Training camp preview: Packers ready for deep playoff run with Rodgers behind center

Green Bay looks to reclaim the NFC North title and win a second Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers under center

Matt Ludtke/Associated Press/AP

Receiver Jordy Nelson is coming back from a knee injury. Running back Eddie Lacy slimmed down. Linebacker Clay Matthews is returning to a more familiar role.

As for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, he dropped the cheese from his diet.

It’s what amounts to offseason drama for the Green Bay Packers, who enter training camp looking to reclaim the NFC North title and win a second Super Bowl with Rodgers under center.

The clock’s ticking. Rodgers turns 33 in December. He’s in the prime of his career, and he’s also thinking about the future.

So after undergoing minor surgery following the playoffs to clean up a knee he hurt in high school, Rodgers adjusted his diet, including cutting out dairy. He said in June that he was at his lowest weight since about his second year in the league in 2007.

"Because it carries over not just in the offseason, but what you’re eating the night before the game and what you’re eating in the morning and the afternoon, if it’s a night game," Rodgers said. "Just how that affects your performance."

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Rodgers last season had his lowest passer rating (92.7) and completion percentage (60.7) since taking over as the starter in 2008. Not having Nelson all season hurt, as did Lacy’s subpar campaign.

Minnesota ended Green Bay’s four-year reign atop the NFC North. The Packers still finished the regular season 10-6, beat the Redskins in a wild-card game and took Arizona to overtime on the road before losing in the divisional round.

The division is better this year, but the Packers remain an NFC favorite, especially with Rodgers orchestrating the offense. Here are some other things to watch in training camp for Green Bay:

JUST JORDY: To be safe, the Packers could proceed cautiously in camp with Nelson, who got hurt last August. Coach Mike McCarthy has raved about Nelson’s work ethic in rehab, and Nelson’s recovery, by all accounts, appears to be on schedule. One of the biggest problems with the offense last season was the lack of a deep threat to replace Nelson. If his return goes according to plan, his presence helps take pressure off Randall Cobb, along with the cavalry of younger, less experienced receivers vying for targets.

WORKING OUT: After getting called out by McCarthy following the season for playing at too heavy of a weight, Lacy made a few changes in the offseason. He worked out with P90X fitness guru Tony Horton, mixed in basketball and boxing, and altered his diet. Lacy, listed on the roster at 5-foot-11, 234 pounds, looked slimmer during offseason workouts. The second-round draft pick in 2013 is entering the final year of his rookie deal.

CLAY’S DAY: Matthews played inside linebacker so well last season he made the Pro Bowl at that position for the first time. But that’s not his best role, and McCarthy shifted Matthews back outside in the offseason, where he can focus on teeing off on quarterbacks. It is Matthews’ natural position.

"He’s going to get back there where he can put more pressure on the quarterback. I think it’s going to help out the team in a lot of different ways," said Julius Peppers, the Packers’ other veteran pass-rushing bookend.

INSIDE MEN: Matthews’ move means the Packers will be looking for stability again at inside linebacker. It should be the most closely watched defensive competition of camp. Jake Ryan, a fourth-round pick out of Michigan last year, started late last season. Sam Barrington is coming back from a foot injury that forced him to miss most of 2015. The fiery Barrington helped shore up the run defense when he and Matthews took over inside for the last couple months of the 2014 season. Blake Martinez, a fourth-round rookie out of Stanford, received good reviews during offseason workouts and could also get a look during training camp.

SPREADING IT AROUND: While Nelson is back, the Packers will also be looking to replace the targets that went to James Jones. The amicable veteran had rapport with Rodgers, but wasn’t re-signed with a slew of younger receivers eager to take on expanded roles. Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis each played well against the Cardinals in the playoffs after Cobb went down with an injury. Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery are also looking to bounce back after dealing with injuries last year.

 

OPEN CAMP: July 25, Green Bay, Wisconsin

LAST YEAR: 11-7. Offense stumbled following season-ending knee injury in preseason to WR Jordy Nelson and struggles of RB Eddie Lacy. QB Aaron Rodgers’ 92.7 passer rating was lowest of career since taking over as starter in 2008. Coach Mike McCarthy took back play-calling duties late in season, though Packers still ended up losing last two games of regular season, and four-year run atop NFC North ended. Improved defense led by DL Mike Daniels and LB Clay Matthews helped make up for offense’s shortcomings, while young secondary took another step forward.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: TE Jared Cook, DL Kenny Clark, LB Blake Martinez, OL Jason Spriggs.

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IMPORTANT LOSSES: DL B.J. Raji, WR James Jones, FB John Kuhn, QB Scott Tolzien, TE Andrew Quarless, CB Casey Hayward.

CAMP NEEDS: Packers will proceed slowly in camp with Nelson as a precaution, though McCarthy has marveled about Nelson’s work ethic in rehab. Lacy hopes to bounce back after slimming down in offseason. Matthews is headed back to outside linebacker, meaning Packers are looking for stability again on inside. Fourth-round draft pick Blake Martinez will get look.

EXPECTATIONS: If Nelson comes back healthy as expected and Lacy returns to form, Packers should be potent again. They’re always a threat to make deep playoff run with Rodgers behind center. Return of DL Letroy Guion and addition of first-round pick Clark help ease loss of Raji. But Matthews should be happy to be back outside to rush passer.