charles Johnson had Pro Day measurables that were off the charts and Kevin Dorsey's college career at Maryland (while playing with well below-average quarterbacks) isn't an accurate depiction of his talent. Green Bay will likely want to hang on to both of them, perhaps putting one on the practice squad. With Rodgers throwing them the ball and playing in an offense that likes to move fast, it's the perfect opportunity for young receivers to quickly make a name for themselves.

However, don't rule out the possibility that an unknown player -- like Boykin was last year -- emerges. Jeremy Ross, who could be the team's punt and kick returner, will have a shot at some snaps due to his speed. But also keep an eye on Myles White, Ty Walker, Alex Gillett and Sederrik Cunningham, all of whom could seize the opportunity to make the roster and contribute as the No. 4 or No. 5 receiver.

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