GREEN BAY — Rookies have not even stepped foot in Wisconsin yet, so temper expectations. Training camp remains 21/2 months away.
But now that free agency and the NFL draft have passed, the Packers’ roster is starting to take shape into organized team activities and minicamp. Here’s an early-bird look at where the team stands at each position with rookie camp set for May 10-12.
Wide receiver: The core from last season remains intact. The trio of Jordy Nelson and James Jones on the outside — with Randall Cobb threading through defenses from the slot — remains one of the most lethal in the game. In 2012, the Packers’ offense excelled without Greg Jennings in the lineup. Through his seven-game absence, Green Bay went 5-2 and averaged 26.9 points per game.
True, losing a No. 1 wide receiver isn’t as devastating in Green Bay as it could be elsewhere. Still, the Packers will need to develop No. 4 and No. 5 receivers. Jarrett Boykin won a roster spot last year with his huge, sure hands, and Jeremy Ross offers ability in the return game. But the three wideouts Green Bay brought in last weekend will all have an opportunity to stick, too. All three have one thing in common — speed. Charles Johnson ran a 4.40 in the 40, Myles White a 4.42 and Kevin Dorsey a 4.47.
Maybe a deep threat, down the road, emerges to complement Green Bay’s top three. Either way, during a Donald Driver-less summer, the Packers should have a heated competition for two, maybe three, spots at wide receiver.
Tight end: They’re not thrilled with the cap number. But after losing Jennings to the Minnesota Vikings, the Packers couldn’t afford to release Jermichael Finley. Entering the final year of a two-year contract — one that’ll pay him $8.25 million — Finley acknowledged the rising urgency.
“I love the expectations that I have to meet this year,” Finley said in March. “I have to make it happen.”
With Jennings gone, Finley could be used more in the slot and/or out wide as a receiver. And with Tom Crabtree off to Tampa Bay, the Packers will also need to find a reliable blocking tight end in the run game. Free agent pick-up Matt Mulligan, at 6-4, 260, has the bulk to take on defensive ends. The signing also could’ve been insurance (a mulligan?) for Andrew Quarless, who has not played since Dec. 4, 2011.
To overcome San Francisco, Atlanta, New York and other solid front sevens in the NFC, the Packers need some muscle at tight end on the ground.
Also, keep an eye on Brandon Bostick. He’s a receiver first and a blocker second, but the Packers kept him around last season for a reason.
Tackle: The Packers will give Bryan Bulaga a shot at left tackle. Realizing that the offensive line must improve, it appears Green Bay will shift Bulaga over and hold an open competition at right tackle. Change is needed. The Packers allowed 51 sacks last year, second-most in the NFL. The shuffling could begin with Bulaga settling in on the left side, his position at Iowa in 2008 and 2009.
At which point, it’s on at right tackle between the other six players. Coach Mike McCarthy indicated that Derek Sherrod had a successful second surgery and that he expects Sherrod “to be a factor.” J.C. Tretter may also play guard and/or center down the road. With David Bakhtieri, the Packers have two more versatile options overall.
“Let’s be honest,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “You’ve got two fourth-round picks back-to-back, certainly the competition barometer went up a heck of a lot. So that’s a good thing to have. And the men that are already in that room understand that, and they understood that before this draft certainly. Our competition just got better.”
Guard: The Packers also appear set to flip Josh Sitton to the left side and Lang to the right. Both guards were deemed core players by management, earning contract extensions in each of the last two years. Lang signed at five years, $22.05 million and Sitton at six years, $34.95 million.
Behind the two starters, the Packers could try moving Barclay inside as the top backup. Greg Van Roten, an Ivy Leaguer, offers some intelligence needed at the position.
Center: A year ago, injuries forced the Packers to keep Jeff Saturday at center probably longer than they would have liked. After 200-plus games, Saturday hit the wall. A strong voice for any locker room, Saturday lacked the strength to take on defensive tackles. So now the Packers give Evan Dietrich-Smith a chance to prove he is their center of the future.
The tempo of Green Bay’s offense picked up considerably with Dietrich-Smith in and Saturday out when he took over in Week 16. He’s much more suited for center than guard and — drawing praise from Aaron Rodgers — has proved capable of making the protection calls up front. After seeing his football career nearly zapped for good three years ago, it’s hard to see Dietrich-Smith squandering his opportunity as the starter. Behind him, it’s up in the air.
Quarterback: If you doubted McCarthy’s belief in Graham Harrell, he offered another reminder last weekend. Through their 11 selections, the Packers drafted zero quarterbacks. Even as top-five talents slipped into Day 3, the Packers looked elsewhere.
Last summer, Harrell’s knowledge of the offense ousted Coleman’s stronger arm. Through Green Bay’s first three exhibition games, Harrell was erratic. The potential doomsday scenario — a league MVP going down without a capable No. 2 — was one of the dominant storylines last August. Yet all along, McCarthy reaffirmed his belief in Harrell’s progress, and the former Texas Tech gunslinger did finish on a high note with 223 yards and two touchdowns through a 13-of-15 night against Kansas City. He’ll be pushed by B.J. Coleman and maybe the undrafted pickup Matt Brown.
Running back: This off-season, the Packers are doing precisely what they did not do last year at running back. Add depth. Create competition. You may recall last summer when general manager Ted Thompson was content heading into training camp with Alex Green (off a torn anterior cruciate ligament), James Starks and Brandon Saine as the top three backs. Starks suffered a turf toe in the exhibition opener and the musical chairs began.
That shouldn’t happen this year after drafting Alabama’s Eddie Lacy in the second round and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in the fourth. Both immediately improve a position that has gone 54 regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher. At 229 pounds, Lacy has the potential to be an every-down bruiser. Franklin brings versatility.
“It’ll be interesting,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “It’ll sort itself out as we go through the OTAs and training camp, but it made that room better and not just by the two players that we added but by the competition it’ll create for the other guys that are in that room.”
Where do Lacy and Franklin leave the three returnees? Difficult to say. Maybe the Packers will look to trade a running back for something in return. There’s plenty of time. After finishing last season as the starter, DuJuan Harris’ spot is most secure. Green turned a corner by November in a leading role but finished 2012 on the sideline. Starks hasn’t been able to shake injuries.
John Kuhn remains the starting fullback heading into OTA’s and minicamp.
Defensive end: With a chance at Datone Jones or Sylvester Williams at No. 26 overall, the Packers took the pass rusher, the one with more upside. Jones played all along the line in college at UCLA. In Green Bay, he could potentially be the interior pass rusher the Packers have lacked since Cullen Jenkins departed two years ago. In nickel and dime, Jones will be counted on to collapse pockets immediately.
C.J. Wilson is built for the 3-4 front, where he can use his mass and length to turn running plays inside, but he isn’t much of a pass rusher. Mike Neal saved a career decimated by injuries and Mike Daniels brings as much effort as anyone to the defensive line, but they’re probably best in rotational roles. Fifth-round pick Josh Boyd wasn’t as productive in 2012 without Fletcher Cox next to him, but at 6-3, 300, he adds more beef up front.
Last year, the Packers took defensive ends in the second and fourth rounds. This year, they hope the first-round pick finally replaces Jenkins in sub packages and the base defense.
“We have a lot of big guys that if he’s getting pounded on in there we can help him out in that regard,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said of Jones. “But he’s definitely a guy you can say can’t sit in there and take on a double team. That’s something he’ll work at and get better at. But he’s got excellent movement and excellent versatility.”
Nose tackle: Pickett played over the center more than Raji last season, and the Packers don’t see him slowing down. Turning 34 years old in October, Pickett is fresh off one of his best seasons. His ability to consume multiple blockers — and also slide off of them to locate the ball carrier — has not eroded. Pickett played more in 2012 than he had since his first year with the Packers in 2006. You just wonder when he’ll hit the wall. Pickett has played in 178 regular-season games.
Extra bodies on the defensive line could help Green Bay adjust if Pickett’s play does start to decline. Built low to the ground, Jordan Miller was called up from the practice squad late last season.
Outside linebacker: Now that they’ve locked up the cornerstone of the defense long term, the Packers need Nick Perry to make a jump in Year 2. Wrist surgery hijacked Perry’s rookie season after six games. Splitting time with Erik Walden, Perry displayed impressive strength as a bull rusher. Now the Packers need his transition from a college defensive end to a pro outside linebacker to speed up. Walden is in Indianapolis and the team gave up on Frank Zombo. Perry was a risky selection in the first round last year — the Packers were confident they could mold this rare combination of size and athleticism into a threat opposite Matthews. Arguably no player faces a more important off-season and training camp.
Dezman Moses should push Perry. And don’t look past the Nate Palmer pick. The Illinois State pass rusher plays with burst off the edge and Dom Capers has preferred to employ multiple pass rushers in the past.
Inside linebacker: The Packers have been busy at inside linebacker this off-season, restructuring A.J. Hawk’s contract and re-signing Brad Jones. Now the team waits to see what kind of condition Desmond Bishop is in off of his torn hamstring. If he’s healthy and at full strength, the Packers welcome back the second-best player on their defense from 2011.
Rob Francois re-signed at one year with the intention of seeing snaps on defense. And there will be a lot of eyes on Terrell Manning come August. The 2012 fifth-round pick from N.C. State lost 15 pounds through a painful bout of colitis at camp a year ago.
Cornerback: The missed tackles maddened fans late last season, but Tramon Williams remains Green Bay’s most battle-tested cover corner. There’s a good chance it’ll be his job to lose once training camp does arrive. As noted by cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr., there will be competition. Sam Shields finished last year with five interceptions in seven games. Casey Hayward could compete for a job outside but fit best inside as a rookie. In Charles Woodson’s old spot, he led the team in interceptions (six) and pass breakups (21). Meanwhile, Davon House had delivered on his vow to play tougher before suffering a shoulder injury in the preseason opener. He’ll have a chance to start as well.
Elsewhere, the Packers drafted Micah Hyde in the sixth round to presumably compete with Jarrett Bush. Like Hayward at Vanderbilit, Hyde didn’t time well in the 40-yard dash (4.56) but relied on instincts to excel in zone coverage at Iowa.
Safety: With multiple opportunities to take a safety — including Florida International’s Jonathan Cyprien and Florida’s Matt Elam in the first round — the Packers stood pat. Next to Morgan Burnett, for now, Green Bay seems perfectly content with M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian battling for the starting spot. Both players saw a lot of playing time in 2012, particularly when Charles Woodson (collarbone) was sidelined. Depending on his health, the taller Sean Richardson could figure into the competition as well.
“We’ve got some young guys,” McCarthy said at the draft. “I think we can’t forget how many of our young players, our rookies, played on defense last year. Frankly, for as excited as we are about the 2013 draft class, the most improvement of our football team will come from the men that are already in the building. So our young players on defense will be a year better.
“I feel we’ll have an opportunity to definitely improve from what they bring to the table and that’s no different at the safety position.”
Kicker: For the first time since his rookie year, Mason Crosby will have competition. How much? That’s up to Italy native Giorgio Tavecchio. The Packers’ hope is that Tavecchio pushes Crosby and that 2012 was a cruel mirage. Last season, Crosby finished last in field-goal efficiency (63.6 percent). Green Bay never added midseason competition, standing by the six-year veteran.