NFL Team Report - Green Bay Packers - INSIDE SLANT
When record-setting receiver Donald Driver retired in February after 14 seasons with the team, Aaron Rodgers astonishingly assumed the mantle as Green Bay's longest-tenured current player.
The same Rodgers who has been an NFL starting quarterback for only five years after spending his first three pro seasons on the bench.
Soon after the departure of the 38-year-old Driver, the Packers let go of 36-year-old defensive back Charles Woodson for financial reasons. A short time later, standout receiver Greg Jennings, 29, also was on his way out as a free agent.
Take away three key pieces from the Packers' Super Bowl-winning team of just three seasons ago, and it's little wonder why what's left of the relative old guard has been singing a "put up or shut up" tune this offseason.
"Guys know there's a short window for a team to be as good as we are, and you have to make the most of those - and that's by winning championships," sixth-year wideout Jordy Nelson said. "We know we've been close (the last two years), we know we've had the team (to contend for more titles), but came up short."
The notable personnel losses since the end of last season notwithstanding, the Packers remain the team to beat in the NFC North and should be in the conversation for conference-title contenders.
The reshaped offense still is formidable with Rodgers at the controls and may finally have some balance to it with the additions of highly regarded running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in the draft.
The Woodson-less defense also has some young reinforcements in the wake of the horrific 45-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Strengths: Rodgers inflicted most of his damage on opposing defenses last season - 4,295 passing yards, 39 touchdowns to only eight interceptions, league-best 108.0 passer rating - without an injury-riddled Jennings and a sparingly used Driver on the field. "It was me, Jordy and Randall (Cobb)," James Jones said of the guys who gave Rodgers a trusted and productive receiving corps in 2012. Those three playmakers are ready to break out even more in the coming season. "I believe we have three 1,000-yard receivers in this (locker) room," Jones added. "I believe me, Randall and Jordy, if we all stay healthy, we can all reach over 1,000. It's exciting." ... All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews is enthused for the season ahead. Not only did Matthews, like Rodgers, cash in with a big contract extension in the offseason, but the fearsome pass rusher (16 sacks in 2012) has some help in getting after the quarterback. Versatile defensive end Datone Jones was the team's first-round draft pick this year, and his arrival prompted the coaches to give end Mike Neal a long look as a stand-up linebacker opposite Matthews during the offseason workouts.
Weaknesses: While Datone Jones figures to give a lift to a pass rush that has been almost exclusively Matthews' domain the last couple seasons, the powerful and quick rookie could be of greater help to the defense as a run stopper. Green Bay was exploited on the ground to virtually no end late in the season by Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson and then 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who ran for a playoff-record 181 yards and two touchdowns in the Packers' season-ending game. The Packers face Kaepernick and the 49ers in Week 1. ... Green Bay's firepower on offense and ability to outscore opponents amid letdowns by the defense was mitigated far too often last season because of erratic kicker Mason Crosby. The veteran made only 21 of 33 field goals (league-worst 63.6 percent) in the regular season. Now, for the first time since he kicked aside incumbent Dave Rayner in a preseason battle his rookie season in 2007, Crosby is competing to keep his job. His adversary in training camp will be left-footed Giorgio Tavecchio, an unheralded first-year player.
NFL Team Report - Green Bay Packers - NOTES, QUOTES
--Maybe Brad Jones had good reason to sing the virtues of head coach Mike McCarthy's revised offseason schedule this year.
"I think it was the best OTAs I've ever been a part of," Jones, a fifth-year veteran, said as the Packers were completing their organized team activities the second week of June.
A few days later, the smile that accompanied Jones' ringing endorsement had to have grown wider. That's because general manager Ted Thompson went ahead with an anticipated cut of Desmond Bishop on June 17.
Bishop's departure all but ensures Jones will continue to start alongside A.J. Hawk at inside linebacker going into the coming season.
Jones started the final 12 games of last season at the position after D.J. Smith, who replaced an injured Bishop, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
After the Packers released Smith earlier this offseason, Bishop became expendable by the end of the team's spring workouts. The six-year veteran didn't participate in any of the OTAs or the minicamp, which was held for the first time on McCarthy's watch between the voluntary practices, as he recovered some more from the devastating hamstring injury he sustained last August.
Bishop had pronounced himself healthy at the outset of the offseason program and was hopeful of getting on the field at some point during those workouts.
Instead, the Packers realized a big salary-cap savings by dumping Bishop, who turns 29 on July 24. His salary with the team next season would have been nearly $3.5 million. Bishop was under contract through 2014.
Green Bay previously invested starter-sized money in Jones when it re-signed him as an unrestricted free agent to a three-year, $11.75 million deal with a $3 million signing bonus in March.
Bishop didn't stay unemployed for long.
After drawing interest from a handful of teams, he agreed to a one-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings on Monday.
Bishop is the second former Packer to bolt to their NFC North rivals this offseason. Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings signed a lucrative five-year contract with Minnesota in March.
--The Packers have almost turned out the lights completely on holding night practices during training camp.
The team's recently released camp schedule includes only one practice under the lights at Ray Nitschke Field in Green Bay. That will be Aug. 2, on the eve of the team's annual Family Night intrasquad scrimmage at Lambeau Field.
At the urging of McCarthy after several years of the team conducting night practices in camp, the Packers will have a morning-heavy schedule this year. Nine practices, including the first day on July 26, will start at 8:20 a.m. CDT.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I want to be a hundred percent on field goals. I've got to make kicks, it's my job, it's my responsibility to go out there and make field goals. Every time I take the field, that's my focus, especially this offseason." - Seventh-year veteran Mason Crosby, on trying to retain his kicking job after making a league-worst 63.6 percent of his field goals during the 2012 regular season.
NFL Team Report - Green Bay Packers - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Cause for concern: By cutting 36-year-old Charles Woodson shortly after last season ended in a cost-savings move, the Packers became increasingly youthful on defense and lost one of their few veteran leaders. His starting spot at safety will wind up being filled by a younger - and cheaper - prospect such as M.D. Jennings or Jerron McMillian. Yet, there's no telling how or if Green Bay will replace the playmaking capabilities that hadn't entirely escaped Woodson in an injury-plagued 2012 season, not to mention his influence on stabilizing things on the back end of the defense as well as in the locker room.
Position battles: Top three cornerback spots. Capers is notorious for employing nickel packages with frequency to counter the prevalence of spread passing attacks. The Packers have more than three viable candidates to hold down the coverage jobs, which seemingly are more critical going into next season as life without Woodson begins. Tramon Williams is looking to bounce back from a substandard 2012 season, while fellow starting incumbent Sam Shields could be on shaky ground after skipping most of the voluntary offseason workouts before signing his restricted-free-agent tender in June. Casey Hayward, who flourished in the nickel role as a rookie last season with a team-high six interceptions, and a healthy Davon House figure to push for starting gigs.
Right tackle. The fallout from head coach Mike McCarthy's unusual offseason flip of tackle Bryan Bulaga and Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton from the left side to the right side of the offensive line leaves a potentially significant void at Bulaga's old spot. Marshall Newhouse, the displaced fourth-year left tackle, presumably will get first shot at right tackle when training camp opens. He will have to fend off the feisty Don Barclay, who as an undrafted rookie started the final six games of last season at the position with Bulaga sidelined, and perhaps a worthy rookie challenger such as David Bakhtiari (fourth round).
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--RB Cedric Benson (not tendered as UFA).
--RB Ryan Grant (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED
--RB Eddie Lacy (2/61): $3,392,412/4 yrs, $847,208 SB/$1,042,208 guaranteed.
--T David Bakhtiari (4/109): $2,615,400/4 yrs, $455,400 SB.
--T JC Tretter (4/122): 2,575,908/4 yrs, $415,908 SB.
--RB Johnathan Franklin (4/125): $2,565,468/4 yrs, $405,468 SB.
--CB Micah Hyde (5/159): 2,338,108/4 yrs, $178,108 SB.
--DE Josh Boyd (5/167): $2,304,560/4 yrs, $144,560 SB.
--LB Nate Palmer (6/193): $2,248,896/4 yrs, $98,896 SB.
--WR Charles Johnson (7/216): $2,221,820/4 yrs, $61,820 SB.
--WR Kevin Dorsey (7/224): $2,216,848/4 yrs, $56,848 SB.
--LB Sam Barrington (7/232): $2,209,000/4 yrs, $49,000 SB.
DRAFT CHOICES UNSIGNED
--DE Datone Jones (1/26).
--C Evan Dietrich-Smith: RFA tendered at $1.323M with no compensation); $1.323M/1 yr.
--LB Robert Francois: Not tendered as RFA; $725,000/1 yr, $50,000 SB.
--LB Brad Jones: UFA; $11.75M/3 yrs, $3M SB.
--CB Sam Shields: RFA tendered at $2.023M with second-round pick as compensation; $2.023M/1 yr.
--TE Matthew Mulligan: FA Rams; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Desmond Bishop (released).
--TE Tom Crabtree: Not tendered as RFA/Buccaneers; $1.6M/2 yrs, $50,000 RB 2013-14.
--WR Donald Driver (UFA; retired).
--WR Greg Jennings: UFA Vikings; $45M/5 yrs, $10M SB/$17.8M guaranteed.
--RB Brandon Saine (released).
--LB D.J. Smith (released).
--C Jeff Saturday (retired).
--LB Erik Walden: FA Colts; $16M/4 yrs, $8M guaranteed.
--DB Charles Woodson (released).
--LB Frank Zombo: Not tendered as RFA/Chiefs; terms unknown.