Packer Plus - - News - Michael Co­hen

Sto­ry­lines worth fol­low­ing into the sum­mer

— When­ever teams make large-scale changes to their coach­ing staffs, as the Green Bay Pack­ers did in Jan­uary, there is a hon­ey­moon pe­riod that stretches through spring and sum­mer. The build­ing buzzes, the play­ers are ex­cited and the am­bi­ence of it all re­sem­bles a months-long re­lease of en­dor­phins.

Such is the at­mos­phere at Lam­beau Field this week as the Pack­ers be­gin their or­ga­nized team ac­tiv­i­ties. They will take the field in three- and four-day bursts from now through mid-June, at which point the three-day manda­tory mini­camp is a gate­way to sev­eral weeks of va­ca­tion.

The OTAs be­gin this week, with Tues­day’s ses­sion the first of three that will be open to the pub­lic (the oth­ers are May 31 and June 4). All prac­tices will be be­gin at 11:30 a.m. on Ray Nitschke Field, weather per­mit­ting.

Even with­out pads, the forth­com­ing prac­tices are cru­cial for an or­ga­ni­za­tion seek­ing sta­bil­ity af­ter an off-sea­son of wide­spread mod­i­fi­ca­tion. For the coaches, OTAs and mini­camp of­fer the chance to in­stall the of­fense and de­fense with an ac­tual foot­ball field at their dis­posal. Con­cepts are trans­ferred from white board to field turf as new as­sis­tants on of­fense and de­fense co­a­lesce for the first time.

And for the play­ers, who re­ported back to Green Bay in mid-April for the start of the off-sea­son pro­gram, the next few weeks will serve as a re­boot from last year’s cata­to­nia. Those who un­der­achieved can start anew, and ev­ery­one can make first im­pres­sions for of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Joe Philbin and de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mike Pet­tine.

With that mind, here are five sto­ry­lines to watch from now through midJune:

Kizer vs. Hund­ley

One of the most ob­vi­ous take­aways from a sea­son marred by a sig­nif­i­cant in­jury to quar­ter­back Aaron Rodgers was the Pack­ers’ fail­ure to pro­duce a re­li­able backup. Brett Hund­ley, a fifthround pick in 2015, sim­ply couldn’t rise to the oc­ca­sion.

That the Pack­ers needed to ad­dress the po­si­tion was ob­vi­ous, but the man­ner in which they planned to do so re­mained a mys­tery: Would new gen­eral man­ager Brian Gutekunst seek a Scott Tolzien-like veteran who gained ex­pe­ri­ence some­where else? Or would the Pack­ers draft a passer with one of their plen­ti­ful Day 3 picks?

The an­swer, of course, was nei­ther. Gutekunst pushed those op­tions aside in fa­vor of a high-pro­file trade with the Cleve­land Browns. He sent for­mer firstround pick Da­mar­i­ous Ran­dall to Cleve­land, and the Browns shipped for­mer sec­ond-round pick DeShone Kizer to Green Bay. Sweet­en­ing the deal was an ex­change of draft picks that im­proved the Pack­ers’ draft­ing po­si­tion in the later rounds, but the acquisition of a quar­ter­back stole the head­lines.

Kizer, 22, started 15 games for the Browns last sea­son and won none. He threw twice as many in­ter­cep­tions (22) as touch­downs passes (11) and com­pleted only 53.6% of his at­tempts. His passer rat­ing of 60.5 was low­est in the league among 32 qual­i­fied play­ers.

But the Pack­ers have liked Kizer for quite some time; they even con­sid­ered se­lect­ing him in last year’s draft. Now he will com­pete with Hund­ley for the right to be Rodgers’ backup, and there’s a de­cent chance only one of them will make the 53-man ros­ter come Septem­ber.

Depth at out­side line­backer

Gutekunst waited un­til his fi­nal pick of the draft to ad­dress a po­si­tion many peo­ple con­sid­ered the Pack­ers’ most glar­ing de­fi­ciency. With the 248th over­all se­lec­tion — his third choice in the sev­enth round — Gutekunst fi­nally added an out­side line­backer in Ken­dall Don­ner­son of South­east Mis­souri State.

While there is still plenty of time to add a veteran pres­ence, the de­ci­sion to avoid one of the draft’s weaker po­si­tions sig­nals at least a mod­er­ate sense of be­lief in the younger pass rush­ers al­ready on the ros­ter. Aside from Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, who will play the ma­jor­ity of snaps if healthy, it’s the trio of Kyler Fack­rell (third-round pick in 2016), Vince Biegel (fourth-round pick in 2017) and Reg­gie Gil­bert (un­drafted free agent in 2016) that needs to raise its level of play.

Dur­ing the rookie ori­en­ta­tion camp, coach Mike McCarthy spoke glow­ingly of Gil­bert and his de­vel­op­ment over the last two years. Gil­bert fi­nally was pro­moted to the ac­tive ros­ter in De­cem­ber and earned sig­nif­i­cant play­ing time in the fi­nal two games of the reg­u­lar sea­son. He reg­is­tered his first sack in the finale against the Detroit Lions.

If Gil­bert’s strong off-sea­son car­ries over to OTAs and train­ing camp, it’s pos­si­ble he would en­ter the reg­u­lar sea­son as the No. 3 out­side line­backer be­hind Matthews and Perry.

Ei­ther way, the Pack­ers still need larger con­tri­bu­tions from Biegel, who can reap the ben­e­fits of a full off-sea­son af­ter dou­ble foot surgery landed him on the phys­i­cally un­able to per­form (PUP) list last sum­mer, and Fack­rell, who largely has un­der­achieved with five sacks in 29 ca­reer games as a for­mer third-round pick.

Run­ning backs ga­lore

A re­volv­ing door of in­juries at the tail­back po­si­tion meant the Pack­ers fin­ished the reg­u­lar sea­son with four play­ers gain­ing at least 270 yards on the ground. They were, in de­creas­ing or­der of pro­duc­tion: Ja­maal Williams (153 car­ries, 566 yards, 3.6 avg.), Aaron Jones (81, 448, 5.5), Ty Mont­gomery (71, 273, 3.8) and Hund­ley (36, 270, 7.5).

With ev­ery­one back at full health, the com­pe­ti­tion for play­ing time starts fresh dur­ing OTAs.

Hav­ing ripped off six runs of 20 yards or more — an av­er­age of one every 13.5 snaps — Jones demon­strated a type of ex­plo­sive­ness only he pos­sesses. His

burst through the line of scrim­mage was tremen­dous, ev­i­denced by an elite yards-per-carry av­er­age, and he rushed for 256 com­bined yards in the first two starts of his ca­reer.

But a pair of knee in­juries lim­ited Jones to 12 games as a rookie, and af­ter the sea­son run­ning backs coach Ben Sir­mans said his pro­tégé must get stronger. If Jones suc­ceeds and stays healthy, the Pack­ers would be re­miss not to make him their starter.

Williams can ar­gue that he’s the best three-down back be­cause of his skills in pass pro­tec­tion. And Mont­gomery is per­haps the most ver­sa­tile given his back­ground at wide re­ceiver. But nei­ther of them can match Jones’ break­away po­ten­tial.

De­vante Mays, a sev­enth-round pick in 2017, will be look­ing to crack the ro­ta­tion as well af­ter fum­bling on the first two car­ries of his ca­reer. He fin­ished the sea­son with four car­ries for 1 yard.

Find­ing a right tackle

Every re­cov­ery is dif­fer­ent. That has be­come McCarthy’s go-to line when asked about right tackle Bryan Bu­laga, who suf­fered a torn ACL on Nov. 6. Will Bu­laga be ready for the sea­son opener? What about train­ing camp? Will he start the year on PUP?

Logic dic­tates Bu­laga won’t be healthy un­til Septem­ber or Oc­to­ber at the ear­li­est, es­pe­cially when com­pared to the time­line of for­mer Pack­ers wide re­ceiver Jordy Nel­son, now with the Oak­land Raiders. Nel­son tore his ACL dur­ing an exhibition game in 2015 and sat out a full cal­en­dar year be­fore re­turn­ing for the sea­son opener in 2016. If Bu­laga’s re­cov­ery fol­lows a sim­i­lar pace — or if the med­i­cal staff ex­hibits a sim­i­lar level of cau­tion — the chances of him suit­ing up for the first few weeks of 2018 are slim.

With that in mind, OTAs and train­ing camp take on even greater im­por­tance for backup tack­les Ja­son Spriggs and Kyle Mur­phy, both of whom made a hand­ful of starts last sea­son. Spriggs in par­tic­u­lar needs a strong off-sea­son to boost his con­fi­dence af­ter two sub­par years. He looked over­whelmed as a rookie in 2016, ap­pear­ing in all 16 games and start­ing two, and then flopped badly in train­ing camp be­fore his sec­ond sea­son.

The sil­ver lin­ing, though, was an uptick in per­for­mance af­ter Spriggs came back from in­jured re­serve late last sea­son. With Bu­laga and Mur­phy (foot surgery) al­ready on in­jured re­serve, Spriggs started the fi­nal five games at right tackle and flashed no­tice­able signs of im­prove­ment.

How­ever, ex­pect Mur­phy to snag the start­ing job if Spriggs fal­ters again this sum­mer.

Cor­ner­back learn­ing curve

Given the amount of cap­i­tal the Pack­ers have in­vested at cor­ner­back in re­cent years — first- and sec­on­dround picks in 2015; sec­ond-round pick in 2017; first- and sec­ond-round picks in 2018 — Gutekunst will be cross­ing his fin­gers that rook­ies Jaire Alexander and Josh Jack­son live up to ex­pec­ta­tions. Ran­dall and Quin­ten Rollins ap­pear to be mis­fires, and two more swings and misses with top draft picks would set the or­ga­ni­za­tion back even fur­ther.

With Kevin King en­trenched at one of the start­ing po­si­tions, veter­ans Davon House and Tra­mon Williams will serve as a tem­po­rary buf­fer for Jack­son as he ad­justs to play­ing the perime­ter in the Na­tional Foot­ball League. The Pack­ers can sur­vive with House and Williams play­ing starter’s reps for at least the early part of the sea­son.

In con­trast, Alexander has an op­por­tu­nity to crack the start­ing lineup im­me­di­ately as Pet­tine’s nickel cor­ner. Alexander has the speed, ath­leti­cism and ball-hawk­ing in­stincts to in­flu­ence the game like for­mer Pack­ers cor­ner­back Casey Hay­ward did in his rookie sea­son. Hay­ward, a sec­ond-round pick, had six in­ter­cep­tions and 21 passes de­fended in 2012 be­fore fail­ing to match that out­put for the re­main­der of his time in Green Bay.

With five cor­ners all but as­sured to make the team — Williams, House, King, Alexander, Jack­son — the fu­ture is un­cer­tain for Rollins, who is com­ing off surgery to re­pair a torn Achilles, and the hand­ful of for­mer un­drafted rook­ies who have pop­u­lated the locker room in re­cent years. The de­vel­op­men­tal pe­riod is over for Josh Hawkins, Lenzy Pip­kins, Donatello Brown and Herb Wa­ters be­cause there aren’t enough ros­ter spots to go around.

Let the com­pe­ti­tion be­gin.


Aaron Jones ap­pears to be at the top of a crowded field of run­ning backs in Green Bay.

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