Updating the Packers' Key Position Battles Halfway Through Training Camp
The Green Bay Packers are coming off of a disappointing 17-0 loss to the Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field in their first preseason game of 2013. Between that contest, the Family Night scrimmage and the practices leading up to the game, the picture has gotten a bit clearer in terms of who is winning the key positional battles.
The Packers have three more preseason games in which players can prove themselves, but the time is getting shorter. The first roster cut is not that far off, as all teams have to be down to 75 players by August 27.
The real big day is four days later, as all teams must be down to 53 players.
But for now, let's look at who is winning the competitions for the various positions.
The position of starting left tackle became available when the Packers announced Bryan Bulaga would be lost for the season due to an ACL tear that occurred in the Family Night scrimmage.
The loss of Bulaga was huge for a couple of reasons. The Packers made a dynamic statement when they decided to move both Bulaga and guard Josh Sitton to the left side of the line more than three months ago.
Bulaga and Sitton are considered the two best offensive linemen the Packers have.
The left side is also the blind side of Aaron Rodgers, and the play of Marshall Newhouse the past two seasons was leaving Rodgers too vulnerable in terms of getting sacked.
So when Bulaga was injured, head coach Mike McCarthy had a decision to make. He could place Newhouse back at left tackle or give impressive rookie David Bakhtiari a shot as a starter there.
McCarthy went with Bakhtiari. And based on practices and the game against the Cardinals, it looks like he made the right decision.
Bakhtiari has been very good in pass protection and is aggressive in his run-blocking, although he needs to become more consistent in that area.
Even before Bryan Bulaga was injured, the coaching staff decided to give Marshall Newhouse the first shot at starting right tackle. It was apparent in the practices heading up to the Family Night scrimmage that David Bakhtiari was gaining ground on Newhouse and had outperformed him.
Bulaga then suffered an ACL tear in that scrimmage, and Bakhtiari was moved to left tackle. That meant Newhouse would now be primarily battling with Don Barclay, who had started six games (including the postseason) at the position in 2012.
Up to that point, Barclay had been playing almost everywhere on the offensive line, as the Packers were intrigued by his versatility and ability to play inside as well. Barclay saw snaps at center and right guard in addition to right tackle.
In the game against the Cardinals, Barclay clearly outplayed Newhouse, and he is once again the odds-on favorite to win the starting job at right tackle.
Barclay's biggest attributes are his tenacity and run-blocking. He is improving with his pass-blocking, but he still has issues at times with edge-rushers.
On the depth chart at running back, the Packers have DuJuan Harris listed as the starting running back. However, Harris has yet to play. He had a procedure done to remove a cyst from his lung and is now dealing with a knee issue. The Packers hope to remove Harris from the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list soon.
Alex Green is next on the depth chart, but he started having some issues with the knee he injured back in 2011 (ACL) last week, and his performance in the game against the Cardinals was nothing to write home about.
James Starks started the game at running back versus the Cardinals and was OK, but he was also stopped short of the goal line on a fourth-and-short play on the only drive led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Starks has had a pretty impressive camp so far.
So has rookie Eddie Lacy, who really looked good in the Family Night scrimmage before having some hamstring issues the week of the Cardinal game that kept him from playing.
Fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin played in the game and looked pretty comfortable—especially catching the football, which will be his primary role as a third-down back.
Undrafted rookie Angelo Pease even got a carry in the game, but he is most likely headed to the practice squad.
Until Harris is back on the field, the situation at running back is a bit murky.
Lacy got most of the snaps at running back on Family Night, and I would expect that to happen in the future as long as he stays healthy.
Starks is having his best camp ever with the Packers, and he is also in the mix. Franklin has impressed the coaches with his ability on third down. Green was having a good camp until his knee issue flared up.
The Packers really like Harris, and his designation on the depth chart tells you that. But he needs to get back on the field soon if he expects to be part of the regular rotation at running back.
The battle for the starting job at strong safety is between Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings. So far, McMillian has had a slightly better camp.
In the game against the Cardinals, the secondary was torched on numerous occasions, although most of that was due to the inconsistent play at cornerback. McMillian had one unassisted tackle, while Jennings had an assisted tackle.
McMillian has become quite boisterous at practice. He is constantly jawing with his offensive teammates or trying to fire up the defense.
McMillian is a better tackler than Jennings, but Jennings has the edge in pass coverage.
It's early, and I think both players will get significant playing time in 2013, but right now I have to give the edge to McMillian.
That being said, there must be more big plays from the position—much like Morgan Burnett has been able to do at the opposite safety position.
Backup Defensive End
If the season started tomorrow and everyone was healthy, the starting defensive ends would be rookie Datone Jones and B.J. Raji, with Ryan Pickett playing nose tackle.
Depth is very important on the defensive line—a fact that was never more apparent than when Jones sprained an ankle on his very first series in the game against the Cardinals.
The four key backups at the position are C.J. Wilson, Johnny Jolly, Mike Daniels and Mike Neal.
Wilson has had a solid camp and is bigger than last year. Jolly is starting to shake off the rust of the three years he wasn't able to play in the NFL and is looking more like the Jolly of 2009.
Daniels has been pretty impressive. He looks to fill a role as a passing-down rush specialist, much like he did last year as a rookie. Neal was looked at as both a defensive end and an outside linebacker before he suffered an abdominal strain prior to training camp that landed him on the PUP list for awhile.
The biggest surprise of these four players is definitely Wilson. He is battling his competition tooth and nail. He is still strong against the run, which he showed on a couple of occasions in the Arizona game.
Jolly is a lot like he was before his suspension. He is very talkative on the field, and he plays with a chip on his shoulder. Jolly needs to make sure he can still walk the walk, though. He showed signs in the game against the Cardinals that he still can play pretty well.
The two biggest pass-rushers the Packers have on their defensive line other than Jones are Daniels and Neal. Daniels needs to keep his motor running, and Neal needs to get back on the field and not become the injury-prone player he was his first two years in the NFL.
I recently did a story about the situation at backup quarterback. The situation is not a good one—not at this time, at least.
Every NFL team wants a backup quarterback who has the ability to win a couple of games if the situation arises.
Packer fans surely remember that is exactly what Zeke Bratkowski did when he backed up Bart Starr in the 1960s when Starr was injured.
If nothing else, a quality backup will allow a team to later trade him for some decent compensation. In the last 20 years, the Packers have done exactly that with players like Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks and Matt Flynn.
Right now, the backup quarterback situation in Green Bay is up in the air, and the Packers told the world when they signed veteran Vince Young shortly after the Family Night scrimmage.
Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman didn't distinguish themselves in the game against the Cardinals.
In the case of Coleman, it's somewhat understandable. He spent his rookie year on the practice squad last year and is still learning the offensive system of Mike McCarthy.
Harrell has no excuses. He has been on the team since 2010. It's time to put up or shut up.
That is why Young is in camp. Unlike Harrell or Coleman, Young has the ability to make a play with his feet. He's also a former AP Offensive Rookie of the Year who went to two Pro Bowls.
Time will tell if Young can learn enough of the McCarthy offense to make a true impact this preseason, but he surely will be given the chance.
One thing is certain: The Packers have plenty of talent at the cornerback position. But it was hard to tell at times in the preseason game between the Packers and Cardinals. The Packers gave up a number of big pass plays, and the cornerback position was exposed.
The Packers gave up 270 passing yards that game, including three pass plays of 25 yards or longer.
Granted, regulars like Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward did not play. Still, with the talent the Packers have at the cornerback position, the big pass plays were excessive.
In particular, Davon House did not have a good night. House played last season with a shoulder harness due to a shoulder injury in the very first preseason game. House still has excellent skills, as do the players he is competing against.
If all players were healthy, I would expect Williams and Sam Shields to be the two starting cornerbacks in the base defense. In the nickel package, which is what the Packers predominantly play, Hayward comes in as the slot corner.
The rest of the backups will earn their roster spots with solid play in the secondary and being exceptional on special teams.
This group includes House, Jarrett Bush, Micah Hyde, James Nixon, Brandon Smith and Loyce Means.
The first thing that needs to happen is for Williams and Hayward to get back on the field so the secondary can get some consistent work with them.
Until then, the others have to look more like the cornerbacks who have played well in practice—as opposed to their showing in the game against the Cardinals.