Tom Oates: Ten burning questions for Packers heading into training camp
Green Bay Packers training camps generally have been ho-hum affairs under coach Mike McCarthy, with little new in the way of scheme or personnel changes.
Not so this year.
Since missing the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2008, the Packers have a new general manager and new offensive and defensive coordinators along with plenty of new faces on defense. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers returns after a broken collarbone cost him nine games, but the team’s seven-year Super Bowl drought shows that even a healthy Rodgers needs more help.
With that in mind, here are 10 burning questions facing the Packers when they open training camp this week:
Who’s No. 2 at quarterback?
Brett Hundley and DeShone Kizer will stage the most interesting backup quarterback competition in Green Bay since Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn duked it out 10 years ago. Both have size, athleticism and arm strength, but Kizer must show his year as a rookie starter for winless Cleveland didn’t damage his development and Hundley must show he can speed up his decision-making after a disappointing performance in Rodgers’ absence. The Packers have a sizable investment in both. They trained Hundley for four offseasons and traded former first-round pick Damarious Randall for Kizer in March. Kizer is the more talented player, but execution of the offense remains paramount in Green Bay.
Can anyone fill Aaron Jones’ shoes?
Jones established himself as the most dynamic runner among the Packers’ three rookies last season, but he’s been suspended for the first two games by the NFL. That opens the door for veteran Ty Montgomery, who began last season as the starter but was limited to eight games by injuries, and second-year men Jamaal Williams and Devante Mays. Williams ran hard but wasn’t elusive last season. Mays hopes to make amends after fumbling on two of his four carries. McCarthy seems to consider Montgomery a third-down back, so Williams or Mays must pick up the slack in Jones’ absence because the first two games are against Chicago and Minnesota.
Will Jordy Nelson be missed?
The wide receiver threesome of Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb, when healthy, was remarkably productive, but the Packers released Nelson, leaving Geronimo Allison as the No. 3 receiver by default. General manager Brian Gutekunst showed his concern by pursuing the top receivers — Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins — available in free agency but came up empty. Assuming Allison finds much-needed consistency, McCarthy will be looking for a No. 4 receiver. Three rangy draftees — J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown — will get a chance, though rookie receivers seldom thrive in this offense. Holdovers Trevor Davis and Michael Clark are also in the mix, but the Packers likely will need Moore to play beyond his years.
How will the tight ends be deployed?
After years of getting by at the position, McCarthy finally has both talent and depth at tight end in free agents Jimmie Graham and Marcedes Lewis and holdover Lance Kendricks. Such depth should give McCarthy license to use a wide variety of two-tight end sets. He may elect not to reveal much during the preseason, but there will be hints about the direction the Packers are headed, especially with how they deploy Graham. If he can be effective when splitting out wide, it would alleviate the shortage of experienced wide receivers.
What will the offensive line look like?
Three positions are set, but there is major uncertainty on the right side. Justin McCray, last season’s super sub, seemingly has claimed the vacant job at right guard, which might be his natural position anyway. The big question is at right tackle, where Bryan Bulaga had surgery for a torn ACL in November. The Packers haven’t said if Bulaga will participate in camp, but given the timetable for ACL surgeries, it’s likely he will open the season on the physically unable to perform list. That means Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy, two oft-injured 2016 draft picks, will get another shot to prove they can cut it in the NFL, especially Spriggs, who added much-needed bulk. As insurance, the Packers signed journeyman Byron Bell in free agency. One of those three will probably have to hold the fort until at least midseason.
Can Mike Pettine develop an inside pass rush?
Pettine, the new defensive coordinator, has been successful at manufacturing a pass rush in his previous NFL stops, largely by isolating his interior pass rushers one-on-one and getting a strong push up the middle. Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark should benefit from that, but the wild card is free agent end Muhammad Wilkerson. Once a high-end pass-rusher, including his first two NFL seasons under Pettine, Wilkerson’s star has faded. But he’s only 28, so the Packers hope a reunion with Pettine and a one-year, prove-it contract will help him regain his form.
Can the Packers find more edge rushers?
Clay Matthews is a special pass rusher and Nick Perry has been pretty good, but age and injury have taken their toll and even Matthews said reinforcements are needed at outside linebacker. It’s imperative that one or two edge rushers emerge during a camp that should give them ample opportunity to show what they can do. The best bet is former University of Wisconsin athlete Vince Biegel, who had a lost rookie season due to injury. Among the others, Kyler Fackrell might be on his last chance and Reggie Gilbert showed flashes after a late-season call-up from the practice squad.
Is there safety in numbers?
When the Packers let Morgan Burnett walk in free agency, it thrust athletic Josh Jones into the starting lineup alongside Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The Packers tried to use Jones in a hybrid role as a rookie but he never got up to speed and made too many mistakes. The hope is he can become a playmaker if he concentrates on one position. The Packers had better be right because the remaining safeties are career backups.
Can cornerback go from a weakness to a strength?
After several years of watching poor cornerback play undermine the defense, the Packers jettisoned the troublesome Randall, then loaded up at the position, signing prodigal son Tramon Williams and using their top two draft picks on Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. Those three join veterans Davon House, Kevin King and Quinten Rollins in a secondary that will probably utilize four cornerbacks extensively. Questions remain, however. Williams must show he can still play at 35, Alexander and Jackson must live up to the promise they showed in minicamps and King and Rollins, former second-round draft picks coming off major surgeries, must show they can contribute when healthy.
Are either of these rookies special?
Needing improvement on special teams, the Packers took the unusual step of drafting a punter and a long-snapper. JK Scott impressed everyone with his booming punts during minicamp practices, but the transition to the NFL can be difficult for punters because they are asked to do more in terms of directional kicking. Hunter Bradley, the late-round long-snapper, struggled in the minicamps and will have to show something in the exhibition games to make the roster.