Packers about to find out how their offseason went
It’s time for NFL players to start proving it on the football field.
We’ll find out over the next six months whether Ted Thompson’s and Mike McCarthy’s Green Bay Packers came out of the offseason better than last season, when they advanced to the NFC Championship game only to be run off the field by the Atlanta Falcons.
With training camp practice starting Thursday, here are four observations from the team’s offseason:
Jonesing for a playmaker: I’m sure coaches and scouts glean plenty about players from the non-contact practices in the offseason, and maybe some journalists do as well. But I for one can pick up only so much. And I came away from the Packers’ six offseason practices open to reporters with but one observation worth sharing: Second-round pick Josh Jones looks like a pretty good player.
Jones, a safety-linebacker, made more plays on the ball in those six practices than anybody on defense. He showed an ability to close fast while the ball is in the air, and he appeared to play up to his 4.41-second 40 time. He’s also a big guy (220 pounds) for a coverage defender.
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A couple times this offseason McCarthy has said that his team looks more athletic than in the past. Jones surely is a big part of that perception.
We won’t know for two or three years who the best player from this draft class is. But Jones is my early prediction. And his play in the offseason suggests he’ll help the Packers this year.
Key signing: Jahri Evans isn’t the best player Thompson signed in free agency, but he could end up being an important one.
Tight end Martellus Bennett is Thompson’s marquee signing and will be integral to opening up the Packers’ offense in the run and pass games. Jared Cook showed down last season's stretch what a good tight end can do for Aaron Rodgers on offense, and Bennett is the better all-around player.
But Evans, the kind of stopgap signing (one year, $2.425 million) Thompson normally disdains, could have a big say in whether the Packers are even more potent than in 2016.
Evans is replacing departed free agent T.J. Lang at right guard. If the 33-year-old Evans performs close to the level he did last season in New Orleans, the drop-off from Lang won’t be big. Then the Packers’ upgrade at tight end (Bennett and free-agent Lance Kendricks) and potentially deeper backfield mean Rodgers could be running an offense that’s better than the one that scored the third-most points in the NFL over the final seven weeks last season.
When age hits NFL players, it usually hits fast and hard. Evans turns 34 in August, so it very well could drop him this year. If so, the Packers will be scrambling just to make do at right guard, and that would erode their line play. But if the six-time Pro Bowler can hold off Father Time one more season, we probably won’t even notice that Lang is gone.
In a rush: To play good defense in the NFL, you have to have rush the passer well. Thompson didn’t do much to upgrade the Packers’ pass rush this offseason, and we’ll start getting a sense in training camp whether he should have done more.
The players to watch are second-year interior linemen Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry, and young outside lienbackers Kyler Fackrell, Jayrone Elliott and Vince Biegel.
The two with the best shot to add some punch to the rush are Clark and Biegel.
Thompson drafted Clark late in the first round last year in part because he showed some interior-rush ability at UCLA (six sacks in 13 games in his final season). He had no sacks as a rookie in a limited role.
Will he make a difference in his second year? The Packers think he might. Just for comparison, B.J. Raji had 7 ½ sacks in 14 games in his final season at Boston College. Then he had one as a rookie and 6 ½ in year two.
Biegel, a fourth-round rookie, ranks No. 7 on Wisconsin’s all-time sacks list (21 ½), and there were scouts, though a minority for sure, who considered him a better prospect as an outside rusher than his college teammate drafted in the first round, T.J. Watt.
The thing that has to worry the Packers is Biegel’s injured foot. This offseason he had surgery to repair a Jones fracture (fifth metatarsal) in the same foot that required surgery and sidelined him for two games last season at Wisconsin.
He has had almost 2 ½ months to recover, but if you look up Jones fractures, you’ll see they’re susceptible to re-injury (see Kevin Durant, Julio Jones, Sammy Watkins, Dez Bryant and Michael Crabtree). So the Packers will have to be careful with him, and even then he could end up back on the operating table. They might not get much from Biegel as a rookie.
Bounce back: Will Damarious Randall be this year’s Davante Adams? The guess here is, yes.
Randall showed enough promise as a rookie in 2015 to think the former first-round pick still will be a good player even though he had a bad second season.
To be sure, a couple red flags popped up. His season began unraveling in Week 2 when Minnesota’s Stephon Diggs torched him, and that was two weeks before a groin/core injury sidelined Randall for the better part of two months.
Later in the season, after he returned from surgery, there were a couple plays on which he didn’t compete hard. And it seemed like there was a play or two every game where he was so nonchalant he wasn’t lined up and ready for the snap. You can’t have that.
But even through Randall’s struggles in ’16, he occasionally showed a bouncy athleticism and ball skills that are hard to find. He’s now playing in the slot, where he often lined up in college, and should be more at home there.
When Randall was a rookie, I admired his cockiness. Cornerbacks need that. They’re going to get burned, and they have to shrug it off fast. Last season he sure seemed to lose his confidence.
We’ll find out soon enough whether Randall has the right stuff. I still think he’s going to pan out.