The Green Bay Packers will report to St. Norbert College on Friday, July 25th for the start of training camp. Practices begin Saturday, July 26 and run through the end of August, with Green Bay's final preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday, August 28th wrapping up the prep work for the regular season.
Here are 10 questions the Packers hope to answer over that time period:
How many quarterbacks will make the final roster?
In recent years, the Packers have been comfortable keeping just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, with another younger quarterback stashed away on the practice squad. There's a chance general manager Ted Thompson will once again go that route, keeping Aaron Rodgers and either Matt Flynn or Scott Tolzien while also retaining undrafted free agent Chase Rettig on the practice squad. However, the more likely scenario has the Packers keeping three quarterbacks—Rodgers, Flynn and Tolzien—for the first time since 2008. Flynn has more than proven his worth as a backup who can win meaningful games, and Tolzien flashed enough potential over his brief playing time last season to warrant a longer look. Unless Tolzien flops over the next month, or Tolzien plays so well that he leapfrogs Flynn, the Packers are probably best served keeping all three. Here's what we do know: the quarterback room in Green Bay is in much better shape now than it was this time a year ago.
Who will win the starting spot at safety alongside Morgan Burnett?
The safety position will attract attention all camp long, and for good reason. After receiving a disastrous 2013 season from the safety group, the Packers aggressively attacked the position—drafting a first-round safety for the first time in the Ted Thompson era and introducing Micah Hyde to the position this spring. The two players the Packers thought would solve the position last summer are gone; M.D. Jennings is now in Chicago, and Jerron McMillian couldn't even make it out of his second season in Green Bay. It's now on Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Hyde to provide answers. Both players will be given a chance to start alongside Burnett, who played poorly in 2013 but who should be capable of holding his place among the defense's 11 starters. There will be a learning curve for both Clinton-Dix (as a rookie) and Hyde (moving to a new position), but there's potential for vast improvement. The player who lines up opposite Burnett in Seattle during Week 1 will earn it over the next month.
Will JC Tretter or Corey Linsley start at center?
The Packers offensive line is comfortably set at four of five positions. Bryan Bulaga returns at right tackle, David Bahktiari enters his second year at left tackle and Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang remain a top guard duo.The one question mark is at center, where Green Bay will start its fourth different player in as many seasons. The year-to-year turnover is probably an over-dramaticized issue, but there's no doubting both Tretter and Linsely will enter camp as unproven commodities. Tretter hasn't even played an NFL preseason game, and Linsley was the 161st pick in last May's draft. Tretter is the front-runner, thanks in large part to having a year in the Packers system. But Linsley brings experience (26 collegiate starts at center) and toughness (36 reps at the combine) to the equation, so he can't be ruled out. The Packers can stage a true competition at the position and then pick the best man for the job once the dust settles. Who ever wins out will then be in position to hold the job for the foreseeable future.
How will the tight end depth chart look?
Jermichael Finley (neck) hasn't been cleared, and there are no signs that he's close to being cleared, so he can't factor into the Packers' plans at tight end. What Green Bay can count on is a diverse group of young players at the position. The depth chart is wide open, with no jobs locked up and no player guaranteed a spot on the roster. Andrew Quarless has starting experience, but he's missed all of the offseason program with an undisclosed injury. The players to watch are Richard Rodgers, who impressed everyone during the spring; Brandon Bostick, the closest player on the roster in terms of size and movement ability to Finley; and Colt Lyerla, the talented undrafted free agent who is getting a chance at redemption in Green Bay. Ryan Taylor and Jake Stoneburner will also factor in. Not having Finley available is an unquestioned blow to the offense, but the remaining players offer an intriguing mix of skills. Camp will decide which of those skills the Packers want to feature at the position.
Who will return kicks and punts?
The Packers were well below average returning kicks (20.3 average, just five returns over 30 yards) and above average returning punts (11.3 average, one touchdown) last season. Micah Hyde eventually settled both groups, but it's certainly possible his emergence on the defense will limit Green Bay's desire to risk him on special teams. The Packers have tried a variety of players at returner this offseason, including rookies Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis, and running back DuJuan Harris. Abbrederis might be too frail to trust as a full-time returner, and Janis isn't even a lock to make the team. Randall Cobb is still far too important to the offense to risk. The Packers have certainly struggled to replace him. Jeremy Ross lost crucial fumbles against the 49ers in the 2012 playoffs and against Cincinnati last season. Safe-handling the football is important, but so is production. The Packers slipped in average starting field position in 2013, thanks in part to the struggles returning kicks. Camp will provide an opportunity for a player to give the Packers something more there in 2014.
How many receivers should the offense keep?
This might be the deepest group of receivers the Packers have had in some time. There are some unknowns, but also a ridiculous amount of depth, with as many as nine of the 10 receivers able to claim a case for making the final roster. Not many teams can say that this time of year. It will make for some difficult decisions for Ted Thompson, but it's a good problem to have. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin and Davante Adams are roster locks. The decisions come at the fifth and sixth receiver spots, given the Packers keep that many. Myles White played in seven games last season, Chris Harper was a rare waiver claim by Thompson, Kevin Dorsey has the size-speed combination, and Abbrederis and Janis have the benefit of being drafted rookies. Picking two out of that group won't be easy. Thompson and Mike McCarthy will have to balance what they see over the next month and how they project the young players down the road. But make no mistake: the Packers should (and almost certainly will) keep the one or two receivers who show the most from now until the end of August. Game on.
What will Julius Peppers' role be?
Outsiders already have a pretty good feel for how the Packers will use Peppers, who represents the team's most significant free agent signing since Charles Woodson. An athletic freak (even at 34) who was featured as a 4-3 defensive end his entire career, Peppers will now play a hybrid "elephant" position in Green Bay. The expectation is that Dom Capers will employ him most as a stand-up outside linebacker in his traditional 3-4 look. But Peppers can also put his hand on the ground or slide inside when the Packers go to nickel, which is more or less the team's base defense. Capers won't want to show his hand in August, but the Packers must also establish how Peppers is going to work in the defense's various looks. In a month's time, we should have a slightly better idea about how No. 56 will be utilized in 2014.
Will the status quo win again at inside linebacker?
Inside linebacker was universally viewed as a problem area for Green Bay entering this offseason, but little was done to improve the position. The team signed a couple of undrafted free agents (Joe Thomas, Jake Doughty), but the team won't be expecting the newcomers to push for a starting job. A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones are still penciled in as starters, with Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington as the two most prominent backups. Can either youngster push Jones to make the starting 11? Lattimore looked like a quality NFL starter against Baltimore and Cleveland in 2013, but his performance tailed off late. Barrington has athleticism but he needs to make a big second-year jump. Jones probably takes more heat than he actually deserves, but it's obvious the Packers need to be better up the middle in 2014. This camp will determine if there's a new pecking order.
Which outside linebackers will make the team?
Like receiver on offense, the Packers defense is similarly stacked (depth-wise) at outside linebacker. Barring an unforeseen set of events, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Nick Perry and Mike Neal will be roster locks. Rookie Carl Bradford is a very good bet to make the team. These realities do not leave much wiggle room on the depth chart, but then what will come of Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer and Adrian Hubbard? Mulumba and Palmer played important snaps last season, and Hubbard has rare size and intriguing potential. Unlike a year ago, depth is not a problem for the Packers at outside linebacker. But the number of bodies means that significant sorting out will need to be done over the next month. It's certainly possible the Packers will have to let go an outside linebacker they really like.
Will the tweaks on defense make a difference?
OK, so maybe this question won't be answered until well into the regular season. But is there any one factor that will impact the Packers' 2014 season more? Green Bay gave up 46 touchdowns and forced just 22 turnovers last season. Mike McCarthy has made defensive improvement his primary offseason goal, much like he did with the running game last spring and summer. The defense will now aim for less volume but more variety, with hopes that the subtle tweaks will help unleash the team's playmakers. Health is also a major factor; without injuries, Capers has all the talent he needs to field a competitive defense. He won't be doing any unleashing in August, but we should see some of the little changes once the pads come on and real hitting begins. The application of the defensive adjustments, which the Packers hope will bring significant change, begins in camp. Any improvement you see in September or October first needs to start in August.
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