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Postcard from camp: Packers

SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Don Banks had to say about the Packers' camp in Wisconsin.

Though the Packers have identified their training camp base as St. Norbert College in nearby DePere, Wis., for an NFL-high 52 consecutive years, in reality that's a bit of a misnomer. They only sleep in DePere and are actually one of 18 NFL teams that conduct camp practices at their home facility. This year, there is something new, however, about the Packers' camp: They're debuting the sparkling Ray Nitschke Field, which is one block east of Lambeau Field, on the other side of the Don Hutson Center (the team's indoor practice facility.)

On Sunday, the day I was in camp, it was a cloudless, spectacularly sunny morning and the new grass of the Packers' practice field looked perfect enough to make a reporter want to run wind sprints on it (Alas, I didn't try. The Packers have pretty good security). There's a red-brick wall behind the 1,500-person bleacher seating on one side of the field, making it almost feel like a little stadium in and of itself. It's a top-notch addition to the Packers' facilities, and just another reason for Wisconsinites to plan a summer trip to Green Bay's training camp.

1. Aaron Rodgers looks locked, loaded and ready to fire. The Packers quarterback now looks completely comfortable in his own skin as the team's second-year starter, and with the drama of the messy transition from Brett Favre to Rodgers a year into the past, I have the feeling he is headed for some pretty big things in 2009. Rodgers won a lot of loyalty from his teammates last year, for not only handling the Favre saga with grace, but also for playing through the a second-degree shoulder separation midseason and not missing a game. Green Bay's 6-10 record partly obscured the fact that Rodgers finished with 4,038 yards passing and 28 touchdowns as a first-time starter.

"The 16 [starts] gives you some confidence, and not having the distraction we had last year makes the whole team a little more relaxed,'' Rodgers said. "But the biggest thing is the guys and how they're responding to me. After playing 16 games and, I think, showing some toughness, fighting through an injury, I think there's a respect level that grew there.''

Rodgers entered last season hoping and believing he could be the guy in Green Bay. Now that he knows he is, it shows. In the practice I saw, he was accurate, in command of the offense and very much the on-field leader of the Packers. I'd be surprised if he doesn't top the numbers he put up last year, including that victory total.

2. It's so quiet in Packers camp you can hear a chin strap drop. What a difference a year makes. The Favre Crisis of 2008 pretty much blew up Green Bay's training camp last summer, as the national media descended upon the team and the long, ugly soap opera played out. But this year, with the exception of first-round defensive tackle B.J. Raji remaining unsigned, all is almost ... tranquil. And the players, coaches and team's front office officials are loving the focus being so squarely on the upcoming season.

"I like where we're at right now,'' Rodgers said. "We're flying under the radar. Everybody's talking about Chicago and Jay Cutler, Detroit with [Matthew] Stafford and Minnesota, with that whole circus that was out there. We're kind of like the '07 team, I hope. We came off an 8-8 season from '06 and nobody was really talking about us, but we went 13-3. We had a down year last year and nobody's really talking about us now. So I think we're in a dangerous position.''

I concur. I think Green Bay could be a bounce-back team this season. The talent is there, and the lack of expectation level might wind up being a boon to the Packers. With a hot start, that 6-10 mark could get flipped to a 10-6 pretty easily this year.

3. Keep an eye on Jermichael Finley. If there's a surprise success story on the Packers' roster, more than a few folks would list the second-year tight end from Texas as the leading candidate. Veteran Donald Lee isn't about to be eclipsed in the starting lineup, but the thinking is that Finley just scratched the surface last year with his modest rookie production. A couple Packers' players mentioned the 6-5, 247-pound Finley to me, and none of them sounded more excited about his potential to improve the passing game than Rodgers.

Dom Capers is the new Green Bay defensive coordinator, and how lucky are the Packers to be transitioning to the 3-4 defense under his tutelage? It's kind of like learning the 10 Commandments from Moses himself. The Packers are Capers' fourth coaching stop in the past five seasons -- Houston as head coach in 2005, Miami as defensive coordinator in 2006-07, New England as special assistant/secondary in 2008 -- but everywhere he goes, people feel lucky to have his experience on hand. It usually takes a couple years to fully implement a 3-4, but the Packers have the pieces on hand to run it and run it well right now, with good depth at linebacker and on the defensive line.

With Raji still not signed, I focused on watching the team's other first-round pick, outside linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. It wasn't tough to find him, with that long, flowing blondish hair sticking out the back of his helmet. At the moment, Matthews is probably still slightly behind second-year man Jeremy Thompson at right outside linebacker, but he's embracing his transition to what can be a glamour pass-rushing position in the 3-4.

"It's definitely a linebackers' defense,'' Matthews said of the 3-4 formation. "You drop on some plays, you rush on others, you're coming underneath, you're man-to-man. They ask a lot of you. But when [new Packers outside linebackers coach] Kevin Greene called me right after the draft, he told me what I have to do and I was up for the challenge.''

Hang with me on this one, but here in the heart of Packer-land I did an absolute double take when I saw one of those flashing sign boards that advertises the upcoming events at a particular arena. In this case, it was the Resch Center, which is basically across the street from Lambeau Field. Every few seconds or so, the sign flashed the words: "Mike Ditka. Tuesday, September 8, Meyer Theatre.''

So how do you like that? The onetime Bears head coach coming to Green Bay to give some sort of motivational talk (he doesn't sing or dance, does he?) in the shadow of Lambeau, where he once was Public Enemy No. 1 as the face of the Packers' most historic rivals. I Googled what Ditka will talk about in Green Bay, at $36 and $51 a ticket, and found out that he'll share "lessons learned from a life of commitment and attention to the fundamentals -- and resulting victory.'' I take it from that he'll be leaving out his tenure as the Saints head coach.

I'm not trying to horn in on my colleague Peter King's trademark camp-lunch grading schtick, but I will say that Packers director of public relations Jeff Blumb invited me and ESPN's John Clayton upstairs for a quick lunch on Sunday at Lambeau, and I was surprised to find a pretty nice piece of tilapia waiting for me. Since I moved from Boston to Madison, Wis., last fall, finding good fish around my new home in the upper Midwest hasn't been the easiest of tasks. But somebody in the Packers' kitchen makes a pretty fair tilapia, if I do say so myself.

Take that, Peter.

Wow. Packers left tackle Chad Clifton had four separate "clean up'' surgeries this offseason, with arthroscopic procedures done on both shoulders and both knees. That's headed for Mark Schlereth territory. Clifton is expected to be ready to go for the regular season, but you know what they say about minor surgery. They're only minor when they're performed on someone else.

The Packers really love defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, who was on his way to big numbers last year when he tore a pectoral muscle in Week 4 at Tampa Bay and was lost for the season. Jenkins will play end in the 3-4, and perhaps slide inside to tackle in passing situations.

"Cullen Jenkins is a difference-maker,'' Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last weekend. "You could make a point, or an argument, that Cullen Jenkins may be the best or one of the best players on our football team. He's an impact player when he's in there.''

Veteran cornerback Al Harris is known for his ability to play superb press coverage, but in the 3-4, you usually have your cornerbacks back, not up near the line. He no longer will have to stay with one receiver in man coverage, running across the field in pre-snap situations when that receiver goes in motion. Now he'll be asked to stay on his side of the field and take care of his responsibilities, which could really help save the legs of the 34-year-old.

After making it clear this offseason that he wanted a new long-term deal, safety Nick Collins reported on time to camp on Saturday, erasing any fears he intended to hold out and make trouble on the contract front. That's both smart of him -- all he was going to do was lose $17,000 a day in fines -- and a very good thing for the Packers. Collins intercepted a career-best seven passes last season, returning three of them for touchdowns and going to the Pro Bowl. Green Bay needs his best efforts to help keep the Packers secondary the strength of the defense.

Linebacker Nick Barnett, coming off ACL knee surgery, is on PUP to begin camp. But he's expected to start practicing again in a few weeks, and take his place at inside linebacker in Green Bay's 3-4. Barnett is the leader of the Packers defense and wore the helmet speaker equipped with audio signals from the coaching staff in 2008. His return is a big boost to the front seven.

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