Julius Peppers. (Morry Gash/AP)
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The 17th day of Packers camp was a rare one: closed to the public, which meant the only noises coming from the Ray Nitschke outdoor practice field were the very frequent thudding of pads and an oppressively loud mixture of pop music and a simulated crowd emanating from a bay of speakers on the sideline. Unlike some of the other stops on the tour, there was plenty to see, with over 30 minutes spent in team 11-on-11 sessions, with a lot of pop. All the principles were in attendance—coach Mike McCarthy, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, headline free-agent pickup Julius Peppers, and even Ron Wolf, former GM and architect of the Brett Favre Era in Titletown.
One vivid memory from watching practice
The fights! There were at least three scuffles of note, most of them spurred by offensive and defensive linemen. In the first and most memorable tangle of the day, reserve center Garth Gerhart took umbrage with reserve defensive tackle Mike Pennel and the two had to be separated by a handful of teammates. Meanwhile, linebacker Clay Matthews came sprinting in from the sideline screaming in faux outrage, “Leave my friend alone! Leave my friend alone!” Matthews is coming off a complex second thumb surgery after missing a month in the middle of last season. He could be found on Monday jawing with running back Eddie Lacy, stirring up more fights and knifing into the backfield off the edge. Nobody was more excited to be on a football field.
How this team can go 12–4
Aaron Rodgers must avoid injury in 2014 for the Packers to be a dominant team. (Simon Bruty/SI/The MMQB)
Aaron Rodgers will have to continue to be Aaron Rodgers and avoid injury, and the Packers must demonstrate that they’ve turned things around on defense. Green Bay last season gave up 4.6 yards per carry, third-worst in football. That number was somewhat skewed by the injury-plagued second half of the season (in weeks 12 and 13, the Vikings and Lions combined for 473 yards on the ground). Their inability to stop the run was a big reason why the Packers went without a win for a five-game stretch in November and finished 8-7-1—losing Rodgers to a broken clavicle was the biggest reason why—yet general manager Ted Thompson declined to replace inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, who are often (and correctly) viewed as liabilities in the run game. Outside linebacker Julius Peppers, an uncharacteristic free-agent splurge, is better known for his pass rushing ability. So how will defensive coordinator Dom Capers plug this leaky faucet? Unpredictability. We’ve seen both Peppers and Matthews move around the defensive line in practice, and head coach Mike McCarthy earlier this offseason relayed a plan to vary personnel groups in less obvious ways.
How this team can go 4–12
Green Bay’s defense would have to be historically bad, and in this camp, with the recent additions, that’s just not possible. Peppers has some dominance left at 34, and the team drafted Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round to eventually take over for Micah Hyde (who was a bright spot as a nickel DB last season). On offense, Green Bay still needs a tight end who can contribute in the passing game, but the combination of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy gives Aaron Rodgers plenty to work with (and enough to avoid disaster). One wild card: With center Evan Dietrich-Smith having left via the free-agent route, second-year pro JC Tretter and rookie Corey Linsley are in a camp competition. To understand the negative impact an inexperienced center can have on an offense, see the 2013 Baltimore Ravens.
Now, from fantasyland …
1. After breaking his clavicle last season, Aaron Rodgers is throwing with velocity once again, as exhibited by one 25-yard bullet to a falling Randall Cobb for a touchdown during drills on Monday. He’s also armed with a special running back who can catch the ball, something Green Bay hasn’t enjoyed since Brett Favre had Ahman Green.
Catch up on all of The MMQB’s coverage of Green Bay’s training camp
Before missing last season with a broken leg, wide receiver Randall Cobb had shown flashes of greatness despite playing less than half of Green Bay’s offensive snaps in two seasons. Now that James Jones is out, Cobb figures to see a lot more of the field and many more targets.
3. Last season’s rookie of the year, Eddie Lacy, gained 1,178 yards rushing last year, 516 of them during seven games without Aaron Rodgers commanding the respect of opposing secondaries. If Rodgers stays healthy, expect bigger and better things from Lacy.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
JC Tretter / Corey Linsley
Andrew Quarless / Brandon Bostick / Richard Rodgers
Micah Hyde / Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Hyde is in an entirely new role at safety after a productive season as a nickel corner. The maturation of Clinton-Dix could send Hyde back to his comfort zone, but coaches will have to see much more from the rookie during the preseason. Andrew Quarless is the next man up at tight end following the loss of Jermichael Finley, but keep in mind that the team used a third-round pick on Richard Rodgers out of Cal instead of drafting, say, a linebacker. Tretter didn’t start playing center until he reached the NFL out of Cornell, but his year in the system helps with an early edge over Linsley, the fifth-rounder out of Ohio State.
Know Thy Enemy
Best new player in camp
Peppers doesn’t do much in practice—beat writers say they’ve seen him in one-on-one drills only a handful of times—but he thrives in 11-on-11. He collected a couple of would-be sacks against backup tackle Aaron Adams and stood up strong against the run. Here’s where the Packers need Peppers: Last season Green Bay missed a total of 116 tackles according to Pro Football Focus, up from 68 the year before. Hawk led the ineptitude with 13 whiffs. In two seasons, Peppers has missed a total of six tackles.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Randall Cobb will earn a big pay raise in a contract year, with a 90/1,300/10 season.
Something I’ve never seen before
Lambeau, reborn. The Packers are spending $312 million over five years (2011-2015) to renovate the historic venue, and the additions made this offseason are staggering. There's a new indoor practice facility and a reorganization of stadium amenities, including the Packers Hall of Fame and Pro Shop. The Packers are footing the bill for this five-year project. As the team practiced in the shadow of a giant convention center banner advertising an upcoming Cher concert, I wondered how this team in this tiny town in eastern Wisconsin does so well... and how come Los Angeles still doesn’t have pro football?
What I thought when I walked out of camp
If the NFC West is the best defensive division in football, the NFC North could end up setting the bar for scoring. Your North starting wide receivers are Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Alshon Jeffrey, Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson. This division race could come down to corner and safety play, and that’s where Green Bay is strongest on defense, with Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Hyde. Two playoff teams will come out of the North, and one of them will be Green Bay.