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 the Packers will look to accomplish during this year’s training camp:
1. Best uses for the "elephant" position
There will be a new look for the Green Bay Packers this year under defensive coordinator Dom Capers with the introduction of the "elephant" position. The offseason acquisition of Julius Peppers plus the re-signing of Mike Neal gives the Packers the two players who will most often be used in that role. Even on the team’s official roster, Peppers and Neal are the only two listed as "linebacker / defensive end."
Last season, injuries were part of the reason for Green Bay not executing all phases of its defense that were originally in the team’s plans. That won’t happen again, though. Peppers and Neal will split their time between having their hand in the dirt as a defensive end and standing up as an outside linebacker. However, the percentage of how their time is split remains unknown (and is one of the key items to discover in training camp).
The Packers obviously want their best 11 defensive players on the field, but there is also an obvious need to find someone to complement Clay Matthews as a pass-rusher. That is Neal’s strength, while Peppers’ 118.5 career sacks certainly show that it’s one of his, as well. But it’s the ways in which Green Bay has to put Peppers and Neal in spots to get to the quarterback that Capers will have to figure out sooner than later.
The elephant position is more than just an experiment for Green Bay. It’s something that the defense has to do well in order to succeed at the level expected. It can’t fail or be left by the wayside if an injury strikes. Maybe Datone Jones or Nick Perry is given a chance at it if Peppers or Neal get injured. But somehow this needs to work, and it could be just what Capers needs to have his defense take a big step forward after last season.
2. Fixing the safety position and figuring out the other starter
An entire season without an interception or forced fumble from the Packers’ safety group certainly qualifies as something that needs fixing. General manager Ted Thompson and his front-office staff did their part this offseason by drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round. The coaching staff is also working to transition Micah Hyde from cornerback to safety. Even if Hyde plays a hybrid role where he splits his time between slot cornerback and safety, the combination of him and Clinton-Dix has Green Bay in a much better position to succeed this season.
Replacing Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings with Clinton-Dix and Hyde is a significant upgrade for the Packers at safety. It will be one of the best position battles in training camp to determine which of them starts next to Morgan Burnett. Hyde has one year of NFL experience and has the coaching staff believing he’s one of the defense’s 11 best players, so that could give him an edge. However, Green Bay didn’t use its first-round draft pick on Clinton-Dix just to leave him on the bench. Hyde’s ability to also play slot cornerback gives him the versatility that could actually work in the favor of Clinton-Dix to be the starter at safety.
But regardless of who starts, the trio of Burnett, Hyde and Clinton-Dix has to give the Packers a better season than what their group of safeties did last year.
3. Snapping the ball to Aaron Rodgers
Scott Wells, Jeff Saturday and Evan Dietrich-Smith have each left the team over the past three offseasons, leaving Green Bay to look for its fourth starting center in the past four years. There are two main candidates to take that spot, but neither has any NFL experience.
JC Tretter is likely the top choice. The only time he’s played center, though, was late last season after returning from a broken ankle that was suffered six months earlier. The Packers are confident that Tretter can figure it out, and it helps a lot that he has the intelligence for the position. Coming from the Ivy League school of Cornell should make that part of it obvious.
Corey Linsley was drafted this year because he has experience actually playing center and did so in the Big Ten with Ohio State. There won’t be nearly as much of a transition for Linsley as there will be with Tretter, but ultimately Green Bay just needs to find the right person for the job, even if there are some growing pains.
Whoever it is, Rodgers would like that player to be the starting center for the next several years. Adjusting to a new center is never ideal for a quarterback, and the Packers would best be served not to have Rodgers worrying about that at the beginning of each training camp.
4. The search for young wide receivers to step up
The top two targets for Rodgers this season will be Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. There is little question about that. But whereas in previous years there have been multiple proven players to catch passes, that is no longer the case. James Jones is in Oakland, Greg Jennings is in Minnesota, Donald Driver is retired and pass-catching tight end Jermichael Finley waits to see if he’ll ever play football again.
The Packers obviously knew they’d be starting fresh at several spots on their wide receiver depth chart, which is why they drafted Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis. All three of them are likely to make the active roster, but they’ll need to do a lot more than that in order for Green Bay’s passing offense to be as good as it has been in recent years.
There’s also a major challenge ahead for Jarrett Boykin, who will likely elevate to the No. 3 receiver job. Considering that just two years ago Boykin was an undrafted player at the way bottom of the depth chart, it’s been a fast rise for him. The question is whether it was too fast. He’s been effective, but now he’ll be needed to do more.
It’s also possible that Myles White, Kevin Dorsey or Chris Harper have an impressive training camp and earn their way onto the active roster. Behind Nelson and Cobb, it really is a toss-up. As long as the Packers get quality seasons from at least two of the others, they should be able to get by. Training camp will go a long way in determining which of them will get the most opportunities.
5. Figure out returners
Green Bay’s best return man probably will not be involved on special teams at all. That would be Cobb, who is far too important to the Packers’ offense to risk injury as a returner. Perhaps Cobb is used in critical situations, but it’s doubtful the vast majority of opportunities will be given to him.
Hyde was the main return option last season, but it remains to be seen if he was just a short-term answer. He doesn’t have breakaway speed, but Green Bay trusted him because he was sure-handed and smart. It’s more likely that Hyde returns punts than kicks this season if he does only one of them.
Abbrederis has college experience as a punt returner and DuJuan Harris will get a lot of work in training camp as a kick returner.
The Packers pretty much know what they would get with Hyde, but both jobs can be won in training camp.