Packers providing hints about what to look for in 2019 season under Matt LaFleur

Jim Owczarski
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers have wrapped up one full week of organized team activities and entered the second of the four-week, Phase 3 period of the offseason Tuesday. Although no pads or live contact are permitted, first-year head coach Matt LaFleur and his coaching staff are drilling down into the playbook and trying to get the team ready to hit the ground running in training camp.

Since LaFleur was hired Jan. 7, the Packers have laid out some bread crumbs regarding how they feel about certain players and elements of offensive and defensive schemes that are worth watching not just over the next three weeks, but into training camp.

Let’s go over some early OTA observations:

LaFleur, Rodgers working toward equilibrium

It’s important to know that the offensive play-caller and quarterback haven’t spent all that much time together working through the offense on the field to this point. Aaron Rodgers acknowledged he won’t get a full handle of the offense until training camp and LaFleur is also managing a full team for the first time. But the two are working to find common ground on the field.

“It's fun to be over there and pick Aaron's brain a little bit and see what he likes,” LaFleur said of the practices to date. “I think what's so cool is we are in alignment on everything we've talked about.”

LaFleur has been pretty steadfast in certain principles he wants with his QBs: Proper footwork, playing with timing and being able to deliver accurately under duress. But after that, he has always expressed a willingness to take input from Rodgers — which means you may see some familiar-looking plays despite a new overall scheme.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur watches an offensive drill during a team practice April 24 at the Don Hutson Center in Ashwaubenon. LaFleur says he and quarterback Aaron Rodgers are "in alignment."

“Any time you have a veteran quarterback that has countless number of reps with certain concepts and certain plays — there’s going to be stuff he’s really comfortable with that we’ll implement into our offense,” LaFleur said. “It’s no different than what we did in Atlanta with Matt Ryan (in 2016).”

Watch for James Crawford at inside linebacker

An undrafted rookie out of Illinois a year ago, Crawford made the team and a significant contribution on special teams in 2018. He played just one defensive snap. At the combine in February, Gutekunst took exception to the assertion that the 6-foot, 2-inch, 239-pounder is just a special teamer.

“I disagree with you about James because I think James could potentially help us on defense,” Gutekunst said. “I think he has a lot of potential there.”

He expounded on that in March at the owners meetings:

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“I’m kind of interested to see what Crawford can do, too, he had such a good year on special teams,” Gutekunst said. “We were moving him back and forth from inside to outside, I think he’ll probably settle inside. He does have the versatility to play outside, but he has the frame and the skill set to do some of those things, too.”

Last week, new inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti defined Crawford’s role going forward.

“We have settled him in a little bit at the inside linebacker spot,” Olivadotti said. “He's learning the defense through the inside linebacker spot. That's kind of an easy place to do it because you have to be in on the coverage, in on the front and know what's going on pretty much everywhere around you. I think that's an advantage for him.”

Josh Jackson in play at safety

When asked if second-year player Josh Jackson is a pure cornerback (outside or nickel) or in the mix to work in at safety, defensive backs coach Jason Simmons elected to say this:

“Everybody we have are ‘DBs’ — I classify everybody in the room as ‘DBs,’ he said. “Because the one thing about coach (Mike) Pettine as you see, we’re multiple. You can align anywhere. Anybody can align anywhere. You saw guys like Tramon (Williams) lining deep, you saw him aligning at the nickel, you saw him blitzing. You saw Jaire (Alexander) doing all the same things. So everybody learns every position in this defense.”

It’s worth noting that the Packers have changed their thinking a bit regarding the type of athlete they want on the back end of the defense. First-round draft pick Darnell Savage Jr. is listed at 5-11 and 198 pounds and ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash. In his combine performance in 2015, free agent Adrian Amos (6-0, 214) ran a 4.56 also before running faster at his pro day. Jackson is 6-0, 196 and ran a 4.56 at the combine last year. As the team works through training camp and the preseason, it might be worth watching to see if Jackson does indeed get reps and perhaps playing time as a “safety.”

Slot receiver redefined

Since LaFleur was hired, he and Gutekunst have pushed back on the notion that a slot receiver has to look a certain way. Once the 90-man roster was settled heading into the OTA, the shortest of the 11 receivers was undrafted rookie Darrius Shepherd at 5-11. The other 10? Listed between 6-1 and 6-5.

“I think there’s a little bit more of a skill set you have to have in there,” Gutekunst said in March. “The ability to kind of separate and create in space. Obviously, inside there, you have to be about to hold up and take the pounding that comes with that job. So there’s probably a body type moving forward that’s able to separate and stay healthy.”

In the run-up to OTA, LaFleur helped define some of those roles with established players: Davante Adams can do it all and will.

Geronimo Allison has the short-space separative ability and can play inside.

Jake Kumerow is a traditional outside receiver.

As for other options working out of the slot, the player-tracking site calculated that Marquez Valdes-Scantling (41% of snaps) and Equanimeous St. Brown (22.6%) lined up in the slot quite often last year.

“The way I look at the receiver group in general is kind of like filling out a basketball roster,” LaFleur said last week. “You need guys that are at a certain area of expertise and then it’s our job as coaches to put those guys into position where they can showcase that skill set.”  

He continued: "It's more concept-driven, not necessarily slot versus outside receiver. It more or less has to do with what we're asking them to do.”

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