Packers' offseason program: What we've learned
GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers will reconvene this week for the final few days of their offseason program. All that separates players and coaches from a five-week respite is a brief minicamp Tuesday through Thursday.
Preparations for the 2017 season began in mid-April when players returned to Lambeau Field for their first workouts. Since then, the Packers have signed veteran guard Jahri Evans, welcomed 10 draft picks to the organization, signed more than 20 undrafted rookies, released last year’s starting punter and collectively gawked at the sheer size of tight end Martellus Bennett.
But OTAs are still OTAs: There is no live contact, players do not wear pads and rookie cornerback Kevin King, the Packers' top draft pick, spent the last month in Washington finishing his spring semester. Although King will be available for minicamp, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and other Packers veterans with five or more years of experience will be excused for the second straight year.
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In other words, only so much can — and should — be gleaned from a set of practices that are only a notch or two above walk-throughs. Nonetheless, here are a few noteworthy items from the last month:
Corners are feisty
After a season in which the Packers ranked 31st in the league in passing defense, and their cornerbacks were scorched as frequently as smores at a campfire, any lingering hesitation or indecision would have been more or less understandable. Confidence can take time to reboot.
But the corners attacked OTAs from the opening session in late May, and their collective aggression was evident even within the confines of non-padded practices. They challenged receivers at the point of attack and got their hands on passes. They were combative at the line of scrimmage to disrupt receivers from their routes. They fought hard for interceptions, hooting and hollering on the sideline as their teammates took reps.
A portion of the change in mentality should be credited to the return of veteran Davon House, whom the Packers signed as a street free agent earlier this spring. House assumed a leadership role immediately to fill the void left by the absence of Sam Shields. The younger corners — Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, LaDarius Gunter, Josh Hawkins — have a consistent veteran presence for the first time since training camp in 2016.
“I think they’ve had some really, really good practices,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said. “And I think as a group we all understand and I’ve told them, with the way we performed last year, there are no get-out-of-jail free cards. We all have to perform, me included.
“There’s a great understanding that we have to pick up our tempo and we have to get back to the style of play that we play. I hope you see them itching and scratching and fighting to do things the right way and to make sure that those balls aren’t completed.”
The slot is full
When general manager Ted Thompson handed Randall Cobb a four-year, $40 million contract in 2015, he did so with the intention of securing his top slot receiver for the foreseeable future. Cobb had caught 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns the year prior, and his pairing of sinewy strength with nifty agility spelled trouble for opposing defenses.
While Cobb is still the top slot receiver — both Mike McCarthy and receivers coach Luke Getsy expressed a desire to get him the ball more often — the Packers are not without quality alternatives if Cobb struggles for the third consecutive season.
The Packers found tremendous success when deploying Jordy Nelson in the slot last season. He was lethal in the red zone and surgical against zone coverage. It’s likely he will return to that role at times this season, especially when matchups are favorable.
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Meanwhile, new tight end Lance Kendricks affords the Packers an additional toy in the two-tight end sets McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers have mentioned at various times this spring. During OTAs the Packers used a number of personnel groupings that featured Bennett as the traditional in-line tight end with Kendricks lining up as a slot receiver.
In other words, the days of watching the Packers line up almost exclusively in a three wide receiver set — for example, with Nelson and Davante Adams on the perimeter and Cobb always in the slot — are pretty much over.
“We’ve got to be excellent in the passing game,” Rodgers said last week. “We’ve added some weapons, we’ve changed potentially some approach wanting to probably get some more two-tight end sets out there. We’ve got to work on plays maybe we haven’t had in the plan or at least in our minds for the last couple years. That’s also I’m sure why we’re passing the ball more in the OTAs.”
Opportunity for Biegel
Ever since the arrival of defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the Packers have relied on a steady rotation at outside linebacker. Last season was no different, and six players took at least 15 percent of the total defensive snaps: Nick Perry, 58.7 percent; Julius Peppers, 56.9 percent; Datone Jones, 53.1 percent; Clay Matthews, 46.4 percent; Kyler Fackrell, 15.6 percent; Jayrone Elliott, 13.2 percent.
This year the Packers don’t even have six outside linebackers with game experience, let alone six who have split significant playing time. Fackrell and Elliott, last year’s fifth and sixth options, are now options three and four behind Matthews and Perry. Everything after that is murky.
It means that rookie linebacker Vince Biegel will have ample opportunity to see the field early in his career, even in the wake of foot surgery that has sidelined him since mid-May. Biegel could land anywhere from third to sixth on the outside linebacker depth chart depending on his performance in training camp, and each of those spots will translate to playing time.
The depth at outside linebacker is highly questionable, regardless of what McCarthy might proclaim.
Said Fackrell: “I know it’s a big opportunity for myself, for Jayrone, for Reggie (Gilbert). The outside linebackers are seen as kind of the leader group of the defense, so there’s Clay and there’s Nick and those guys are going to produce, they’re going to be great leaders. But there’s definitely roles to be filled, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Montgomery looks the part
A year ago, members of the media spent a large portion of OTAs analyzing the body composition of running back Eddie Lacy. We wondered how much weight he had lost, why his stomach didn’t look all that different and whether Lacy could maintain his newfound habits throughout the regular season.
With Lacy departing in free agency, the running back position in Green Bay has taken on a much more chiseled appearance. This is due in large part to the sculpted physique of starter Ty Montgomery.
At various points throughout his career, Montgomery has explained how easy it is for him to pack on muscle thanks to fortuitous alignments of DNA. In fact, Montgomery said there were times when he needed to work out less in order to avoid becoming too muscular as a receiver.
But now that he is a full-time running back, Montgomery was able to tailor his offseason training to better suit his new position. The visual results are impressive: rippling biceps, tree-trunk legs and shoulders so broad they could do the work of Atlas.
Put simply, the questions asked of Lacy never will apply to Montgomery.
“Specifically,” Montgomery said of this year’s training, “I didn’t try to keep my weight down. Playing receiver, I had to always try to stay light, and it took (more) effort to stay light than to hover around 220 like I naturally do. ... My body naturally adapts really fast to things and responds really well, and now I lift (weights) like a running back.”