5 pressing questions going into Packers training camp
The Green Bay Packers open training camp on July 27 looking ahead to a new season they hope will be a significant improvement over their calamitous 2017 campaign, when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone and the team missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years, prompting an organizational overhaul.
There's a new general manager making decisions, a new coordinator coaching the defense, new faces at important positions and still plenty of question marks in other areas. The Packers, in their quaint tradition, have moved into the dorms at St. Norbert College, and will soon be riding children's bikes to football practice and preparing for the 2018 season.
Here are five pressing questions going into training camp:
1. Will Rodgers get a new contract?
Green Bay's most crucial contract negotiation – and the most compelling in the NFL, currently – is Rodgers'. The Packers' superstar quarterback, who has two seasons and more than $40 million remaining on the five-year, $110 million deal he signed in 2013, is set to become, rightfully, the league's highest-paid player.
The two sides have been in discussions for some time but have yet to reach agreement. As one of the sport's best players, Rodgers has legitimate leverage to demand a deal commensurate with the ever-increasing pay scale of NFL quarterbacks (he's now the 10th-highest-paid QB in the league). But he also still has two years left on his contract – and teams can always franchise players – so the Packers have the upper hand because timing is on their side.
The Packers have typically been proactive about extending their own valuable players, but a new Rodgers deal would likely average more than $30 million a year and they're not obligated to do one. Both Rodgers and Mike McCarthy have allayed concerns that the contract extension could become a major distraction and affect the player's performance or effort. Still, the issue hasn't – and isn't – going away.
2. How will the defense change?
After the 2017 season, Green Bay fired beleaguered longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers, and in January it hired Mike Pettine as (mercifully and at last, in many fans' opinion) his replacement. The former Cleveland Browns head coach has five years of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator – with the New York Jets (2009-12) and Buffalo Bills (2013) – and his units finished in the top 10 in total yards and passing yards allowed each season.
Pettine not only brings pedigree, but also an attitude and intensity distinct from the mild-mannered Capers. Bald and nicknamed "Blunt Force Trauma," he is fiery, outspoken and old-school, known more as a football guy than a scheme coach.
The Packers' defense ranked 22nd in 2017, the sixth time it finished in the league's bottom half in the past seven years. A season after having the second-worst passing defense in the NFL, Green Bay was No. 23 in that category in 2017. Pettine can't fix everything that's been wrong with the defense, but if he can instill a tougher, more aggressive edge in it, that's a good first step.
3. What's the cornerback depth chart?
Speaking of fixing the defense, that has to start with improvement in the secondary – specifically at cornerback – where the Packers have been torn apart in recent seasons, due to injuries, ineffectiveness and institutional defensive flaws.
Now, mercurial Damarious Randall is gone, traded to Cleveland for backup quarterback Deshon Kizer; veteran Tramon Williams is back in Green Bay after three seasons with Cleveland and Arizona; promising Kevin King and disappointing Quinten Rollins are returning to health, after shoulder and achilles injuries, respectively, cut short their 2017 campaigns. And, most notably, rookies Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, the Packers' first- and second-round draft picks, are in the mix to earn a starting job, on the outside or in the slot.
With King, who showed flashes of brilliant coverage potential last year, and the two rookies, Green Bay has plenty of natural playmaking ability at cornerback – if Pettine and the rest of the defense can put it to good use.
4. How will the running game look?
Another position flush with young talent but also filled with uncertainty is running back. At different times last year, Jamaal Williams (153 carries for 556 yards), Aaron Jones (81 for 448) and Ty Montgomery (71 for 273) all served as the No. 1 back, and each brings something different to the role.
Both selected on the final day of the 2017 NFL Draft, Williams (fourth round) and Jones (fifth round) alternated being healthy and hurt, productive and pedestrian last year as rookies. With very different running styles – Williams is bigger and a more traditional workhorse back, Jones is smaller and a quicker change-of-pace back – the duo could be "thunder and lightning" if they're able to play together.
Montgomery, meanwhile, a converted wide receiver, probably was never going to succeed as a full-time runner, but his instincts, athleticism and pass-catching skills are still valuable on third down. With new offensive coordinator Joe Philbin looking for better balance in Green Bay's offense, this versatile, multi-talented trio could be a darn good running back committee – assuming they can avoid injury.
5. How hurt will the Packers be?
Which brings us to, annually, the boldest asterisk attached to the biggest question in Green Bay (and indeed across the NFL). Can they stay healthy? Of course, the answer will be no – not because of some supernatural curse, because football teams inherently don't stay healthy – but the Packers could really use a (relatively) injury-free season.
Problem is, for a roster as young as the Packers prefer to be, age is against them at a few of their most important spots. Rodgers is 34 years old, though McCarthy said – as he always says – he looks like he's in the best shape of his career. Jimmy Graham, signed in free agency to add some dynamism at tight end, is 31; right tackle Bryan Bulaga, coming off another knee surgery, is 29 and currently on the physically unable to perform list. On defense, Clay Matthews is 32 and seemingly always hurt; linebacker Nick Perry is 28 but similarly injury-prone; cornerback Tramon Williams is 35.
Last year, the Packers had the eighth-oldest snap-weighted age in the league (26.1) and they figure to be around the same figure in 2018. Even with Rodgers missing nine games, though, Green Bay didn't endure quite the injury-ravaged season it seemed, ranking 12th in most adjusted games lost due to injury, according to Football Outsiders. Obviously, having Rodgers the whole season would be good, but this is a game of attrition; contingency plans need to be in place – and players ready to perform – when injuries inevitably befall key Packers contributors.
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