Burning Questions for Green Bay Packers Training Camp
The Green Bay Packers will enter training camp with a number of questions that need answering before the 2013 season kicks off.
Defensive additions, changes along the offensive line and several depth-related issues highlight the most important of these questions as the Packers get ready to report for camp on July 25.
In the following slides, we'll address each of the biggest questions for the Packers in this year's training camp.
Who Will Be the Backup Quarterback?
For a second straight training camp, the Packers will have Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman as the primary backups to Aaron Rodgers. It's one of the most inexperienced backup duos in the NFL, and arguably one of the worst overall.
Head coach Mike McCarthy will now be given a month of practice and four games to decide on his No. 2 quarterback for 2013.
While Coleman was just learning the ropes as a rookie a year ago, he's now likely ready to challenge Harrell for the backup role in year two.
Coleman is clearly superior physically, with a bigger frame and a more talented arm. Harrell has a mastery of the Packers offense in his corner.
The deciding factor in the race might be Coleman's progression mentally. Now with a year of experience in McCarthy's offense, Coleman should have the game start slowing down for him. That comfort in the playbook will provide him with a golden opportunity to overtake Harrell, who still possesses a below-average arm and limited mobility.
How Will the RB Carries Be Split?
For the first time in the Aaron Rodgers era, the Packers have more talent at running back at than they know what to do with.
General manager Ted Thompson spent two picks on the position during April's draft, adding Alabama's Eddie Lacy in the second round and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin in the fourth. Both are now expected to be major contributors for a backfield that has struggled in Green Bay over recent seasons.
Of course, the Packers are also excited about DuJuan Harris, who returns after impressing down the stretch and into the playoffs last season. He'll be a contender for major touches in his second season with Green Bay.
Even returning veterans such as Alex Green and James Starks present competition at the position. If the two stay healthy throughout camp, there's no reason why either player would be shut out of the carries split.
Mike McCarthy has always been content with splitting carries and leaning on the hot hand. The Packers are obviously raising expectations for Lacy and Franklin, but training camp will decide how the offense hands out its touches to the running backs to start 2013.
Who Will Win the Right Tackle Job?
Without making a major acquisition, the Packers completed the one move they could to promote improvement on the offensive line: shuffling the best players to the most important positions.
Top offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga will move from the right to left side, while Pro Bowler Josh Sitton is following him to left guard.
However, Bulaga's transition to the left side has opened up a hole at right tackle.
The race to fill the hole figures to come down to three players: Marshall Newhouse, Derek Sherrod and Don Barclay.
Newhouse has started 29 straight games for the Packers at left tackle, but he might be too soft in the run game to be a real option on the right side (or strong side) of the offensive line. His development as a pass-blocker does give him a chance, however.
Sherrod, a former first-round pick, hasn't played a single down since a horrific lower leg injury in December 2011. His prolonged absence should create plenty of doubt over whether he can step in and fill the right tackle position immediately.
Barclay might be the favorite to win the job, especially after providing a steady presence in an emergency situation at right tackle to end last season. If he improves at protecting the passer—not an unreasonable thing to expect in his second season—Barclay has all of the tools (toughness, efficiency in the run game) to be a starter on the right side.
Bulaga and Sitton are likely do a better job protecting Aaron Rodgers' blind side next season, but the shuffle will be for nothing if the player who wins the right tackle job can't handle the new responsibilities.
Have the Issues on the Defensive Side Been Solved?
The Packers were clearly better on defense in 2012 than in 2011, but any improvements made were mostly lost when the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers had their way with the unit late in the season.
Adrian Peterson rushed for 199 yards to lead a 444-yard output by the Vikings offense in a Week 17 win. Two weeks later, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick orchestrated a 579-yard, 45-point thrashing of Dom Capers' defense in the NFC divisional round.
Are the Packers now more capable of stopping such offenses in 2013?
UCLA defensive end Datone Jones should bring some length and athleticism to the defensive front, while the size and speed of Nick Perry could be the missing piece opposite Clay Matthews at outside linebacker. If both players stay healthy, the defense figures to at least have more overall talent next season.
With a trip to San Francisco on the schedule for Week 1, Capers and the Packers will get a taste of where they are at right away. Jones, Perry and a renewed focus on the read-option will have to fuel any improvement in 2013.
Is the Offensive Line Any Better?
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Aaron Rodgers certainly hopes the answer to this question is yes.
While the Packers quarterback occasionally holds the football longer than he should, he's also a magician in getting out of sacks, which has likely saved his offense from a number of big losses over the years.
In 2012, even the mobile Rodgers couldn't avoid being sacked 51 times.
When the far-too-high number of sacks was combined with an average-to-poor performance blocking for the run, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy started his preparation for the 2013 season by shuffling his offensive line.
But will the changes make any difference?
There is certainly wisdom in McCarthy's changes. By putting your best offensive tackle and best offensive guard on the quarterback's blind side, you figure that a mobile quarterback like Rodgers will be able to cover up some of the mistakes made by a rebuilt right side of the line.
Bryan Bulaga, a former first-round pick, and Josh Sitton, a 2012 Pro Bowler, should be big improvements in the passing game for the left side. If Packers can now find a suitable option for the right tackle position, it'd be difficult to find a reason why the offensive line wouldn't be better in 2013.
Who Starts at Safety Alongside Morgan Burnett?
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The Packers have ensured that Morgan Burnett will be leading the team's secondary for the foreseeable future. But in 2013, who will be starting next to him at safety?
Charles Woodson is gone, and Nick Collins isn't walking through that door. The Packers have also avoided making any kind of acquisition, either through free agency or the draft, to add to the safety competition.
Entering 2013, former fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian and third-year pro M.D. Jennings will again slug it out to play alongside Burnett.
The two were given extended roles once Woodson went out with injury last season, but neither took hold of the position.
McMillian is an athletic and tough safety who brings energy and run support. However, he's struggled in pass coverage at times and is still learning how to play Dom Capers' defense.
Jennings has been much better in covering the deep half, but his size doesn't lend itself to playing the run or being a sure tackler.
The Packers will obviously want one player to grab the starting position and run with it. And in an ideal world, McMillian would be that safety.
However, it's very easy to envision the Packers sticking with a platoon (each played roughly 600 total snaps in 2012) where Jennings is called on in more pass coverage situations and McMillian is the in-the-box, run-supporting safety. Camp will determine whether that scenario continues or not to start next season.
Will Randall Cobb Continue as the Primary Returner?
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Randall Cobb appears to be on the edge of becoming a star at the receiver position.
He led the team in catches during his second season, and he proved to be much more than just a shifty slot receiver. He was dangerous to all areas of the field, and he was even asked to run the football in the Packers' cobra formation.
The question now is whether Green Bay should keep having such a valuable offensive weapon return punts and kicks.
Cobb is one of the NFL's best at doing both, as he finished in the top 10 of averages for both punts and kick in 2012. On any given return, he can spring a score (three career touchdowns) or set up one for the offense.
But his value has shifted more and more toward the offensive side of the football, and his injury while returning a punt late last season highlighted the risk of having him on special teams.
The Packers eventually lifted his duties, but it also cost them in the postseason; inexperienced returner Jeremy Ross botched a punt return against the 49ers that directly led to a game-changing San Francisco touchdown.
The Packers want to protect Cobb, but they don't want to sacrifice a trusted and talented weapon returning kicks. They now need someone else (Ross, Johnathan Franklin, Micah Hyde?) to take the bull by the horns and win the trust of the staff in camp. If no one does, don't be surprised to see Cobb stay on special teams.
Who Plays at Cornerback?
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The Packers are in the enviable position of having four starting-quality cornerbacks in Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House on the roster. Now, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. need to find out which of the four plays to start in 2013.
Each seems to bring something different to the equation.
Now nearly two years removed from a shoulder injury that caused nerve damage, the 30-year-old Williams might be ready to bounce back to his playmaking form. He remains the veteran leader of the group, having started 66 games since 2008.
Few cornerbacks in the NFL were as good as Shields was to end 2012, which he capped off by intercepting Colin Kaepernick for a touchdown in the postseason. He brings championship experience, elite-level speed on the outside and the desire for a long-term deal.
Hayward was the surprise of last season, as the second-rounder intercepted a team-high six passes and all but mastered covering the slot. He's now ready for more responsibility and playing time in his second season.
Even House, a former fourth-round pick, showed in training camp that he has the makings of a starter. He's long, with the ability to press at the line of scrimmage, and he'll be in the running to start at one of the outside spots.
Keep in mind, the Packers play the nickel defense, which features three cornerbacks, as often as any team in football. Three of these players will be on the field for the majority of the snaps.
However, training camp will decide how the Packers want to split the snaps to start next season. Picking three starters from four talented options will be difficult.