Decisions made and not made this offseason have created the most important positional battles for the training camp of the Green Bay Packers.
Shuffling the offensive line and drafting two highly regarded running backs have opened up true competitions at both right tackle and running back. And the choice to stay the course at safety—instead of taking one of the many available safeties in the 2013 draft—ensured that the battle to play alongside Morgan Burnett remains wide open.
Below, we break down each of the top battles facing the Packers as they report for training camp.
1. Right Tackle
For the better part of the last three seasons, Bryan Bulaga has made the right tackle position a nonissue in Green Bay. In 2013, however, the Packers are shuffling the offensive line to help cut down on the 51 sacks that quarterback Aaron Rodgers endured last season. Bulaga will move from right to left tackle, while a number of candidates figure to compete to start at Bulaga's old spot. Chief among those are Marshall Newhouse, Derek Sherrod and Don Barclay.
Newhouse, a 29-game starter at left tackle over the last two seasons, might get the first crack at winning the job. However, he's proved to be a finesse player, which doesn't make for a great fit on the strong side of the offensive line. The Packers may want a better run-blocker to be the anchor at right tackle. However, his recent experience will be a big plus in the race.
In a perfect world, Sherrod would come to training camp healthy and then win the job.
The former first-round pick in 2011 hasn't played since late in his rookie season, when he suffered a serious lower leg injury. He'll now need to prove the leg is healthy and that there's no lingering rust to have a chance to be the opening week starter on the right side. Such a scenario seems unlikely.
Barclay might just be the most interesting player of the three.
As an emergency fill-in at right tackle last season, he held his own and gradually became more comfortable against top competition. He's strong in the running game and plays with a toughness that is lacking from the other candidates. If he shows an improvement in the passing game in camp, Barclay could end up as the starter over Newhouse and Sherrod.
Regardless of who wins the job, the Packers need improvement at both left and right tackle in 2013. Moving Bulaga to the left side should fix one problem, but his departure from the right creates another. The Packers have a full training camp to figure out the man who will attempt to solve the other half of the equation.
Morgan Burnett is locked in as one of the Packers' starting safeties, likely through the 2017 season. However, there is uncertainty about who will play alongside him next season.
Both Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings received playing time there last season, but neither has put himself ahead in the competition to start in 2013.
McMillian, a fourth-round pick in 2012, plays with a reckless energy and appears to have some playmaking ability. His struggles have mostly come in pass coverage, where he had a few mental lapses during his rookie season including allowing four completions over 20 yards. However, he is the kind of athletic and tough player the Packers want at safety long term.
Jennings is undersized at 5'11" and 195 pounds, but he's much more polished in pass coverage than his still-developing competition. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he allowed the least amount of receptions (eight) and yards (53) among safeties who played at least 50 percent of their team's snaps last season.
The strengths and weaknesses of the two players open the door for the possibility of another platoon situation. Jennings could be used on obvious passing downs, and McMillian could be called upon when the Packers go to bigger, run-stuffing fronts. Dom Capers employed such a safety-by-committee approach for most of last season, and if neither player emerges as the clear starter in camp, he'll likely have to do it again.
That said, the Packers would prefer for one player to grab the job and take it for his own. McMillian likely offers the most in terms of athleticism, toughness and potential, but he won't be handed the job by the hands of the steady Jennings. The second-year safety will have to earn it over the next month.
3. Running Back
Credit the Packers for identifying an obvious weakness in the roster and then using the draft to attack it relentlessly. For a team that failed to produce a 500-yard rusher in 2012, the Packers entered April's draft with a clear need for a game-changing running back.
General manager Ted Thompson might have acquired two of them this offseason.
Second-round pick Eddie Lacy is arguably the most talented running back from the 2013 draft, and only worries about a toe injury kept him available for the Packers at No. 61 overall. He now brings the most natural running talent to the Green Bay offense since maybe Ahman Green.
Johnathan Franklin was considered a potential top-60 pick, but he fell to the Packers in the fourth round. At that point, his value—as a potential Frank Gore-type back—was too high for Thompson to pass up. In a nutshell, his selection was the Packers' way of hedging their bets in case Lacy's toe ends up being a chronic problem.
However, three backs remain from the 2012 season and will challenge the rookies for playing time.
The 5'7" DuJuan Harris burst onto the scene late and was impressive down the stretch including in the playoffs. Given a full offseason in the Packers system, Harris could emerge as a valuable and versatile weapon in 2013.
Veterans Alex Green and James Starks are still intriguing players, but both have dealt with health issues.
Green is still recovering from an ACL injury suffered during his rookie season, and the Packers hope his explosion will now return two years removed from the surgery. Starks, a playoff hero in 2010, has missed 13 games over the last two seasons and a whopping 26 over his three-year NFL career. He'll now need a completely healthy training camp to make the team.
For the first time in the Aaron Rodgers' era, the Packers have more running back talent than they know what to do with. Training camp will be the setting for figuring out which of the players receive the carries, which fill out the depth chart and which are sent packing.
In his second season, B.J. Coleman might be ready to overtake Graham Harrell as the No. 2 quarterback. Coleman is superior to the noodle-armed Harrell in almost every physical category, but Harrell does have vast experience in Mike McCarthy's offense. Let the best quarterback win the job in camp.
Cornerback might be the most talented position on the Packers roster, but the competition here comes from how the depth chart will shake out.
Tramon Williams is a veteran who is another year removed from the nerve damage he suffered in his shoulder. Sam Shields might have been one of the top two or three cornerbacks in football at the end of last season. Casey Hayward mastered the slot during his rookie season and led the Packers with six interceptions. And Davon House has the kind of length and pressing ability that Dom Capers loves.
Overall, the Packers may have four starters at cornerback. Now, they must find out who plays and who sits.
Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones are locked in as the top three receivers. Behind that trio, however, the Packers receiving depth chart looks wide open.
Jarrett Boykin won a roster spot with an impressive preseason last August, but the Packers also drafted two seventh-round receivers in April. The team always seems to pluck one or two good undrafted free agents at the position, too. A bunch of youngsters will need to sort out who plays the role as the No. 4 and 5 receivers in camp.
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