The Green Bay Packers aren’t going anywhere if they play offense like they did last year.
So if you’re looking for reasons in the preseason to think they’ll be back among the league’s elite after finishing in the bottom 10 (No. 23 in yards) in 2015, there were two on Lambeau Field on Thursday night.
One, Jordy Nelson, didn’t even play against the Oakland Raiders but gave his franchise a lift just by being in uniform for pregame warm-ups.
The other, Eddie Lacy, looked noticeably better against what figures to be a pretty decent NFL defense than he did as the overweight running back who chugged through last season.
We’ll start with Nelson, who is about a year removed from ACL surgery in one knee and several weeks or more removed from a less-severe injury to the other.
The longer Nelson stayed on the PUP list, the more reason there was to wonder just how bad one or both of his knees were, and whether he’d even be ready to start the season regardless of what the Packers said at the start of camp. NFL injury information is notoriously unreliable, and it wouldn’t be the first time a team understated the severity of a player’s ailment.
So when Nelson came off PUP on Wednesday, it was meaningful news. My assumption was he’d do some kind of workout in warm-up gear a couple hours before the game Thursday night and be finished when the majority of his teammates took the field for official pregame drills.
But there Nelson was in pads during regular pregame, slapping teammates on the back, bouncing around like a colt, and even running a few half-speed pass patterns against nominal coverage.
In all, the last two days mark a big step toward Nelson being ready for the regular-season opener after he missed all of last season and the first three weeks of camp this year while recovering from his injuries.
Yes, there’s still plenty to wonder about. Will Nelson (and Aaron Rodgers) play in next week’s preseason game at San Francisco? How long will it take Nelson to get his game legs after not playing real football since last August? And most importantly, at age 31, will he be the player after major knee surgery that he was before?
Those things can be answered only on the field. But the Packers finally have tangible evidence that their best receiver will be ready to play when the season opens in Jacksonville on Sept. 11. You can bet Rodgers has more of a bounce in his step.
Then there’s Lacy, who Thursday night gained 45 yards on nine carries on the Packers’ first possession, a touchdown drive, and then called it a night.
This was only a preseason game, so the usual caveats apply. While there’s some game planning, it’s nowhere near the level of a game that counts in the standings. And neither team was going to go very deep into its playbook and give early-season opponents anything meaningful to glean.
Still, Lacy was running against the Raiders’ starting defense, which includes one of the NFL’s premier players in wrecking-ball defensive end Khalil Mack and two new free agents of note: former Seattle Seahawks outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (four years, $37 million) and former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith (four years, $38 million).
So this wasn’t just practice. It was a game setting with live tackling, and in nine carries Lacy looked quicker and more explosive than last season, which matters. Because last year, playing in the 250-plus pound range, he was a pretty average starting running back in the NFL, not the guy who ranked among the better halfbacks in the league in 2013 and ’14.
His first carry, a 20-yarder, might have been just as good a run even if he were at last year’s weight because the hole between left guard Josh Sitton and left tackle David Bakhtiari was huge. But his acceleration into the secondary looked better than last year nonetheless.
Also, on one of his short runs, a three-yarder, his cutback made linebacker Malcolm Smith miss at the line of scrimmage. I don’t think Lacy makes that cut last year. And later he showed burst that was missing in 2015 on a five-yard carry that he bounced around left end.
Now, it bears pointing out that while Lacy showed he’s better than last year, he’s physically still not the guy who was the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year in 2013. You could see that against the Raiders on his attempt to dive over the defensive line on a one-yard touchdown run that finished the first drive. Lacy couldn’t quite make it over the top and needed a second-surge, mid-air push from Aaron Ripkowski and JC Tretter to get into the end zone.
If you want to see Lacy make that leap in a similar situation, and see him run even more explosively than Thursday night, look up his YouTube highlights from his rookie year. And if you want to see an even lighter and quicker Lacy than that, check out his highlights from his final season at Alabama in 2012.
Still, Lacy passed an eyeball test Thursday night that he failed as 2015 wore on. If he looks like this all season, he’ll be a different and better player.
Between Lacy and Nelson, life is starting to look better for Aaron Rodgers.