Is Eight Enough? Eight Things I'll Be Watching this Preseason

Posted July 27th, 2016 @ 07:07pm

Camp is open and the Packers are gearing up for the Hall of Fame game next weekend. As always, the most important outcome is that the players avoid the injury minefields and that the roster emerges as unscathed as possible. It seems like we're always losing a player or two before the season begins.

So as we begin the death march through five interminable preseason games, here's what I'll be paying close attention to as the Pack looks to reclaim its rightful place atop the North...in no particular order. Most interesting to me, the vast majority of my preseason scrutiny falls on the offensive side of the ball, for undoubtedly the first time in a long time:

Jordy's Recovery--The news that Nelson 'tweaked' his other knee and is on the preseason PUP was the first blow of the preseason. But for now, I'll hold off on sounding the alarm. He was unlikely to see much, if any, preseason playing time, but as he recuperates from the ACL, the more time he can practice with #12 the better. He can come off the PUP at any time in the next month and take the field immediately. As long as that happens in the next 3-4 weeks, he should have time to get his timing and conditioning back and be a factor week 1. But we'll all be monitoring Twitter for daily updates, bracing for news that could alter our hopes for the offense in 2016.

Eddie's Commitment: Being in a contract year should be enough to motivate Lacy. So should this play from the playoffs--how do you not score here? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITTEp9g7gs4  By all accounts, he is taking his nutrition seriously for the first time in his life and you have to think he understands he is in danger of losing his job. Don't know how much we'll see of Lacy in the preseason, but I'll have my eye on his girth and will pay attention to what the coaches are saying. A bounce back by Lacy could mitigate the problems in the passing game.

Hundley's Development: One of the biggest storylines when it comes to this year's roster is Hundley's move from #3 to #2--he's now one play away from being the Pack's starting QB. We saw how quickly he emerged from one preseason game to the next and there's no doubt he'll get a ton of reps in these games. I have a feeling he is going to do enough to cause other teams to come calling Ted Thompson after the season. For that reason, I'll also be watching the other QBs in these games. Sounds like McCarthy is high on Joe Callahan. He may earn a spot on the practice squad, with an eye on moving up the chart next season.

Which Rookie(s) Will Shine?--The Packers are hoping top pick Kenny Clark is ready to step right up to the line to provide much needed beef, with the loss of BJ Raji. The next two picks, Spriggs and Fackrell will hopefully play mostly a redshirt year. If the Pack's veteran, top flight offensive line can stay healthy, Spriggs can learn by watching and potentially step in next season if Bakhtiari moves on in free agency. Fackrell can watch Peppers and Matthews (with Perry and Jones rotating in) and know that this group will likely look much different next season. Fourth round pick Blake Martinez will get the opportunity this preseason to get more playing time than any of the rookies. Dom Capers and his staff would like nothing more than to believe that he can be a three down linebacker for this defense.

Speaking of Peppers and Matthews--No one is exactly sure what to make of the Al Jazeera report, whose reporter has since retracted his story. Peyton Manning's been cleared, but the NFL wants to talk to the Packers linebackers. Both players maintain their innocence, which is what you'd expect. But until this story goes away and the NFL moves on from it, it will remain this dull itch in that spot on your back that you can't quite reach.

Wide Receivers, Step Right Up: This is a maddening group with what appears to be a ton of potential, but one that struggled mightily last season. With Nelson out and Cobb unlikely to get many snaps, there will be mad tussle to sort out the depth chart. Will Jeff Janis' post-season emergence continue? Will Davante Adams bounce back from a forgettable sophomore season? Will Jared Abbrederis stay healthy enough to remain on the roster, will Ty Montgomery get past the worst ankle injury in the history of mankind? Will rookie Trevor Davis continue to shine as he has early and make a case for playing time? We've got five games to enjoy what I hope is a spirited competition.

Can the Corners Take a Step?--Last year's rookies showed us flashes of their immense potential. With Casey Hayward's departure, they'll both be counted on to be on the field almost all the time, along with Sam Shields. If Randall and Rollins are as good as they flashed last season, the Packers could have their strongest secondary in years. Both youngsters should get plenty of reps over the next five weeks.

Will Tight End Provide Production?--Richard Rodgers made some big plays, but the production at tight end has been mediocre since Finley's injury. The signing of Jared Cook was encouraging, but his foot injury has tempered that excitement. We'll see how long it takes before he's on the field, learning the offense and getting on the same page with #12. In the meantime, the other Rodgers is reportedly in the best shape of his life, no doubt challenged that the team did a rare dip into free agency to provide him with some competition. Not sure how much we'll see of either guy in games, but I'm curious as to how the depth chart changes as we get closer to Jags week.

There are always other interesting battles: will Minneapolis native John Crockett hang on to the #3 running back spot? Will the Pack bring back John Kuhn? How do the backup linemen look? Two or three of them may be starting for the team at this time next year. How strong will the competition be at inside linebacker? Can Barrington bounce back and Ryan take a big step forward? Which return guys will step forward?

Lots to watch for, but the most important thing will be to dodge any serious injuries. The roster is built to contend for a Super Bowl. With the number of guys set to test the free agency waters next year, this might be the last run for a number of longtime contributors. There is urgency in 2016. So a little luck when it comes to preseason injuries is priority number one as we prepare for a promising 2016 season.

 

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Packers Draft Recap: Size Does Matter

Posted May 1st, 2016 @ 03:05pm

My thought process going into this draft was threefold: 1) expecting the Pack to fortify its front seven; 2) an eye on addressing the offensive line (with four of the top six linemen set to hit free agency in 2017); 3) adding some skill position depth, particularly at RB and TE. Well, two out of three ain't bad.

In the end, Ted Thompson and his staff stocked both lines first and foremost, adding a couple of linebackers and a wide receiver who could take over kick return duties.

Let's break it down:

Two to count on: Super Bowl contenders like the Packers (currently the third favorite in Vegas to win it all) don't depend on the draft for a lot of immediate contributions. But two players will be counted on to step on the field and become immediate playmakers. First round pick Kenny Clark will be asked to assume the role of BJ Raji, anchoring the nose tackle spot and helping the Pack improve against the run. Though just 20, he seems mature beyond his years and seems to be up to the challenge.

Just like last year, Thompson waited until his first pick on the third day to address inside linebacker. I would have liked to see them identify a more highly regarded, athletic guy and use a day two selection at this position, but Thompson coveted his tackle and traded three picks to go up nine spots to get him (more on this in a moment). In drafting Stanford's Blake Martinez, Thompson and his army of scouts hope they found a guy who can step into the middle of the Pack's nickel coverage and become the unit's QB, tackling anything in his path, and covering running backs and tight ends. That might be a lot to ask--I still think the Pack will identify an available veteran in the coming months to compete for playing time inside.

The rare trade-up: Armed with three fourth round picks, Thompson was prepared to move up if he identified a guy he really wanted. I figured he might move up in the third round to grab a guy. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect him to trade three picks to move up nine spots in the second. But in doing so, he likely sniped the Pack's two biggest rivals, who undoubtedly were hoping Indiana's athletic, talented Jason Spriggs would be there when they picked. If all goes as we hope, Spriggs won't see the field in 2016, but will be a likely starter somewhere on the line in 2017.

We all saw what happened when one of the Pack's tackles got injured last year. Disaster--until they tried JC Tretter, who managed things adequately. With Tretter, Bakhtiari, Sitton and Lang in their final contract years, the Pack needed to prepare for a changing of the guard on the line. Spriggs will be ready to step in where ever he's called. It was an unusual move for Thompson, but one I believe we will all be very happy with, once Spriggs takes the field.

Thompson went back to the well with his final pick, grabbing his second Stanford guy, and fourth Pac 12 selection, tackle Kyle Murphy. He may end up moving inside, if that's where the free agency holes appear. At the very least, he provides depth at an invaluable position group and was smart and productive in college.

With his second compensatory pick at the end of the fourth, Thompson added another defensive lineman in former Northwestern Wildcat Dean Lowry, who has the measurables the Pack has lacked at DE since they brought in Dom Capers. With the defections and suspensions on the line, Lowry has a chance to contribute immediately, if he's up to the challenge.

What's a Kyler Fackrell? None of us likely had an idea what this was until Thompson selected him in the third round. We found out he's a tall (6'5") outside linebacker who played four years in the 3-4 at Utah State. We also learned he'll turn 25 during the season, so he should be seasoned and ready to play with the big boys, despite playing for a smaller program. Reviews from scouts were positive and he joins a group that might look a lot different next year, with Peppers and Perry possibly playing in their final seasons for the Pack.

Ted just can't resist wide receivers: Has he ever gone through a draft without nabbing one? With six receivers returning from last season, the competition will be fierce for Cal's Trevor Davis to make the team, but he adds an element most of the others lack: speed. The Pack clocked him in the mid 4.3s, and he ran 4.41 at the combine. He started out at Hawaii, before joining Jared Goff and company at Cal and quickly became a legit kick returner and reliable receiver. We all remember how injury plagued this unit was a year ago, so adding one more makes some sense. If the other six are healthy at camp, he'll have to stand out to make the team, though his special teams ability might earn him a spot.

The Pack added 17 undrafted guys immediately after the draft ended and we all know that if recent history is a clue, a few of these guys will make the final roster. A few that I'll be keeping an eye on: tight end David Grinnage. Thompson passed on this position in the draft, so the former NC State tight end should get a long look. He seems like a Richard Rodgers type--more bulk and less seam-bending ability. The Jared Cook signing lessened the need here, but Grinnage has a chance to stick.

The Pack added two running backs: Nevada's Don Jackson and Troy's Brandon Burns. Neither seem like the change of pace, third down receiving back the Packers need and I wouldn't be surprised if the Pack looks for a guy like that between now and training camp.

With Thompson ignoring the secondary this year, he signed four corners after the draft. The most intriguing to me is Northern Iowa's Makinton Dorleant, a Maryland transfer who had a big time career at UNI. There was a lot of post-draft competition for this guy but he clearly saw the path that fellow corners Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Ladarius Gunter have taken. At least one of the four has a real shot to replace Hayward and possibly the suspended Goodson.

All in all, a satisfying, if unspectacular draft for the Pack. If Clark and Martinez turn into capable starters and the defense takes a step forward after a promising year in 2015, the draft will be a resounding success, regardless of when Spriggs and the others are ready to contribute.

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Hey, Everybody, R-E-L.....

Posted April 29th, 2016 @ 02:04pm

OK, like most of you, my salivary glands began to work overtime as the first round moved into the early 20s. A run on wide receivers was beckoning, which meant Ted Thompson would likely have more options than Eddie Lacy has midday snacks.

I started to dream of Myles Jack plunked into the middle of the defense. Of course, in my dream, Jack's bones don't rub together at the knee every time he moves. I also dreamt that linebacker Reggie Ragland would fall into the Pack's hands and, while he may bring coverage concerns with him, he would have brought instant grit, toughness and an ideal inside linebacker on early downs, at the very least.

Maybe Ted would trade down. Maybe a team would freak out for a quarterback and allow Thompson to add a pick or two and slide down 8-10 picks and still get a defensive lineman he liked.

Or, he would do what he did. And it caused most of us to yawn (maybe a few of you said a naught word).

Sure, there were a million highly regarded defensive linemen on the board. But he had one he liked best. One he thought could step right in make us forget all about BJ Raji.

In Kenny Clark, Thompson saw a young (just 20 years old), talented, former wrestler who is strong enough and nimble enough to get into the backfield and stuff running backs. You could argue that finding a Raji replacement was a more critical need than inside linebacker, where Sam Barrington's return and Jake Ryan's development assure us that the cupboard is not completely bare. More on inside linebacker in a bit: I expect Thompson to find one tonight, preferably with his first pick.

The immediate reaction is: what, another UCLA guy? Great, that's four Bruins in the last three drafts The last couple Bruins picks haven't been very inspiring: Jonathan Franklin had to retire before he ever suited up and Datone Jones, another DL picked in the first round, is hoping to find new life at outside linebacker. OK, the jury is still out on Brett Hundley (early returns look promising).

Reaction #2: OK, if you're going to address the D-line, fine. But what about those 'Bama guys? Or Billings from Baylor, or Butler from La. Tech? Those are the guys we heard all the draft experts talking about.

When the Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn tabbed Clark as the pick in his mock draft yesterday, it should have prepared everyone. The guy is about as good as it gets in the nation when it comes to covering the draft. His top 100 picks are usually more spot on than anyone else's. He knew that Clark was Thompson's kind of player. One with tremendous upside, versatility and coachability.

His back story is also interesting--his father has been in prison since he was nine, serving 55 years for murder. There's a terrific story at espn.com, describing how inseparable father and son were before the fateful night. Clark's father has maintained his innocence from the start and the key witness who helped get him convicted has since recanted his testimony. The Clarks are hopeful he will be released soon. Clearly, this sad, tragic experience has caused Clark to grow up in a hurry and shaped who he has become.

So Clark will be needed to step right in and help the Pack's most decimated position, which will also be without Mike Pennel for the first quarter of the season. I expect Thompson to draft another lineman this weekend and bring in a couple more after the draft.

As for rounds two and three, I would be surprised, disappointed and aggravated if Thompson doesn't find an inside linebacker on Friday. My favorite is Temple's Tyler Matakevich, a four year starter and tackling machine. Other names to watch: Mizzou's Kentrell Brothers and Arizona's Scooby Wright (from Thompson's favorite conference).

The other Friday selection? I'd say it will likely be an offensive lineman or an outside linebacker...followed by tight end or running back.

Parting thoughts: deep breaths everyone. Let's look at the class as a whole after the weekend and remember that Thompson is pretty damn good at this. He's built a roster that's the envy of most organizations and his work on day three and after the draft is as good as anyone's.

Drafting Clark is a good start. Not a sexy start. But a solid, 'let's make sure we can stop the run and not allow teams to double team Mike Daniels all day' start. On to Day 2.

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Hey Dave, I hate the packers.  I hate packer fans.  But just like I struggled to hate Favre and I struggle to hate Rodgers, I also struggle to hate you, cause you're so damn good at what you do. Good to hear you and double T in primetime.  No one else I'd rather hear filling in for bump.  Merry Christmas to you fellas. Go Vikes.--Big Cat 

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