Sorting Out the Talent: Green Bay's Top Five Preseason Positional Battles
Few teams in the NFL are able to brag about their overall talent level like the Green Bay Packers. But, even with the obvious talent at their disposal, the Green and Gold finished an ashamedly puzzling 6-10 last year.
The reason? While they lack glaring roster holes, they also lack the type of elite personnel who will themselves into making game changing plays.
Competition brings out the best in those that accept the challenge, and the next crop of Packer stars could emerge from this year's prime training camp battles.
The main competition: Atari Bigby, Aaron Rouse, and Anthony Smith.
Pro Bowler Nick Collins will man the free safety position, leaving a muddled yet talented mess at strong safety.
Despite his critics, Atari Bigby had a strong 2007 season. And then injuries took over in 2008, resulting in a lost season. He is in his prime and expected to be 100 percent for training camp.
If he can maintain his health, a true prime year as the enforcer of the defensive backfield could be in his future. If injuries remain a problem, and he loses his starting job, he could be amongst the names cut this preseason.
Aaron Rouse is the most physically gifted candidate for the open slot in the secondary. He possesses a rare size / speed combination that has helped him make some game changing plays in his first two years in the league.
Despite his nose for the ball, his fundamentals are lacking.
He often finds himself out of position in pass coverage, and geometry probably wasn't his strongest subject in school, as the angles he takes to the ball carrier are downright dreadful at times.
But if he is willing to put in the work he could be an All-Pro.
Anthony Smith is the dark horse candidate. He has a good set of tools and has a head hunter mentality. He rode the Pittsburgh bench last season, despite a promising start to his career.
If there is one advantage that he has over his running mates it's that he understands that this could be his last shot in the NFL. He was humbled by his stint with the Steelers, and a fire and hunger to succeed should carry over into 2009.
Right Outside Linebacker
The main competition: Clay Matthews, Brady Poppinga, and Jeremy Thompson.
Aaron Kampman is expected to man the LOLB spot in the new 3-4 defense, allowing a wide open competition for playing time at ROLB.
Many expect Clay Matthews to immediately assume the opening in the linebacking core. Green Bay's front office obviously loves the skill set, work ethic, and attitude that he provides, judging by the infamous draft day trade that Ted Thompson executed.
It will be fascinating to see where Matthews comfort with the 3-4 lies when training camp roles around. Whether he starts or not, Matthews is expected to be a major influence on both defense and special teams.
Brady Poppinga hasn't done anything Earth shattering since becoming a member of the starting unit. I would go so far as to say that oftentimes he has been the weakest link on defense.
His coverage skills are subpar, and despite his reputation coming out of college, his pass rushing ability has not translated to the NFL.
But he is a strong run defender and, physically, he seems to be a good fit for the 3-4. How fast will he adapt to it, though, after years in the 4-3?
Jeremy Thompson is the wild card of the bunch. He is expected to be Aaron Kampman's backup at LOLB, but will be given every opportunity to enter the ROLB competition.
Coming out of college, Thompson flashed the type of skills that fit the 3-4 very well. So, he may have been miscast as a defensive end last season when he looked physically overmatched at times. With the opportunity to work in space a new player could emerge.
Right Defensive End
The main competition: Justin Harrell, Johnny Jolly, and B.J. Raji.
The defensive line as a whole will act as a rotation, making every member absolutely essential to the team's overall success. But you can bet your last buck that every member of this competition prefers being called a "starter" as opposed to a "rotational player."
Coming out of college, many scouts had Justin Harrell pegged as a prototypical 3-4 defensive end.
In the NFL, he has shown the ability to hold his ground and disrupt the opposing running game, both essential assignments for a 3-4 end, despite his chronic injury issues.
This could be the make or break year for Harrell.
Johnny Jolly has the ability to be a solid 3-4 end, even though his ultimate strength is his ability to penetrate the offensive line from the defensive tackle position.
He will still be allowed to use that ability when the team lines up in their sub-packages, but the Packers are looking for more out of the young man who made a big impression in 2007. They are looking for a stout member of the base 3-4 to emerge.
Is Jolly up to the task?
Ryan Pickett is expected to start at nose tackle, despite the drafting of B.J. Raji, as Pickett lacks the versatility and athleticism needed to move to another position.
Even though Raji lacks the ideal height and arm length to play defensive end, if Green Bay wants their best run stuffing unit on the field in their base 3-4, Raji will be starting right next to Pickett and will be a versatile member of every defensive front the Packers apply.
The competition: Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn.
The backup quarterback can either be one of the most insignificant positions on the football team or the second most important. It all depends on lady luck.
The Packers are hoping for a spirited competition where both young signal callers show significant improvement over their respective rookie campaigns.
The team won't come out and say it, but they hope that Brohm wins the competition and shows signs of being a strong backup, in the short term.
Three years from now, the Packers want Brohm to be a quality starter and Flynn to be a top notch backup. This year's preseason will provide the foreshadowing.
The main competition: Breno Giacomini, Allen Barbre, and T.J. Lang.
Giacomini was drafted as a long-term prospect at offensive tackle, and so far everything has gone according to plan—everything except for his offseason ankle surgery.
He has been limited this offseason due to it, but the team expects him to be 100 percent for the start of training camp.
The coaching staff raved about his progress throughout last season, where everyday in practice he lined up across from Aaron Kampman. He comes in as the favorite, but far from a lock.
Allen Barbre has disappointed thus far in his career, but all of the physical tools are present. A player's third year in the league is usually when they come into their own, and the Packers hope that Barbre follows suit. The opportunities to lock down a starting job along the line are drying up.
First and foremost, T.J. Lang brings attitude to the offensive line. Secondly, he brings versatility, and it's that valuable versatility that could keep him from making a serious run at the starting right tackle opening.
But if he comes in and simply outplays the rest of his running mates, it will be impossible to keep him out of the lineup. He has the skills and intangibles to get it done. He is not your typical fourth round draft pick.