GREEN BAY - Whenever teams make large-scale changes to their coaching staffs, as the Green Bay Packers did in January, there is a honeymoon period that stretches through spring and summer. The building buzzes, the players are excited and the ambience of it all resembles a months-long release of endorphins.
Such is the atmosphere at Lambeau Field this week as the Packers begin their organized team activities. They will take the field in three- and four-day bursts from now through mid-June, at which point the three-day mandatory minicamp is a gateway to several weeks of vacation.
The OTAs begin Monday, with Tuesday’s session the first of three that will be open to the public (the others are May 31 and June 4). All practices will be begin at 11:30 a.m. on Ray Nitschke Field.
Even without pads, the forthcoming practices are crucial for an organization seeking stability after an offseason of widespread modification. For the coaches, OTAs and minicamp offer the chance to install the offense and defense with an actual football field at their disposal. Concepts are transferred from white board to field turf as new assistants on offense and defense coalesce for the first time.
And for the players, who reported back to Green Bay in mid-April for the start of the offseason program, the next few weeks will serve as a reboot from last year’s catatonia. Those who underachieved can start anew, and everyone can make first impressions for offensive coordinator Joe Philbin and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
With that mind, here are five storylines to watch from now through mid-June:
Kizer vs. Hundley
One of the most obvious takeaways from a season marred by a significant injury to quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the Packers’ failure to produce a reliable backup. Brett Hundley, a fifth-round pick in 2015, simply couldn’t rise to the occasion.
That the Packers needed to address the position was obvious, but the manner in which they planned to do so remained a mystery: Would new general manager Brian Gutekunst seek a Scott Tolzien-like veteran who gained experience somewhere else? Or would the Packers draft a passer with one of their plentiful Day 3 picks?
The answer, of course, was neither. Gutekunst pushed those options aside in favor of a high-profile trade with the Cleveland Browns. He sent former first-round pick Damarious Randall to Cleveland, and the Browns shipped former second-round pick DeShone Kizer to Green Bay. Sweetening the deal was an exchange of draft picks that improved the Packers’ drafting position in the later rounds, but the acquisition of a quarterback stole the headlines.
Kizer, 22, started 15 games for the Browns last season and won none. He threw twice as many interceptions (22) as touchdowns passes (11) and completed only 53.6 percent of his attempts. His passer rating of 60.5 was lowest in the league among 32 qualified players.
But the Packers have liked Kizer for quite some time; they even considered selecting him in last year’s draft. Now he will compete with Hundley for the right to be Rodgers’ backup, and there’s a decent chance only one of them will make the 53-man roster come September.
Depth at outside linebacker
Gutekunst waited until his final pick of the draft to address a position many people considered the Packers’ most glaring deficiency. With the 248th overall selection — his third choice in the seventh round — Gutekunst finally added an outside linebacker in Kendall Donnerson of Southeast Missouri State.
While there is still plenty of time to add a veteran presence, the decision to avoid one of the draft’s weaker positions signals at least a moderate sense of belief in the younger pass rushers already on the roster. Aside from Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, who will play the majority of snaps if healthy, it’s the trio of Kyler Fackrell (third-round pick in 2016), Vince Biegel (fourth-round pick in 2017) and Reggie Gilbert (undrafted free agent in 2016) that needs to raise its level of play.
During the rookie orientation camp, coach Mike McCarthy spoke glowingly of Gilbert and his development over the last two years. Gilbert was finally promoted to the active roster last December and earned significant playing time in the final two games of the regular season. He registered his first sack in the finale against the Detroit Lions.
If Gilbert’s strong offseason carries over to OTAs and training camp, it’s possible he enters the regular season as the No. 3 outside linebacker behind Matthews and Perry.
Either way, the Packers still need larger contributions from Biegel, who can reap the benefits of a full offseason after double foot surgery landed him on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list last summer, and Fackrell, who has largely underachieved with 5 sacks in 29 career games as a former third-round pick.
Running backs galore
A revolving door of injuries at the tailback position meant the Packers finished the regular season with four players gaining at least 270 yards on the ground. They were, in decreasing order of production: Jamaal Williams (153 carries, 566 yards, 3.6 average), Aaron Jones (81, 448, 5.5), Ty Montgomery (71, 273, 3.8) and Hundley (36, 270, 7.5).
With everyone back at full health, the competition for playing time starts fresh during OTAs.
Having ripped off six runs of 20 yards or more — an average of one every 13.5 snaps — Jones demonstrated a type of explosiveness only he possesses. His burst through the line of scrimmage was tremendous, evidenced by an elite yards-per-carry average, and he rushed for 256 combined yards in the first two starts of his career.
But a pair of MCL injuries limited Jones to 12 games as a rookie, and after the season running backs coach Ben Sirmans said his protégé must get stronger. If Jones succeeds and stays healthy, the Packers would be remiss not to make him their starter.
Williams can argue that he’s the best three-down back because of his skills in pass protection. And Montgomery is perhaps the most versatile given his background at wide receiver. But neither of them can match Jones’ breakaway potential.
Devante Mays, a seventh-round pick in 2017, will be looking to crack the rotation as well after fumbling on the first two carries of his career. He finished the season with four carries for 1 yard.
Finding a right tackle
Every recovery is different.
That has become McCarthy’s go-to line when asked about the recovery of right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who suffered a torn ACL on Nov. 6, 2017. Will Bulaga be ready for the season opener? What about training camp? Will he start the year on PUP?
Logic dictates Bulaga won’t be healthy until September or October at the earliest, especially when compared to the timeline of former Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson, now with the Oakland Raiders. Nelson tore his ACL during an exhibition game in 2015 and sat out a full calendar year before returning for the season opener in 2016. If Bulaga’s recovery follows a similar pace — or if the medical staff exhibits a similar level of caution — the chances of him suiting up for the first few weeks of 2018 are slim.
With that in mind, OTAs and training camp take on even greater importance for backup tackles Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy, both of whom made a handful of starts last season. Spriggs in particular needs a strong offseason to boost his confidence after two subpar years. He looked overwhelmed as a rookie in 2016, appearing in all 16 games and starting two, and then flopped badly in training camp before his second season.
The silver lining, though, was an uptick in performance after Spriggs came back from injured reserve late last season. With Bulaga and Murphy (foot surgery) already on IR, Spriggs started the final five games at right tackle and flashed noticeable signs of improvement.
However, expect Murphy to snag the starting job if Spriggs falters again this summer.
Cornerback learning curve
Given the amount of capital the Packers have invested at cornerback in recent years — first- and second-round picks in 2015; second-round pick in 2017; first- and second-round picks in 2018 — Gutekunst will be crossing his fingers that rookies Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson live up to expectations. Randall and Quinten Rollins appear to be misfires, and two more swings and misses with top draft picks would set the organization back even further.
With Kevin King entrenched at one of the starting positions, veterans Davon House and Tramon Williams will serve as a temporary buffer for Jackson as he adjusts to playing the perimeter in the National Football League. The Packers can survive with House and Williams playing starter’s reps for at least the early part of the season.
In contrast, Alexander has an opportunity to crack the starting lineup immediately as Pettine’s nickel corner. Alexander has the speed, athleticism and ball-hawking instincts to influence the game like former Packers cornerback Casey Hayward did in his rookie season. Hayward, a second-round pick, had six interceptions and 21 passes defended in 2012 before failing to match that output for the remainder of his time in Green Bay.
With five corners all but assured to make the team — Williams, House, King, Alexander, Jackson — the future is uncertain for Rollins, who is coming off surgery to repair a torn Achilles, and the handful of former undrafted rookies who have populated the locker room in recent years. The developmental period is over for Josh Hawkins, Lenzy Pipkins, Donatello Brown and Herb Waters because there aren’t enough roster spots to go around.
Let the competition begin.