One of the Green Bay Packers' key questions going into training camp was cornerback Casey Hayward's injured hamstring.
He missed 13 games last year with that recurring problem, and the Packers' secondary felt his loss after he had six interceptions and 25 passes defended as a rookie in 2012. His health is crucial if the Packers' defensive backfield is going to be better this season than it was last year.
Well, from the practices I've watched, including Family Night on Saturday, Hayward is right where he left off after his strong rookie season. His level of play doesn't appear diminished at all. That's not always the case with guys coming off serious hamstring injuries. But it looks like he hasn't lost any quickness, and his nose for the football is always going to be there.
With Hayward in the lineup, the Packers' nickel package looks formidable. It's interesting that so far in camp they've been taking Hayward out in their dime personnel so they can get two backups, cornerback Davon House and first-round safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, on the field at least part time. But my guess is when the season starts Hayward will be back in the dime package most of the time, too.
The secondary looks better also because of the upgrade at safety with either Micah Hyde or Clinton-Dix opposite Morgan Burnett. Hyde's been working as the starter so far in camp, but I have a hard time believing Clinton-Dix won't play a big role this season. There were a couple running plays on Family Night where the rookie showed he's not afraid to fill the alley.
Wes Hodkiewicz and Pete Dougherty recap the highlights of this year's Packers Family Night practice at Lambeau Field. (Aug. 2, 2014)
It was a non-tackling practice, but he was in position and ready to go.
Among the backups at cornerback, House has to be more consistent than the past couple seasons, but in short bursts the man can play football. Whether he can put that together for an entire game or season, we'll see.
At backup safety, third-year pro Sean Richardson looks like he really wants to tackle. Chris Banjo seems to be around the ball a lot. But something to watch in the preseason games is how they hold up in extended playing time.
BIG YOUNG GUNS
With Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly gone from last season, I came into camp wondering, "Who are these new, young defensive linemen?"
It's hard to make up for the experience the Packers lost in Pickett and Jolly — and to a lesser extent C.J. Wilson — but it looks like this group's athleticism is a step or two higher than last year.
The guy everybody's talking about is Mike Daniels, the third-year pro who's now one of the leaders. He's a defensive line coach's dream. Technically sound, his motor always is stuck in high gear. You want guys like that on your team.
He might be in for a breakout year.
As for the rookie defensive linemen, after his play on Family Night undrafted Mike Pennel has earned more snaps in practice and the preseason games.
He's definitely a big, strong guy (6-feet-4, 332 pounds), but he's not technically sound because playing for Colorado State-Pueblo at the Division II level he faced only a few guys as talented as he is. In the NFL, everybody's big, everybody's strong, everybody's fast. Now technique becomes important.
Pennel has size, speed, and some quick twitch. He's a good bull rusher. But if he's going to be a decent pass rusher he'll have to develop counter moves, whether it be a clean and jerk, or a rip or spin.
Also, guys that big and aggressive set themselves up for smart offensive coordinators to run traps or unblocked schemes at them, and the running back runs right by. Pennel is going to have to be more disciplined, but I thought he shined Saturday night. His hips are tight and he needs help with his footwork, but that guy could be something in the future.
Third-round draft pick Khyri Thornton also is a big, strong guy (6-3, 304) who didn't have to be as technically sound in college as he will in the NFL. But he has good feet and lateral movement. You can see why he was drafted. He has good hands and upper body strength, and he can move his feet.
There's something for the Packers to be excited about with those two young guys.
Second-year pro Josh Boyd is coming into his own. He's not focusing on technique so much and can actually start playing football. A lot of these young defensive linemen can't play full speed at first because they're so technique conscious they can't focus on what's in front of them. When their technique becomes second nature — like going up and down stairs with your eyes closed — then they can play football.
It looks like that's happening for him. He has some upper body strength and the ability to shed blockers and move up and down the line and get up field.
BULKING UP ON THE OL
The missing piece for making the Packers' offense special has been their offensive line.
To play for a championship, the Packers need their line to play similar to San Francisco's, which is powerful yet can pass block. To that end, starting tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga have added weight.
For Bakhtiari, the left tackle, it looks like the game has slowed down now in his second season. People don't realize how difficult the mental part of the game is for rookie offensive linemen. Pass protections and run-blocking schemes can change two or three times before the snap. There are blitzes and stunts they have to be aware of.
Thinking about all those things can slow a lineman's play.
Bakhtiari looked calm as a rookie last year, but he seems to have settled down even more. He also looks bigger, which will help him in the running game and with his initial pop in pass protection. He's bigger but it doesn't look like he's lost a step, especially with that all-important kick step at the beginning of pass blocking.
His development should help that unit.
I wondered if Bulaga's knee reconstruction surgery from last year would slow him, but it looks like it hasn't. He looks thicker, too, which should help him in the run game. His feet look great, and his hands always have been OK. The biggest thing is whether he's confident in his knee when the games start; then we'll really know he's back.
The new starting center, JC Tretter, is much more athletic than Evan Dietrich-Smith last year. Tretter makes smart decisions, and his recognition skills should improve the more he plays. He'll probably miss some stunts early in the season, but athletically he looks fast enough to get to the linebackers on combination blocks.
It looks like he can take that position and run with it.
Rookie center Corey Linsley, a fifth-round pick, played OK Saturday night too. He's a little bigger than No. 3 center Garth Gerhart. Linsley has good feet and played at a high level of competition in college at Ohio State. It looks like he has a future in the league.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.