GREEN BAY – This should be a new era in Green Bay. There’s a new coach. A general manager entering his second season. Gone are Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson, the two men who led for more than a decade.
Yet as the Green Bay Packers embark on their new chapter Monday when they open their offseason program, remnants of their old still hover over them.
In the past week, McCarthy’s griping to ESPN over the way he was fired last season and a Bleacher Report article outlining the dysfunction between him and his two-time MVP quarterback surfaced as potential distractions. Now, they are Matt LaFleur’s potential distractions, potholes he must dodge as he drives his new team forward.
As if this new beginning, this week’s introduction, wasn’t already important enough. It isn’t an ideal way for LaFleur to host his first team meeting, against this backdrop. But there are plenty of things on which to focus.
Here are five focal points as the Packers commence their spring workouts:
1. Relationship between Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers
Will Rodgers submit to his new coach? Can LaFleur strike a collaborative balance? These are fair questions to ask. They’ll take time to find resolution, but the answers will start formulating now.
Rodgers has said he wants to be coached. In LaFleur, he’ll work with an offensive mind whose scheme is on the cutting edge. It will be different than what Rodgers has run his entire career, but not a complete departure from familiar West Coast principles. Rodgers will get his first look at the playbook, something that wasn’t allowed before now.
On the surface, there seems to be an ideal blend of new with the old. Most important, of course, is the ability for Rodgers and LaFleur to coexist.
“I think he’s one of those rare guys,” LaFleur said at the NFL’s owner meetings, “that can fit in any scheme.”
Both men surely understand the importance of their relationship. If this new partnership is going to succeed, it needs to get off on the right foot.
Glenn Martinez, a friend of former Packers receiver Ruvell Martin and LaFleur’s college receiver at Saginaw Valley State, said a good first impression could be key.
“From talking with Ruvell and picking his mind about it,” Martinez said, “Aaron is the type of guy that you’ve got to earn his trust. I think as long as (LaFleur) comes in and he earns Aaron’s trust early, I think it’s going to be a tremendous duo. I think he’ll open up Pandora’s box, to say, with Aaron maybe doing some of the things he’s wanted to do in the past year, but maybe he hasn’t had the opportunity to. And I think they’ll kind of be a marriage, like a ying and yang.
“He’ll tell him, ‘This is this.’ And then Matt will have his system and implement certain things, and they’ll go back and forth and work as a team. I think that’s how that dynamic will end up coming out. But I think Matt definitely will value his input a ton in whatever system he installs there.”
2. Chemistry between Rodgers and young receivers
Rodgers’ relationship with his new head coach isn’t the only one that will be scrutinized. In Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, J’Mon Moore and Jake Kumerow, the Packers have four young receivers who need nurturing. (And that’s without considering the possibility a slot receiver could be drafted later this month.) Their development a year after Davante Adams finished second in the NFL with 169 targets could give the offense a big boost.
Valdes-Scantling, St. Brown and Kumerow each had their moments last season, but each ended their first year in Green Bay needing to take a jump this offseason. In reality, it will be on them to get in sync with their quarterback. Geronimo Allison’s return from injury should help, but the future of the Packers passing game might depend on how the youngsters develop. If they do, it could lead to a much more balanced passing attack.
“I’m excited,” LaFleur said. “This is certainly one of the longer receiving corps I’ve had a chance to work with, but there’s still so many things to like about them. Davante, he can do it all. All those young guys can run and can really take the top off (of the secondary). That’s an important piece to our offense, we’re always trying to stretch the field vertically with our three-level throws. Not necessarily throwing the top level, but you’ve got to have somebody with speed to get down there and make sure you’re clearing out the defense to open up those deep crossing routes, and try to get those explosive plays.
“There’s a lot of versatility within our receiving corps that we have already.”
3. Transition the offensive line
The Packers have an extra minicamp scheduled April 23-25, and though it is voluntary, they would do well to have their offensive linemen in attendance. No position on offense faces more change than the offensive line, which will not only be under a new position coach for the first time since 2007, but also switch to LaFleur’s outside-zone-blocking scheme.
Part of the offseason work at offensive line will be devoted to deciding where each player fits. It will be especially interesting to see where free-agent signee Billy Turner lines up. The best guess is Turner will start at right guard, but both Gutekunst and LaFleur have been careful not to pencil him into one position yet.
“That’s why he’s here,” LaFleur said, “just that position flexibility he brings to either play inside or go to the tackle position.”
4. Growth in Mike Pettine’s second year
LaFleur made it clear at the owners’ meetings: Pettine will have autonomy of the defense. That was the plan from the beginning, and a reason the Packers were attracted to LaFleur. The idea was LaFleur could devote his time to fixing the Packers offense, and the defense could continue to grow in Pettine’s second year.
What that growth looks like will be interesting. Remember, for all the promise shown by the Packers defense last season, it was an injury-riddled unit by year’s end. That meant constantly tweaking game plans to match that week’s personnel, and no doubt limiting the amount of scheme at Pettine’s disposal. With most of his key players returning, Pettine might dig even deeper into his playbook this offseason.
He’ll have to balance that, though, with three new starters on the defensive side. How quickly outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, along with safety Adrian Amos, can transition to the new scheme will be important.
5. Where will defensive backs play?
The offseason is a time for tinkering, and there could be some of that in the Packers defensive backfield. It starts with deciding whether Amos will play free safety or stay in the box as a strong safety. It’s possible and perhaps likely he’ll spend time doing both, but where he plays most might depend on what safety pairs with him.
Tramon Williams moved to free safety midway through last season and played well, but he’s more valuable as a cornerback, and LaFleur indicated he’ll begin this offseason at corner. The Packers could give Josh Jackson some reps at safety, but he was drafted in the second round last year to play corner. Would they want to change his position so soon? If not, Josh Jones becomes the most likely option to be paired with Amos, unless the Packers draft a safety this spring.
Jones will get an opportunity to win the job after the Packers chose not to tender restricted free agent Kentrell Brice this spring. It’s a chance Jones, a second-round pick in 2017, needs to seize.