Key Position Battles Are Looming For Green Bay Packers
As we all anticipate the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.
Ultimately, at the start of NFL training camp, the Green Bay Packers have a couple of key positional battles that will be critical if they are to rebound from last season's 6-10 record and look to re-claim the NFC North title.
With holes to fill at right tackle, defensive end, and tight end, as well as a crowded group at linebacker, the competition is fierce and the bodies are many.
Right Tackle: Breno Giacomini vs. TJ Lang vs. Allen Barbre vs. Tony Moll
For nearly a decade this position was manned capably by the home-grown Wisconsin boy, Mark Tauscher. But in an unfortunate twist of fate, in a contract year, Tauscher tore up his knee last December.
He is unsigned and doctors say it will be October before he is ready to play football again. This has forced the Packers to find a new starter at a key position.
At 6'7 and 311 pounds, Breno has exceptional size. After his sophomore season at Louisville, he was only 242 pounds and was a tight end. By the time he started his senior season he was 303 pounds and became a second-team All Big East player.
The second-year tackle saw action in only one game in 2008, his rookie season, after being drafted by the Packers in the fifth round. He is an effective pass blocker using his height and long arms to neutralize pass rushers; his weakness has been run-blocking.
With a year to learn the zone blocking scheme and add strength, if his zone blocking is improved he could very well win the starting job at right tackle.
The rookie fourth round draft pick from Eastern Michigan has a real chance to nail down the starting job. He played all five offensive line positions at EMU, including starting his last 26 games at left tackle.
He also has four years' experience in the zone blocking scheme similar to the one used by the Packers. Known as a good drive blocker on running plays, he also showed at the "Texas vs. Nation" all-star game week that he naturally anchors vs bull pass rushers.
Though some think he would be better inside, I think he has the athleticism to be a good right tackle. Lang also has a mean streak and will maul pass rushers. When I watch his tape it reminds me of former Packer center, Frank Winters.
Barbre enters his 3rd year with the Packers and is the "mystery" candidate at right tackle. He dominated Division II collegiately at Southern Missouri State. He has excellent quickness and speed for a 6'4 308 pound man. He can be an effective gunner on special teams.
But his play on offense has been disappointing. He is known for his ability to finish blocks. He also has good side to side movement on pass blocking with quickness to get to the pass rusher. However, he lost a training camp battle at left guard last August to Daryn Colledge.
Packer line coach James Campen has stated that right tackle is the best fit for Barbre. The questions that have plagued him have been his mental abilities. He seems slow to learn schemes and plays. he also needs to keep his pad level lower.
He was hesitant last pre-season. He has all the tools, but will the light bulb come on for him this training camp? If so, he has a chance to start. If not, he could be in jeopardy of being cut.
Moll is far and away the most experienced of the candidates to start at right tackle. Entering his fourth season, he has started 18 games and played in 39. He has also played both guard spots and previously started at right tackle. On the surface, he may be considered the favorite to win the job.
However, his career has been hurt by "consistent inconsistency". After a promising rookie season he looked like a sure future starter. However his uneven play has had him benched on several occasions.
Another former college tight end, Moll only played offensive line for one year before being drafted by Packers in '06. With little knowledge or experience as an offensive lineman, perhaps all the moving around the Packers coaches have done with him has hurt his development.
At times he has shown athleticism and solid zone run blocking. But he has also had times when he has given up sacks in bunches. Which Tony Moll will we see in training Camp and in pre-season games?
The answer to this question could be either our starting right tackle...or his name on the waiver wire.
Defensive End: Ryan Pickett vs. BJ Raji vs Johnny Jolly vs. Justin Harrell
It is certain that Ryan Pickett will start this fall. What is uncertain is whether he starts at nose tackle or at left defensive end. It is certain that Cullen Jenkins will start at defensive end if he is healthy. It is certain that rookie first round draft pick BJ Raji will see extensive playing time.
What is uncertain is whether he will play more defensive end or nose tackle. The biggest uncertainty is whether former 1st round draft pick Justin Harrell will be healthy, in shape, and motivated to reach his potential.
Adding to the uncertainty is whether Johnny Jolly can take care of his legal matters, avoid a league suspension, and can he play defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.
Where Pickett lines up depends on how quickly rookie BJ Raji picks up the new 3-4 scheme and whether Raji is more effective at nose tackle or at defensive end.
Pickett is a massive man and strong as an ox. At 6'2 and 335 pounds, he bench presses well over 400 pounds. He can plug the middle with the best of them.
Though some think he will be a very effective 3-4 nose tackle and compare him to Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton, Pickett could end up at defensive end if Raji shows early that he can be a dynamic and disruptive nose tackle.
The key with Pickett will be to limit his snaps during games so he will be fresh in fourth quarter of games to help stop the opposing team's running game.
A lot rides on this rookie!
If he can pick up the 3-4 scheme and "hit the ground running," he can be moved all around the defensive line. He brings a much better inside pass rush as opposed to Pickett.
On running downs, Raji can line up beside Pickett; between the two, the Packers would have 700 pounds of run-stuffing talent. On passing downs he can move inside and provide a big push up front along with Cullen Jenkins.
We will see Raji at both defensive end and nose tackle. And the pace of his development will go a long way as to the fortunes of the overall defense.
Harrell is without a doubt the most maligned candidate to compete for a starting job at defensive end. A former first round pick in 2007, injuries have limited his practice time. He also has very little to show when he has played.
At 6'4 and 310 and with good speed, he has all the tools. But back and arm injuries have cursed him since his arrival in Titletown. If he recovers from a back injury suffered last season, and is healthy coming into training camp he could blossom into a starting defensive end on the opposite side from Jenkins.
A former high school tight end and basketball star, Harrell had a nice career at Tennessee. If healthy and motivated, he could provide a big body at defensive end as well as quickness and decent pass rush ability.
The Packers won't give up on Harrell no matter what happens in 2009. However, the clock is now ticking loudly on his Packer career.
Many question marks surround Jolly.
He will go on trial in July for a charge of criminal possession of codeine. Though he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, indications are that he may be able to resolve his legal problems without missing any "NFL" time. He also could suffer the wrath of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and be looking at a suspension.
Should he resolve both of these matters, he still faces questions of where he fits in the Packers defensive line for the upcoming season. At 6'3 and 312 pounds, he is a big and athletic player. He played well as the starter at defensive tackle in 2008 in the Packers old 4-3 scheme.
He was really starting to come into his own as a starting defensive tackle. He is very solid versus the run and has a knack of knocking down passes or at least getting his arm up to impede opposing quarterback's vision.
But can he play defensive end in a 3-4 scheme? He is not much of a pass rusher. Yet, in the new 3-4 scheme, he won't be expected to be much of a pass rusher.
If he resolves his legal problems, and if he avoids a suspension, and if BJ Raji needs time to progress, and if Justin Harrell gets hurt or flops in training camp...Jolly could be the starting defensive end.
He is in the final year of his contract and will be playing for some big money. But there are a lot of "ifs".
Tight End: Donald Lee vs. Jermichael Finley vs. Tory Humphrey vs. Carson Butler
After catching 48 passes for 575 yards and a healthy 12.0 yard average in 2007, his numbers dipped to 39 catches for 303 yards and a paltry 7.8 average per catch in 2008. Lee has ok size, has decent hands and is a willing but pedestrian blocker. Solid but not spectacular in any area.
He signed a hefty contract extension after his good '07 campaign. With a couple young and more athletic tight ends in his "rear view mirror," Lee needs to have a better season in 09 if he is to remain the starter.
He simply has the athleticism that make scouts drool. at 6'5 and 247 pounds, he ran a 4.42 40-yard dash before the Packers selected him in the 3rd round of the 2008 draft.
Now we need to see maturity.
Declaring after his sophomore year, Finley just turned 22 in March. A married father of two children, Packers coaches are looking for him to mature on the field as he has in his personal life.
In practices Finley has made spectacular plays. However he was a liability when he played in '08. He compounded matters by making negative comments about Aaron Rodgers and the offensive play calling.
Let's hope these are rookie mistakes. He has the speed to outrun safeties, let alone linebackers. He has the height and long arms to go up and grab passes.
If he can mentally grasp the offense and show some humbleness, he could become another big weapon for Aaron Rodgers. He never was asked to do much blocking at Texas A&M and will need a lot of improvement in that area to be an every down player.
As a pass catching TE, he has all the tools to replace Donald Lee.
This is a case of a kid who has rare athleticism and solid all around talent to be a star tight end in the NFL. This is also the case of a kid who faced assault charges while at Michigan, was dismissed from the team, came back, and then switched to defensive end as a senior.
At 6'5 and 263 lbs, he ran a 4.57 40 yard dash at Michigan as a senior. At Packer tryout camp he made a number of great catches showing an ability to jump high and adjust to the ball. He was always a solid blocker for Big Blue. As far as size, speed, hands, and blocking he could be the most talented tight end on the roster.
But with his checkered past and having gone undrafted, he could also end up on the practice squad or on the waiver wire. He made a positive impact at first rookie camp, but it remains to be seen whether he has the desire and discipline to keep improving and make the team.
Since going undrafted out of Central Michigan in 2005, Humphrey has been with the Packers on and off since that season. He has spent time on the injured reserve, practice squad, and inactive list. He has seen limited time on the field.
Packer coaches say he is a good blocker with good hands. The Packers declined to tender him a contract after the '08 season.
Humphrey then decided to take a big pay cut and re-sign as opposed to looking at other teams as a free agent. If Humphrey is healthy he would be the best blocking tight end on the roster. But he does not offer the big-play potential that Finley and Butler do.
Humphrey has a shot at making the team; however, he is probably more of an insurance policy in the event the two youngsters Finley or Butler flop in camp.
These are three position battles that will be fun to watch come training camp and pre-season. All three positions will be critical if the Packers expect to win the NFC North. The defensive end position must get solidified in order for the new 3-4 scheme to be effective.
The right tackle spot will be critical to keep Rodgers off his back and open holes for running back Ryan Grant and company. The tight end position must show production more like 20007 as opposed to 2008 if the Packer offense is going to click on all cylinders.
All three positions have some excellent young athletes that will wage intriguing battles come August!
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