NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps. Chad Reuter details his visit with the Green Bay Packers. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
WHERE IS NFL.COM?
The Green Bay Packers list their training camp headquarters at local St. Norbert College, because that's where the players are housed, but thousands of fans each day know to fill the bleachers lining one side of Ray Nitschke Field (while "railbirds" line up against the chain-link fences) to see the team practice. The facility, named after the team's Hall of Fame linebacker, is adjacent to the Don Hutson Center, their indoor practice facility that's located across the street from hallowed Lambeau Field.
1. Aaron Rodgers and his receivers are what separate Green Bay from most other teams.The 2011 NFL MVP looks very sharp, hitting Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb on the money on nearly every route. Rodgers trusts this crew completely on sideline and end-zone throws because they consistently show the ability to get to their spot (like Cobb did on a nice corner route) and go up over defenders (as both Jennings and Nelson showed in practice, much to the delight of the fans) to make the tough catch. With tight end Jermichael Finley in the mix, as well, there's no reason to think they'll be slowed down in 2012. Although ...
2. There is some cause for concern in the team's offensive line depth. The team couldn't rely on left tackle Chad Clifton's knees to stay stable any longer, so they released him in April. Marshall Newhouse is no stranger to the position, as he played on the blind side at TCU and started 10 games there in 2011 for the Packers. During practice, he had some mixed success against sack master Clay Matthews, but he should be serviceable. The rest of the starting five is set with right tackle Bryan Bulaga and right guard Josh Sitton dominant at times, and left guard T.J. Lang and new center Jeff Saturday capable of getting the job done. But if any one of those players go down, only guard/center Evan Dietrich-Smith has shown any real ability to capably fill in. It's unclear if Derek Sherrod will be healthy and effective enough to be part of a new lineup if an injury upsets the apple cart.
3. A "Vacancy" sign hangs above the cornerback spot across from Tramon Williams. Coaches have moved Charles Woodson into a safety/slot role, meaning that one of three cornerbacks must step up to claim the starting role in tandem with Williams (who looked healthy when fighting for 50/50 balls in practice) if the team has any shot to improve its 32nd-ranked defense. Thursday night, long-time corner/safety/special teamer Jarrett Bush ran with the first team and was generally solid. Second-year player Davon House is also getting work with the starting unit, using his length to harass receivers at the line and downfield. Sam Shields' sophomore slump has carried over a bit into this camp, as he's seen a lot of work with the third team -- though he still obviously has the athleticism to challenge for the starting job. All three guys struggled at times against the Packers' top receivers -- but then again, so do most secondaries throughout the league.
THE NEW GUYS
Saturday: The Packers brought in the long-time starter from the Indianapolis Colts to help protect Rodgers, knowing full well Saturday's no spring chicken and lacks great bulk. But he held his own against the huge, athletic B.J. Raji and the team's other talented interior players with the toughness and footwork he showed while keeping Peyton Manning upright for many years.
Jerel Worthy: The team's second-round pick joined fellow defensive tackle and "new old guy" Danny Muir (he played for the Packers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2007 and returned this spring after stints with the Colts and St. Louis Rams) in making the most noise on the field -- in a literal sense -- by constantly trying to get their teammates revved up. Worthy also mixed it up a bit after the whistle, finding himself in the middle of a quasi-scrum. But he made some splash plays when shooting his gap, just chomping at the bit to hit Rodgers after using his quickness to get into the backfield on one play in team work. As was said during the draft evaluation process, if Worthy can learn to consistently use his hands to free himself of blocks, he could be a dangerous lineman.
Nick Perry: Although Green Bay's first pick last April didn't make any flashy plays during Thursday's practice, it really had more to do with the strength of Bulaga than any lack of effort or quickness. He'll be fine when asked to play with leverage in the run game, packing a pretty good punch and possessing the agility to contain. And when he and Matthews are both coming off the edge in pass-rush mode, quarterbacks will be swallowed up or forced to step up into the arms of guys like Raji and Worthy in the middle. If his play in this practice was any indication, Perry should prove to be a good foil across from "CM3."
- Donald Driver might be the most popular Packer of the last decade with the team's fans, even ahead of MVP quarterbacks Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. He gets big laughs and applause from the bleachers with most catches, and his infectious attitude and big smile will be missed whenever he hangs up his cleats -- but it won't be this year. He still looks capable of making a big play or two per game over the middle when the team most needs it.
- Third-year safety Morgan Burnett is truly becoming a leader on defense. The 16-game starter in 2011 is among the more physical players in practice, showing his teammates how to pop pads without going over the line. Look for him and Woodson to make some big plays whether deep or in the box this fall.
- Rodgers' connections with his receivers and the quickness of Matthews are impressive, but Raji's simply one of the most amazing players in the NFL to watch because of the athleticism that his 337-pound (conservatively) frame houses. His hustle, power and tenacity are worth the price of admission to any game.
- James Starks can be a powerful running back, and judging backs during practices is very difficult because of the lack of live tackling. But his pass-protection ability was called out a bit by Rodgers after a recent practice, and he double-caught and dropped a few passes Thursday night. The team's RB depth is undetermined as of yet, with Alex Green and Brandon Saine still looking to prove themselves ... and former starter Ryan Grant still looking for a job.
- Packers backup quarterback Graham Harrell is not particularly awe-inspiring in practice, though he shows the ability to make quick decisions and generally deliver the ball on time and on target. But until he proves himself in the preseason, it's tough to see him matching Matt Flynn's success backing up Rodgers before he got a free-agent deal from the Seattle Seahawks.
- Casey Hayward is finding out that rookie cornerbacks have a big target on their chest during his first NFL training camp. He was turned around and left behind on double moves, and missed his punch badly while playing the slot one play in team work. But he didn't give up or show bad body language, and he displayed the quick feet and instincts to stay with receivers as the practice wore on. His father, Casey Sr., was up for the week to watch his son play, and he astutely pointed out that corners are always at a disadvantage since "the receivers know where they're going." Coaches think Hayward will soon know where receivers are headed before they make up their mind which route option they're going to take.
Despite the Packers' 15-1 regular-season record in 2011, the team still feels unfulfilled because of its home playoff loss to the New York Giants. They'll need any edge they can get to once again win the NFC North, as the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears are both ready to make a run for the division title. Rodgers and his receiving corps should help the Packers once again make the playoffs -- but it's the Packers' improved pass rush and desire to finish the season strong that will make them Super Bowl contenders.