GREEN BAY — Competition is what training camp is all about.
And it’s rarely more fun to watch than on Ray Nitschke Field, where the Green Bay Packers routinely introduce 20 to 25 rookies and first-year players to the team and tell them to go win a job.
Since Ted Thompson became general manager in 2005, the Packers have adhered almost exclusively to a practice of building from the bottom up, approaching veteran free agents with extreme caution while grooming drafted and undrafted talent to move up through the ranks.
Of the dirty dozen unrestricted free agents he has signed since ‘05, only Charles Woodson, Ryan Pickett and Brandon Chillar have been worthy of a second contract. The rest are just footnotes in the Thompson era.
Heading into the ninth camp under Thompson and eighth under coach Mike McCarthy, competition once again has been created. And nowhere is it expected to be fiercer than at running back.
That competition may turn out to be the best anyone has seen around here at the position for a couple of decades. The late-season emergence of DuJuan Harris and the addition of draft picks Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin may actually force McCarthy to call more running plays than he has in his head coaching career.
He has to find out which of those three along with Alex Green, James Starks and little-known Angelo Pease can get him where he wants to go this season. To settle that debate, he’ll have to see each one of them carry the ball a lot.
“Running the football is a collective effort,” McCarthy said. “There has to be commitment from the play-caller. It’s something we need to do a better job of and I’m confident that we will.”
But it’s going to take carries — and lots of them — for McCarthy to sort out which one can help him where. That’s going to be tough with single daily practices and extreme caution when it comes to fatigue injuries.
Assuming he is recovered from a cyst on his lung, Harris will start out No. 1. But Green and Starks know this could be their last shot with the Packers, and if they aren’t running like their careers depend on it, they might as well go home now.
Lacy and Franklin are the new guys and they’ll have to keep up with the others when it comes to learning how to press the hole and adjust to a blocking call from the quarterback. McCarthy has to see what they have right away, and that might mean giving them first crack in the exhibition games.
The two backs weren’t drafted to play special teams. This is a concerted effort by Thompson to rebuild the backfield, and it’s up to McCarthy to do something with the talent he’s been given.
“Hey, we need to run the ball better,” McCarthy said. “That’s fact of the matter.”
Here are some other position battles to keep an eye on:
Safety: Morgan Burnett is the new Nick Collins and while he might not be as talented, he is the anchor. It’s a matter of deciding who is going to play next to him.
M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian split time there last year and neither produced more than a handful of plays. They were just two more in a long line of nondescript players to play opposite Collins and Darren Sharper before him.
Both of them will have to watch out for Sean Richardson, who may be just a special teams player but definitely intrigued the coaching staff with his size and speed. Coming off a cervical repair, he has injury issues to settle. But the way he played special teams when he was healthy raised some eyebrows.
A sleeper could be fifth-round pick Micah Hyde, who will start out at cornerback but might be better suited for safety. He’s not fast, but he’s smart and around the ball a lot. He could surprise some people.
Wide receiver: James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb make up a pretty good trio, and since rookie receivers rarely assimilate quickly in the NFL it might be a long shot to expect too much competition here.
But last year Jarrett Boykin came out of nowhere to make the team and late in the year the coaches started exploring ways to get him on the field. He’s big, strong and physical and there’s no reason why he can’t take snaps away from Jones and Nelson if he continues to improve.
Another receiver just like him is seventh-round pick Kevin Dorsey. Overlooked because he played with quarterbacks who couldn’t get him the ball, Dorsey can really run for a guy 6 feet 1, 1/2 inches and 207 pounds. And the fact he led Maryland in special teams tackles his freshman year shows he’s not timid.
The Packers may be able to keep only five receivers, and picking the best of them among the aforementioned as well as seventh-round pick Charles Johnson, veteran Jeremy Ross and intriguing undrafted rookie Alex Gillett could make things interesting.
Cornerback: Last year, there was a different starter opposite Tramon Williams just about every single week of camp.
Jarrett Bush started out there, Davon House moved him out, Casey Hayward did what it took to get noticed and Sam Shields eventually emerged from a slumber to lock down the spot.
This year, Hayward is a lock to be the slot corner, but with House healthy again after dislocating his shoulder and Hyde starting out at the position, the competition inside and out is going to be interesting. Shields is in a contract year and should be lights out, but House matches up better on big receivers and will have a say in the matter.
It’s possible Dom Capers will find a way to get Williams, Shields, Hayward, House and Hyde on the field together in a nickel/dime look. But Hyde has to show he belongs first.
Williams didn’t tackle well last year, but he still successfully covered some of the top receivers in the league and it’s hard to imagine him being moved out.