GREEN BAY - Even with four months to go before the start of the regular season, three months until training camp and four long weeks before their first organized team activities, the Green Bay Packers have begun to dream about an offense with destructive potential.
There stood quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the second day of the offseason program Tuesday, his figure ensconced by cameras and microphones, chatting with members of the media about personnel groupings and substitution patterns well before the Packers can take the field.
There stood wide receiver Jordy Nelson, he of healed ribs and resurgent knee, smiling through a description of the exchange he shared with new tight end Martellus Bennett. Both players are excited about adding depth at the skill positions, and they told each other about it in what sounded like a scene from “Step Brothers.”
“It’s going to be fun,” Nelson said.
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Their anticipation at such an early juncture speaks as much to the surprising offseason moves by general manager Ted Thompson as it does the offensive innovation born of injury last season. Decimation of the running back position spawned creativity and ingenuity from coach Mike McCarthy, who oversaw an offense ranked eighth in the league by the end of the regular season.
And while Thompson allowed a number of key players to depart in free agency — namely right guard T.J. Lang and running back Eddie Lacy — the decision to corral a few of his own was welcomed by Rodgers and the offense. In signing Bennett, the top tight end on the market, and supplementing him with Lance Kendricks, another tight end who caught 50 passes last season, the Packers strengthened a group of skill players that already was quite strong.
“I think we saw a shift last year,” Rodgers said, “as we shifted away from really an ‘11’ personnel — three receiver, one tight end, one running back exclusive personnel — to really mixing things up, and Mike did a great job of that, of really evolving the offense and trying to get more people involved as we saw it was going to be important that we didn’t just stick in one personnel group.”
In that regard, the spat of injuries to Lacy and fellow tailbacks James Starks and Don Jackson catalyzed changes that dragged the Packers out of a malaise dating to last season. Their struggles, encapsulated by an offense that ranked 24th in 2015, were often accompanied by the perceived stagnation associated with McCarthy’s cherished "11" personnel.
It stands to reason that the offensive explosion attached to last year’s eight-game winning streak will carry with it certain after effects, primarily the incorporation of additional personnel groupings. The Packers tormented opposing defenses with four- and five-wide receiver sets that placed a premium on Rodgers’ quick release, and it sounds as if the quarterback will lobby for them again this season.
“We got Ty (Montgomery) opportunities, we got Christine (Michael) opportunities, we got Randall (Cobb) opportunities in the backfield, we got Geronimo (Allison) on the field as well,” Rodgers said. “We’re going to be evolving in that manner.”
Among the evolutions, according to Rodgers, will be the reintroduction of “12” personnel, an alignment that features one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. It’s something the Packers haven’t utilized much since they paired Jermichael Finley and Andrew Quarless in 2013.
The additions of Bennett and Kendricks, coupled with the incumbent Richard Rodgers, who is entering his fourth season, afford McCarthy an opportunity to play more than one tight end at a time.
“I think we’re going to have a lot more flexibility in that package,” Aaron Rodgers said. “(The) ‘12’ personnel is more of a run-pass balanced personnel and it has been throughout the league and for us the past few years. The opportunity to put two guys on the line of scrimmage and have an opportunity to run right, run left and then run all of our vertical passing game is going to be something that could definitely change and be more difficult to stop.”
But all the buzz surrounding Bennett, Nelson and the rest of the skill-position players failed to obscure the glaring vacancy at right guard.
Without Lang, who signed a rich free-agent deal with the Detroit Lions, the Packers entered their offseason program with four guards and one potential convert on the roster. One of them, Lane Taylor, is entrenched at left guard after an impressive debut season following the release of Josh Sitton last year. The others — veteran Don Barclay; youngsters Lucas Patrick, Kyle Murphy and Justin McCray — will spend the next few months trying to earn a starting spot.
Thompson is likely to supplement the group through the draft or his crop of priority free agents — or both.
“I don’t know that we need a guy in the draft, I really don’t,” Rodgers said. “I like the guys that we have, and I think there’s going to be a great competition between those guys. Obviously, Donnie’s played a lot of football for us, and I was really happy to see him come back. Not only is he a great friend and a great locker room guy, but he can play. And then the two young guys with Lucas and Kyle, I think they offer depth for us.
“That’s going to be a long process, I think. There’s going to be a healthy competition, I would assume. … The key is that cohesion, that chemistry with the line playing together extended time. I think we’re going to need to figure out who that guy is in time, but give them opportunities to jell together.”
The same can be said for Bennett and Kendricks, whose main task between now and August is to develop chemistry with Rodgers.
But if everything comes together, both along the line and on the perimeter, the Packers believe their offense can be really, really fun.