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Packers pleased with ways acclimation period helped prepare players

GREEN BAY - After almost two full weeks to acclimate back to football, the Green Bay Packers had their first practice of 2020 training camp Saturday morning. 

The practice did not include any formalized conditioning periods as players continue to work their way back into shape after a virtual offseason without on-field training. A handful of players ran wind sprints after practice, including offensive linemen Corey Linsley and Billy Turner, cornerback Kevin King and linebackers Christian Kirksey and Oren Burks. 

“I feel good,” Kirksey said. “Usually going into camp, that July break (after traditional minicamp) that we get, I usually hit it hard and make sure I hit the ground running in training camp. Last year, obviously, to me I was in pretty good shape, actually one of the best shapes I’ve been in, in my life. and then fast forwarding to now, I think that I’m in pretty good shape, and I just did the extra sprints just to do something extra.” 

NFL teams were allowed to start acclimating back to the field Aug. 3. The acclimation sessions consisted of 60 minutes in the weight room, 60 minutes of on-field conditioning, and walk-throughs that ranged from 60 to 75 minutes.  

The format is similar to what the NFLPA proposed in the recent collective-bargaining talks before an agreement was reached this offseason, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers noted. 

Green Bay Packers safety Raven Greene (24) is shown Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, during the team's first practice at training camp in Green Bay, Wis.

“Personally, I loved it,” Rodgers said of this year’s camp format. “To be able to kind of ease into things and get yourself in football shape before practice starts, I think was great. Wasn’t far off from what some of us talked about proposing in Indianapolis about the offseason program. Obviously different situations led to the schedule being what it is now. I think it was good for a lot of us to really feel good about our conditioning and where our bodies were at leading up to the first day. 

“It was a long lead up, especially because the first week we really didn’t do anything besides COVID testing. But it’s been a good couple weeks of workouts, and it’s good to get back on the field at least wearing helmets.” 

Coach Matt LaFleur said he’ll be careful not to overextend players early in camp. In an offseason that made conditioning difficult because of social-distancing expectations with coronavirus, there is concern players could be more susceptible to injury as they get back on the field. 

But LaFleur said he was pleased with how the pre-practice acclimation period prepared his players. 

“We’re very mindful of our reps,” LaFleur said, “but I did think that ramp-up period did serve a great purpose. No. 1 it allowed us to kind of get an evaluation, especially with Giz, Chris Gizzi and our strength staff. They relayed that information to us, you know, where they thought most of our guys were at. Also it gives these – specifically these young guys – such a great opportunity to be involved in all the meetings. We had a plethora of walk-throughs, and I thought we had a pretty clean practice out there today. 

More ‘splash plays’ from Clark

The scary part of Kenny Clark’s newly minted $70 million deal is that the Packers nose tackle is only 24. Which means, yes, the best from Clark could very well be yet to come. 

That’s certainly Clark’s expectation. Clark has shown flashes of dominance early in his career, including a Pro Bowl year in 2019, but he still hasn’t put together a full, consistent season. Of his six sacks last season, 4.5 came in in the final four games. He couldn’t be blocked for most of December. Before that, Clark went 10 games without a sack. 

In 2018, Clark also had four of his six sacks during a four-week period, this time midway through the season. 

He had all of his 4½ sacks from 2017 in a four-week period. 

So despite becoming the highest-paid nose tackle in NFL history Saturday, Clark believes there’s still plenty of room to develop. Imagine, for example, if he could stretch his hot streaks rushing the passer over an entire 16-game season. 

“My biggest thing this year,” Clark said, “is I’ve just got to be more consistent throughout the year. Last year, I started off hot, kind of lulled off in the middle of the season and then ended off hot. I’ve just got to put a whole season together and just be consistent on a game-in, game-out basis. That’s what they’re paying me to do, so that’s what I’ve got to bring every day.” 

To do that, Clark predicted he might be used differently within defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme this fall. Instead of staying in the middle and occupying blockers, Clark predicted he will move around the defensive line more frequently, allowing him more one-on-one matchups. 

Pettine uses outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith much the same way. Za’Darius Smith often moves inside as a defensive tackle in passing situations, as well as his more common position on the edge. Preston Smith rushes from both the left and right side, something he did not do with his previous team in Washington, where he almost exclusively rushed from the right. 

“I just think I’ve got to make more splash plays,” Clark said, “and I think this year coach is going to move me around a little bit more, put me in different positions to do that, and I think that’s what it’s going to do.” 

Rookie RB Dillon ‘a large man’

The Packers didn’t need to be in pads to realize just how massive rookie running back AJ Dillon is. 

That’s because Dillon, the second-round tailback who weighed 250 pounds at the NFL scouting combine in February, already looks like he’s wearing pads. 

“He’s a large man,” Rodgers said. “He walks around pretty comfortably at 250 for a back and moves really well. Big legs, big calves. He’s a well-built guy. It’ll be exciting to see him get up to speed mentally. That’s going to be his biggest hurdle, especially with the guys in that room who have a pretty good comfort within the offense. But he’s a big boy.” 

It’s early, and Dillon will have to show he can play when the game speeds up with live contact. He starts camp behind veterans Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams and did not rotate with the starting offense in Saturday’s first camp practice. 

Still, the rookie’s size is impressive, even to his teammates. 

“As a linebacker,” Kirksey said, “you want to man up and say, ‘If I see you in the hole, I’m going to hit you up top.’ But when you see how big he is, you’ve almost got to go low. But then you look at his legs, and he’s got tree trunks. So you might want to think twice with that too. So I’m excited to see what he brings to the table.”

Packers cut three

General manager Brian Gutekunst must have his active roster down to 80 by Sunday, and he got a jump on that before Saturday’s practice by waiving undrafted rookies Marc-Antoine Dequoy (Montreal) and Darrell Stewart (Michigan State) along with second-year tight end James Looney.

Looney was originally a seventh-round draft pick in 2018 out of Cal as a defensive lineman. He began losing weight and changed positions while on the practice squad last year.

Looney joins offensive lineman Cole Madison as early roster cuts from Gutekunst’s inaugural 11-man 2018 draft class.

After the moves the Packers have 78 players on their active roster. Four players remain on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and they do not count toward that number. If they come off list following the cut-down day a corresponding roster move must be made to allow them to return to practice.