GREEN BAY, Wis. – For three decades, the Green Bay Packers have rolled into seasons with Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers as their starting quarterback.
That was then. This is now.
Day 1 of the two-day rookie camp on Friday served as an unofficial turning of the calendar to the 2021 NFL season. Rodgers, obviously, wouldn’t have been present for a rookie camp. But, because of his feud with the franchise, the quarterbacks in the spotlight were Blake Bortles, Kurt Benkert and Chad Kelly.
With Rodgers’ future with the Packers shrouded in uncertainty, the team signed the veteran Bortles this week.
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The third pick of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Bortles enjoyed his best season in the NFL in 2017. With Nathaniel Hackett as the offensive coordinator, the Jaguars reached the AFC Championship Game but couldn’t hold off the New England Patriots.
With Hackett in Year 3 as Green Bay’s offensive coordinator and Bortles having some background in the offense after spending the 2019 season with the Los Angeles Rams, the Packers signed him as the critical veteran insurance policy at a position in which only Rodgers and Jordan Love are under contract.
“You’re always going to have three if not four guys in an offseason program and in training camp,” coach Matt LaFleur said after Friday’s rookie practice. “Blake’s familiarity with Hackett, with being in the Rams’ offense, with a lot of carryover in terminology and just his overall experience in this league – this is a guy that started a lot of games and has had a lot of success. Shoot, he led his team to the AFC Championship Game they were close to knocking off the Patriots in New England. He’s got a lot of experience and that’s something that you can never take for granted.”
Especially not this year, with the Packers trying to convince the three-time MVP to return to the team he’s led to back-to-back NFC Championship Games.
Under normal circumstances, the Packers might have added a late-round draft pick or undrafted free agent to the quarterback depth chart to have three arms for the offseason practices. However, these obviously aren’t normal circumstances. Maybe, if necessary, Love will be ready to start in Week 1, but that can’t be assumed after he spent all of his rookie season as the No. 3 quarterback. Thus, the signing of Bortles.
With Love and Bortles ineligible to participate in the rookie camp, Benkert and Kelly were invited as tryout players. They are the only quarterbacks available for the rookie camp and could be vying for a place on the offseason roster.
“I thought both those guys did a nice job,” LaFleur said. “Kurt’s had some experience in this league and Chad, I’m sure you’re all familiar with his past but I think he’s overcome that. He’s a talented thrower. It’s very effortless and natural. I thought both those guys did an outstanding job today.”
The Packers had 28 players on Friday’s roster, including nine draft picks, seven undrafted rookies and seven first-year players who ended last season on the team. Usually, somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 players would be on the field for this camp. However, due to COVID-19, the league is allowing only five tryout players. Green Bay had just three – the quarterbacks and linebacker Alvin Jones, the brother of star running back Aaron Jones.
It will be a fuller roster for the start of organized team activities on May 24. The three weeks of voluntary practices (May 24, 25 and 27, June 1, 2 and , and June 14, 15 and 17) will be split by the mandatory minicamp, which is scheduled for June 8 through June 10.
With COVID and player health and safety as a backdrop, veterans around the league have said they would not participate in the voluntary workouts. For years, the Packers have enjoyed nearly 100 percent participation in the voluntary practices. That might not be the case this year.
“We’ve kind of polled each position group and wanted to know who’s going to show up,” LaFleur said, “because we just want to have an efficient schedule for the guys that are here. Obviously, as a coach, you’d love everybody to be here. However, it is voluntary, so you can’t force that upon anybody.”