Ten Things I'll Be Watching this Preseason

Posted July 19th, 2017 @ 02:07pm

With training camp set to open next week, it's high time to dive in to the 2017 season, a season where anything less than a trip to US Bank Stadium in February will be a disappointment.

As usual, virtually all of the indispensable players return--only the departure of TJ Lang will sting (though the signing of veteran Jahri Evans as a short-term replacement should soften the blow). With a new draft class and some actual living, breathing free agents signed from other teams, there will be no shortage of fresh faces to watch this summer. There are also some compelling storylines to pay attention to.

Here are my ten most intriguing things to watch at during training camp and through the preseason, in no particular order:

1. The new (and old) CBs: The group that took the field in Atlanta in the NFC title game was overmatched and overwhelmed. With the drafting of Kevin King and the signing of Davon House, the Pack figures to have brand new starters on the outside this season. That will allow Damarius Randall to play on the inside, where he's got a better chance to make plays. If King and House look comfortable this summer, it could have the biggest impact on the defense going forward. LaDarius Gunter will get a chance to compete as well, as will Quinten Rollins. At the very least, it's a more competitive group, with Randall and Rollins getting the hint that this will be a prove it or lose it season.

2. Montgomery's development at RB: When injuries forced him to switch positions midseason, it sparked reactions that the team was panicking. He quickly showed his potential and natural ability at the position that he grew up playing. His December game against the Bears was the best performance by a Packer RB since the Ahman Green era. With an offseason to get his body and mind ready, he has a chance to be a surprise breakout star at the position. He figures to get more work this preseason than a traditional starting RB, so it will be fun to see him pick up where he left off.

3. The OLB Group: The issue here is proven depth. There really is none, so we will all be watching the contenders to see if they appear ready to grab their opportunity. It's hard to  imagine Clay Matthews and Nick Perry getting a ton of reps, as valuable as they are to the team's prospects. With the departures of Julius Peppers and Datone Jones, the top backups are now second year guy Kyler Fackrell and Jarone Elliott. Rookie Vince Biegel has a golden opportunity to grab the #3 role, but he's recovering from foot surgery and appears unlikely to hit the field for at least a few weeks. That will slow his development. Hopefully he'll heal up in time to play in the last couple of preseason games.

4. Two tight end looks: The biggest shocker of the offseason was Ted Thompson doubling down at tight end in free agency. The signing of Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks gives Mike McCarthy a chance to diversify the offense. Expect McCarthy to borrow from the Pats playbook a bit, hearkening back to the Gronk-Hernandez days, and allowing McCarthy to use Bennett as an inline tight end, where he can block (one of his strengths) or break into a route. When you add in the Pack's three 1,000 yard receivers, the offense should be as lethal and unpredictable as ever. We'll get our first glimpse in August.

5. Josh Jones: The Pack's second second round pick is getting lots of hype and was targeted by the Pack's scouts for nearly a year. It sounds like he will step into the Micah Hyde role (minus the returner part) and be a part of the nickel and dime formations (which would put him on the field most of the time). We're being told he's a true playmaker and has the ambition and drive to be the best. He figures to get a ton of reps this summer so it will be fun to see what he's got. If he can bring some nastiness and toughness as is expected, he'll be a welcome addition to the unit.

6. WR Competition: The top three receivers are obviously locked in, and Geronimo Allison has the inside track at the #4 spot. After that, there are six guys competing for two or three spots. It seems likely the Pack will keep seven like they did last year, unless injuries or performance changes the dynamic. Jeff Janis is on the bubble, though his special teams chops gives him a chance to stick for one more season. Second year guy Trevor Davis is the fastest receiver on the roster, but he'll be pushed by the two rookies, Yancey and Dupree. Maybe one of them lands on the practice squad, but if they shine in the preseason, someone could pluck them away (there's a good chance several GMs are kicking themselves for not sniping Allison after the promise he showed last preseason). Throw in Max McCaffrey, a holdover from last year's practice squad and intriguing 6'6" and 21 year old rookie Michael Clarke, out of Marshall, and there will be a whole lot receivers to keep an eye on this summer.

7. Hundley's next step: An injury robbed him of last year's preseason, so this will be a pivotal summer for him. In a perfect world, he shows command of the offense, a strong arm and an ability to use his legs when needed in leading the Pack's offense for a good part of each preseason game. The Pack is most certainly looking to move him before next year's draft and his August audition will go a long way in identifying a suitor, as well as the degree of compensation. His development is even more important since he's a heartbeat away from being the starter for a Super Bowl contender. Should Rodgers miss any time this season, we'll all feel a teensy bit better if Hundley looks capable this August.

8. Cory Linsley's health: Over the past few seasons, it's always seemed like either Linsley or JC Tretter has been hurt. When one is down, the other is ready to step into his spot. With Tretter gone after cashing in in Cleveland, the Pack has lost its security blanket at center. And Linsley is dealing with another injury, recuperating from ankle surgery and will likely start the summer on the PUP list. Suddenly Don Barclay may be back on our radar (shudders). Will someone step up and look the part as Linsley's backup? Will Linsley be healthy to play any preseason games? With the changing of the guard on the offensive line, the unit could use some reps with its preferred starting five. The team is counting on Linsley being ready. We'll be watching.

9. Running back derby: After Montgomery, the running back depth chart is wide open. With Thompson drafting three of them, it will be fascinating to watch the competition unfold. Jamaal Williams appears to have the most upside, but Aaron Jones could become a nice third down option. And don't sleep on Mays, who's built like a truck and has made a living at being overlooked. All three will get plenty of game action. They're likely fighting for two spots on the 53 man roster.

10. Justin who? Back in the spring, the Pack cut punter Jason Schum and replaced him with former Miami Hurricane Justin Vogel. It's one of those transactions that takes on a lot more weight as we get closer to the regular season. I'm a little leery about depending on a rookie punter, especially when I start thinking about bad weather games late in the season. But Schum was underwhelming and if Vogel stumbles, the team can probably find a capable replacement on the street. But it would be nice to see Vogel shine this summer. I know I'll be paying close attention every time he takes a snap.

There are other compelling storylines, like who will claim the returner jobs and how much  Jahri Evans has left in the tank. Or the number of snaps Rodgers gets in the preseason games and the development of second year D-linemen Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry.

It will make for a fascinating August, as the Pack looks to build on last season's furious finish. The first month figures to be the toughest on the schedule, with road games in Atlanta and Dallas. A quick start will go a long way in determining whether there are any games at Lambeau next January--which will greatly enhance the chances of attaining something we're all dreaming about: that invitation to the big game at the People's Stadium.

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Packers Draft for Need and Add Some Speed

Posted May 2nd, 2017 @ 03:05pm

As you know, it's ridiculous to grade a team's draft class just hours after the final pick is made. That's why I've waited three whole days to weigh in. Let some time go by, let things marinate a bit. Gain a little perspective.

All kidding aside, I like what Ted Thompson and his staff accomplished. They ended up with two more picks than they started with and added ten guys in what was considered an unusually deep draft class. Leading up to the draft, we heard how deep it was for defensive backs and running backs--two obvious need spots for the Pack and the team used half of its picks on those two positions. Their biggest need was on the back end of the defense and it appears they have plugged the holes left by the departures of Sam Shields and Micah Hyde.

All right, let's start at the top. The trade out of 29 made a lot of sense, especially considering they apparently were not enamored with JJ Watt there, as has been reported. They were happy to move back to the top of round two, and reportedly went to sleep that night debating between running back Dalvin Cook and corner Kevin King.

If you listened to "In the Zone" Saturday morning, you know I had been drooling over the prospect of Cook joining the Pack's backfield. With that QB, that line and those receiving weapons, Cook could have made an explosive impact on the offense. With the amount of points this offense could put up, it may not matter how improved the defense is. Of course, Cook came with baggage: off field problems beginning six years ago, three shoulder surgeries and a propensity to fumble.

King, on the other hand, is a baggage-free traveler. He represents everything the Packers' secondary is lacking: size (6'3") and speed (4.41). Barring injury, he will be penciled in to a starting spot on the outside and if he looks up to the challenge during camp, will likely get tossed into the fire early, with matchups against the likes of Julio Jones, AJ Green and Dez in the first five weeks. Pre-draft, I was hoping the Pack might take his Huskie teammate, Sidney Jones at the bottom of the second--he went in the middle of that round. Jones may have more upside long-term, but his Achilles injury puts his rookie season in doubt and the Pack needs immediate help.

With their second pick in the round the Packers selected a guy none of us has ever heard of (except for Larry, of course, who's been trumpeting Jones for months--sorry, Larry, couldn't resist). At first blush, I scratched my head a bit. I knew there were no pass rushers left that warranted a pick there, but I thought they might be in love with a running back like Kamara or even another corner.

After watching highlights and listening to the talking heads, I understood the pick to be what it was: an immediate replacement for Micah Hyde and a possible successor to Morgan Burnett, who will be a free agent after this season.

King and Jones are here to take over for Shields and Hyde and give the Pack's secondary precisely what it lacked: much better size and speed to match up with today's NFL offenses. They will both be expected to step right in and make immediate contributions.

Selecting defensive tackle Montravious Adams was one of those cliche value picks, a guy with all of the measurable you're looking for at that spot. He's a guy who broke through this past season after two disappointing years. If the light bulb finally came on, he could be  just what the doctor ordered for a team that suddenly has some nice depth at an important position (though his comparisons to Jerel Worthy are a bit troublesome).

If Adams looks like the real deal, he'll have a shot to join Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark as mainstays on the line. Leroy Guion is running out of chances and the other guys are still finding their way (Lowry, Ringo and Price).

Saturday morning the Packers were on the clock again (kind of fun to be on the clock to open two days of the draft, wasn't it?) and running back or pass rusher seemed to be the choice. With all three picks on the defensive side so far, I thought they might grab the former Sooner bruiser Perine, though there were a number of pretty good running backs still on the board.

The Biegel pick had to have most of you loyal readers jumping for joy. I don't watch a lot of Badger games, so I wasn't that dialed in on what kind of talent he had. His abilities aside, it's awesome to see a Wisconsin Rapids kid who was named for Vince Lombardi, born into a family of diehard Packer fans join his favorite team. I'm guessing the Pro Shop will sell thousands of Biegel 45 jerseys--second only to #12.

Biegel will get the opportunity to leapfrog past Jayrone Elliott and Kyler Fackrell on the depth chart and if he's the real deal, might allow Dom Capers to move Clay Matthews all over the field. Once again, Thompson pretty much avoided the inside linebacker position in the draft, so Matthews could prove to very valuable there, when needed.

Six picks to go for Thompson and his staff and it was time to grab some offensive players. I would never have believed he would take all offensive guys the rest of the way, with five of them being skill position players. The talker, of course, was the fact that three running backs were picked--first time the team has done that since '74 (Barty Smith, Don Woods and Eric Torkelson). Did you know that in the 15th round of that draft the Pack picked a tackle from Pitt named Dave Wannstedt? He never saw the field.

By waiting so long to address the position, Thompson figured if he took three of them, there was a chance that two would show enough to better than what the team currently had behind Ty Montgomery. Monday's release of Don Jackson and Christine Michael let the rookies know that the opportunity is there for two of them to make the team. Let the competition begin. Jamaal Williams, from BYU, looks like the best bet to have a chance at significant carries, but Aaron Jones was also very productive at UTEP and projects as more of a third down guy, so he could get a chance to contribute right away. The seventh rounder, Devante Mays, is the longest shot, but will be motivated to beat one of the other guys out.

It was a surprise to me that the Pack selected two wide receivers. It tells me that the three guys at the bottom of the depth chart: Janis, Allison and Davis will all have to prove they deserve a roster spot in 2017. Janis has earned his stripes on special teams, but as a fourth year guy, his time might be running out. Allison might face a suspension after a pot arrest and Davis needs to make a jump in year two.

Of the two new receivers, the 7th round pick, Malachi Dupre from LSU is the most intriguing. He was projected as a third or fourth rounder--he lacked production in college because LSU couldn't throw the ball, electing to hand off to Leonard Fournette most of the time. He's 6'2" with great hands and decent speed. With solid coaching and a real live QB throwing him the ball, he may project more upside than the three incumbents I mentioned earlier.

The Deangelo Yancey pick in the fifth round was, to me, the worst pick of the draft and I'm not just saying that because he went to Purdon't, I mean, Purdue. He was projected to be a seventh rounder or priority free agent, because he has a hard time getting open off press coverage and his hands are not great. He has size and decent speed and will get a shot on the outside, where the team needs some speed, but I would think Davis has a better shot than Yancey to stick.

I thought Thompson would pick two offensive linemen in this draft, but the draft eve signing of veteran guard Jahri Evans allowed him to get away with just one. South Florida's Kofi Amichia was a tackle in college, who will move inside and learn how to play guard. Watching Evans, a four-time all pro, should help him learn the ropes. He was a first team all-AAC pick at left tackle, so he's got some talent and could be in line to take over at right guard in 2018.

Following the draft, the Pack added 15 free agents and if history is our guide, several will have a good chance to make the team. Looking at the list, I give these guys the best shot: OLB Johnathan Calvin, Mississippi St, OL Geoff Gray, Manitoba, Adam Pankey, G, West Virginia and punter Justin Vogel, from Miami, who will challenge Jason Schum.

So overall, the Pack looks bigger and faster in the secondary, they have a familiar pass rusher who has a chance to take Julius Peppers' snaps and a handful of running backs to complement Montgomery. If King, Jones and Biegel can become playmakers on defense and one of the running backs pops, this draft will deserve the letter grade that most analysts have already assigned them, A-/B+.

 

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On the Pack's Schedule and the First Round

Posted April 25th, 2017 @ 04:04pm

With the draft fast approaching, I'd figured I'd stop by and provide my obligatory guess on what might go down in Round 1. But first, some thoughts on the Pack's 2017 schedule.

This one's a lot less than funky than last year's, with some quirks. The Packers will play at 3:25 three times in the first five weeks, and then not again all season. They don't have a noon start until week 6 at Minnesota. They close with four of six on the road and as usual, have five prime time games, three at home.

Let's break it down as things stand right now.

The schedule is toughest on paper early, with games against the three other prime NFC contenders in the first five weeks. If the Pack goes 1-2 against Seattle, Atlanta and Dallas, they'll likely take care of the Bears and Bengals at home. That puts them at 3-2 and probably trailing the Vikes early on, prompting plenty of chatter from our Purple-loving friends, most of whom will have no recollection of how last year went down.

The Pack will get some US Bank revenge in week 6 and will head home to take care of AP and the Saints as they head into the bye at 5-2.

The schedule softens a bit after the bye, with a Monday night home game against the Lions and a trip to our home away from home, Soldier Field. Then the Ravens come to town. The Pack will be strong favorites in all three games: 8-2. Then comes a Sunday night game at Pittsburgh and the Packers drop their third game of the season. 8-3 heading into December.

The Packers will likely be favored in all of the remaining games, but will drop one (maybe two) of them, probably in Carolina. They should handle Tampa Bay at home and Cleveland on the road. A loss in Carolina would drop them to 10-4, but the prime time home game against the Vikes will be a win. That brings us to the finale in Detroit. You never know what the motivations will be on this day, but I'll begrudgingly give it to the Lions. The Pack finishes at 11-5, good enough to win the North. Good enough for a top 2 seed? Let's hope so.

First Round Mock

1. Cleveland--Miles Garrett, DE/OLB, Texas A&M

2. San Francisco--Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford

3. Chicago--Jamal Adams, S, LSU

4. Jacksonville--Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

5. Cleveland (trade)--Mitchell Trubisky, QB, UNC

6. N.Y. Jets--Deshawn Watson, QB, Clemson

7. San Diego--Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio St.

8. Carolina--Christian McCaffrey, RB/WR, Stanford

9. Cincinnati--Jonathan Allen, DL, Alabama

10. Buffalo--OJ Howard, TE, Alabama

11. New Orleans--Malik Hooker, S, Ohio St.

12. Tennessee (from Cleveland)--M. Williams, WR, Clemson

13. Arizona--Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech

14. Philadelphia--Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State

15. Indianapolis--Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama

16. Baltimore--Corey Davis, RB, W. Michigan

17. Washington--Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee

18. Tennessee--Tre'Davious White, CB, LSU

19. Tampa Bay--John Ross, WR, Washington

20. Denver--Ryan Ramczyk, T, Wisconsin

21. Detroit--Hassan Reddick, LB, Temple

22. Miami--Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama

23. N.Y. Giants--Cam Robinson, T, Alabama

24. Oakland--David Njoku, TE, Miami

25. Houston--Kevin King, CB, Washington

26. Seattle--Takkarist McKinley, LB, UCLA

27. Kansas City--Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida

28. Dallas--Charles Harris, LB, Missouri

29. Packers--T.J. Watt, LB, Wisconsin (Ooh, Dalvin Cook is still on the board, Should the Pack take him, despite the injury and off field concerns? The dude is electric).

30. Pittsburgh--Jabrill Peppers, S/LB, Michigan

31. Atlanta--Forrest Lamp, G, W. Kentucky

32. New Orleans--Adoree Jackson, CB, Colorado

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