DE PERE, Wis. — For the Green Bay Packers, the magic really begins when they showed up for training camp Wednesday (July 26) and then get on the field Thursday here at St. Norbert College.
This is where and when quarterback Aaron Rodgers dials in the sleight of hand that helps pull the rabbit out of the hat, as it were, as he did so often in his career. Yes, he is the linear descendant in Packers quarterback history to Don “Majic Man” Majkowski, who preceded a guy named Brett Favre, who eventually yielded to Rodgers.
But while Majkowski’s magic was in name only — regardless how you spell it — Rodgers actually performed his unbelievable deeds on the field, over and over.
Last year he won the ESPY award for “Best Play.” Technically, it was for a 61-yard, game-winning, Hail Mary pass to tight end Richard Rodgers, but there were many. This year, Rodgers also was honored with the ESPY award for “Best NFL Player” for the fourth time in seven years, which may rankle New England Patriots fans who probably believe that honor belongs elsewhere.
But Rodgers led the league in 2016 with 40 touchdown passes, ranked fourth in passing yards (4,428) and passer rating (104.2), and set a single-season franchise record with 401 completions. So he became the first player in the ESPY’s 25-year history to be named Best Player four times (also, 2011, 2012 and 2015).
What does all that have to do with the Packers’ training camp?
Notably, Rodgers played only one preseason game last summer – and all of two series in that cameo appearance. More of the same is expected this August for the indispensable 33-year-old quarterback.
Hence, the practice field will be where Rodgers will get the most quality experience to get timing of pass routes down and solidify the rapport that started in the spring with his new gadgets on offense.
Top Summer Battle
–Surprise, it is at wide receiver, where the Packers open camp with at least 10 prospects vying to be a target for Rodgers.
The Packers are set at the top of the depth chart with the talented trio of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams. After that, no fewer than six players will jockey for three or four spots. Jeff Janis, Geronimo Allison and Trevor Davis have experience. Max McCaffrey, older brother of Carolina Panthers running back and top-10 draft pick Christian, also is back after joining the team late in the season.
Putting pressure on those holdovers will be newcomers DeAngelo Yancey and Malachi Dupre, who were taken in the fifth and seventh rounds of the draft, respectively. Dupre jumped out in the team’s spring workouts.
TRAINING CAMP: St. Norbert College; De Pere, Wis.
HEAD COACH: Mike McCarthy
12th season as Packers/NFL head coach
124-69-1 overall; 10-8 postseason
2016 finish: 1st NFC North (10-6)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 368.8 (8th)
RUSHING: 106.3 (20th)
PASSING: 262.4 (7th)
TOTAL DEFENSE: 363.9 (22nd)
RUSHING: 94.7 (8th)
PASSING: 269.3 (31st)
2017 PRESEASON SCHEDULE
All times Central
Aug. 10, PHILADELPHIA (Thu), 7:00
Aug. 19, at Washington (Sat), 6:30
Aug. 26, at Denver (Sat), 8:00
Aug. 31, L.A. RAMS (Thu), 6:00
QUARTERBACK: Starter – Aaron Rodgers. Backups – Brett Hundley, Joe Callahan, Taysom Hill.
Rodgers not only remains the longest-tenured active player with the Packers, but he also heads into the season their second-oldest at age 33 – just 3 1/2 months younger than newly acquired guard Jahri Evans, who turns 34 in late August. What will be Rodgers’ 10th season as a starter could become his most productive as a passer in what already has been a tremendously prolific run. He will start play in September with a streak of 245 straight passes without an interception in regular-season games, 49 pass attempts behind Bart Starr‘s team record. A rare free-agent spree by general manager Ted Thompson in the offseason gives a healthy and determined Rodgers an embarrassment of riches on the receiving end. Like last year, Rodgers isn’t expected to play more than a few series in the preseason for the sake of preserving him for the games that matter. That will give Hundley, the team’s fifth-round draft pick in 2015, ample opportunity to atone for a sluggish and injury-plagued preseason last year as he starts to market himself for a potential new suitor with his rookie contract up after 2018. With Rodgers and Hundley relegated to the sideline, the agile Callahan starred in exhibition play last August as an undrafted rookie out of the Division III college ranks and earned an opening-day roster spot. The Packers released him in October, but he found his way back to Green Bay by the end of the season after brief stops with the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns. The intriguing and supremely athletic Hill (6-foot-2, 221 pounds) joined the Packers as a 26-year-old undrafted rookie this spring. His checkered college career at BYU was delayed by a required two-year Mormon mission before he sustained season-ending injuries four times from 2012-16.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters – Ty Montgomery, FB Aaron Ripkowski. Backups – Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Devante Mays, Kalif Phillips, William Stanback, FB Joe Kerridge.
The Packers enter the preseason with all of 105 carries and 562 yards and five touchdowns on the ground from their halfbacks as NFL players, including the playoffs. All of those numbers are the doing of Montgomery. The third-year pro embarks on his first full season as a running back – and as the team’s anointed lead rusher – after he made the conversion from wide receiver at midseason last year. Shifty and elusive in the open field, Montgomery finished with 457 yards, the fewest by a Packers rushing leader since Alex Green’s 464 in 2012. Thompson made a substantial overhaul behind Montgomery in the offseason, jettisoning the injury-prone tandem of Eddie Lacy and James Starks with three running backs in the NFL Draft, all on the last day in the final four rounds. The competition should be fierce for the backup roles. The powerful Williams, a fourth-round selection from BYU, and the speedy Jones, a fifth-round choice out of UTEP, are their college programs’ all-time leading rushers. The robust Mays, a seventh-round pick from Utah State, dazzled in 2015 before knee and ankle injuries cost him most of his final college season last fall. Ripkowski, moving into his third pro season, stepped out of the shadow of the departed John Kuhn last season and is a valuable cog in the offense as a rugged blocker and short-yardage ball carrier. Kerridge spent most of the 2016 season with the team as an undrafted rookie, first on the practice squad and then as a special-teams contributor down the stretch.
Thompson didn’t just upgrade the position, which tends to get overshadowed by Aaron Rodgers’ pitch-and-catch exploits with his deep group of wide receivers. Instead, while allowing veteran Jared Cook to walk after only one season in Green Bay, Thompson pulled off a major heist in free agency, giving Rodgers two more proven pass catchers. The signings of Bennett, fresh off contributing to the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl LI victory, and Kendricks, a mainstay with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams, will leave opposing defenses in a pickle as they try to match up with Green Bay’s multiple-tight-end sets. Bennett and Kendricks, who have a combined 15 years in the NFL, also address the blocking shortcomings that have undercut Richard Rodgers his first three seasons.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb. Backups – Davante Adams, Geronimo Allison, Jeff Janis, Trevor Davis, Malachi Dupre, DeAngelo Yancey, Max McCaffrey, Michael Clark, Colby Pearson, Montay Crockett.
Though the Packers have a major void or two to round out their backfield, the most compelling battle(s) of training camp should come at receiver. Given the frequency head coach/play caller Mike McCarthy likes to put the football in his star quarterback’s right hand, the position is a hot commodity. McCarthy hasn’t been averse to keeping seven wideouts. The top three remain unchanged from a year ago with Nelson, Cobb and Adams. The 32-year-old Nelson removed any doubts about how he would respond a year removed from a torn ACL that cost him the 2015 season by catching 97 passes (one short of his career high) for 1,257 yards and a league-best 14 touchdowns to earn the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award from The Associated Press. Cobb was dinged by hamstring and ankle injuries at different points last season but still managed 60 receptions. Adams’ long-awaited breakthrough season on the perimeter as a third-year pro (75 catches for 997 yards and 12 touchdowns) allowed the Packers to spotlight Nelson more in the slot with Cobb. The young incumbent trio of Allison, Janis and Davis seemingly would have experience in the system on their side for retaining roster spots. However, compelling cases also could be made the next several weeks by McCaffrey, whom Green Bay signed to the practice squad late in the season, and several newcomers, most notably the drafted duo of Dupre and Yancey. Dupre, a seventh-round pick out of LSU, showed to be a quick study in Green Bay’s offseason workouts. Yancey, a fifth-round selection from Purdue, can stretch the field.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT David Bakhtiari, LG Lane Taylor, C Corey Linsley, RG Jahri Evans, RT Bryan Bulaga. Backups – T Jason Spriggs, T/G Don Barclay, T Kyle Murphy, G Lucas Patrick, G Kofi Amichia, G Justin McCray, G Geoff Gray, G Thomas Evans, G/T Adam Pankey, T Robert Leff.
The anticipated starting five across the line for the Packers when camp opens in late July will be considerably different from what they had as their No. 1 group last summer. Yet, despite moving on from the Pro Bowl guard tandem of Josh Sitton (surprise release at preseason’s end last year) and T.J. Lang (not re-signed as a free agent this year), Green Bay has stability up front. Linsley is expected to be ready for the start of camp after he missed the entire offseason to recover from ankle surgery. The ankle injury contributed to hamstring issues that sidelined Linsley last preseason and the first half of the season. Linsley, a fourth-year pro entering the final year of his rookie contract, anchors the interior of the line that is a mix of old and new. The Packers had no dropoff with Taylor, a fifth-year pro, as the opening-day replacement for Sitton in 2016. To address the departure of Lang at right guard after the eight-year Packer bolted for the rival Detroit Lions, Thompson signed Jahri Evans. The 12th-year pro was a six-time Pro Bowl honoree with the Saints. And, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers well protected in the pocket with veteran bookends Bulaga and Bakhtiari, who earned a Pro Bowl spot last winter for the first time. The Packers also moved on this offseason without JC Tretter (signed with Cleveland), a capable replacement at center before his midseason knee injury opened the door for Linsley’s return to the lineup. Though he’s been the target of much scrutiny after five seasons in the league, the coaches like the tough-minded Barclay as the O-line’s Mr. Utility for being to play every position. Spriggs, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2016, is relegated again to backing up both tackle spots.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – DLE Mike Daniels, DT Kenny Clark, DRE Dean Lowry. Backups – DT Letroy Guion, DT Ricky Jean Francois, DT Montravius Adams, DT Christian Ringo, DT Brian Price, DT Izaah Lunsford.
The start of a preseason filled with the usual high expectations among Packers backers, especially after their team nearly advanced to the Super Bowl, has one ominous cloud hanging overhead. The future of Guion with the team is up in the air after his double whammy this offseason. Three months after the NFL suspended the 10th-year pro the first four games of the season for a violation of the league policy on performance-enhancing substances, Guion was arrested the morning of his 30th birthday on June 21 and charged with driving under the influence while he was vacationing in Hawaii. The case is pending. Though Guion will be allowed to participate in training camp, further discipline from the league could be coming. He’s coming off a productive third season with the team as he played and started all but one game, but the Packers have the pieces in place in the interior of the line to get by without Guion, whether in the short or long term. Clark, the team’s first-round draft pick last year, is being entrusted with a bigger role after he showed flashes in a part-time role as a rookie. Green Bay also bolstered depth at tackle with the free-agent signing of ninth-year pro Jean Francois, formerly of the Washington Redskins, and this year’s third-round draft selection of the fleet-footed Adams out of Auburn. The no-nonsense Daniels, who’s on to season No. 6, sets the tone for the defensive line. A relentless Lowry, a fourth-round draft pick last year, appears to be ticketed for a substantial role after he came on late in the season with a couple sacks and a slew of quarterback pressures.
LINEBACKERS: Starters – LOLB Nick Perry, ILB Jake Ryan, ILB Blake Martinez, ROLB Clay Matthews. Backups – ILB Joe Thomas, OLB Jayrone Elliott, OLB Kyler Fackrell, OLB Vince Biegel, ILB Reggie Gilbert, ILB Jordan Tripp, ILB Cody Heiman, OLB Johnathan Calvin, ILB Derrick Mathews, ILB David Talley, OLB Josh Letuligasenoa.
Julius Peppers, a destined Pro Football Hall of Famer, and Datone Jones no longer are in green and gold. They signed with the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings, respectively, in free agency. The Packers aren’t fretting over losing more than 20 percent (9 1/2) of their 44 sacks, including the postseason, from those two pass rushers. They rewarded former first-round draft pick Perry for his team- and career-high 12 sacks last season with a five-year, $60 million deal with an $18 million signing bonus to keep him from fleeing in free agency. Opposite Perry is the highly decorated Matthews, who showed signs of wear with a career-low-tying six sacks while missing four games with recurring hamstring and ankle injuries. The ninth-year pro is 31 years old. The Packers will look to replenish the lost punch with the pass rush from young holdovers Elliott and Fackrell as well as Biegel. However, Biegel, a Wisconsin product taken in the fourth round of the draft this year, underwent surgery in May for a broken foot and may not be ready for the start of camp. Martinez and Ryan are the starting incumbents in the middle, but both missed time last season with leg injuries. Thomas, an instinctive thumper entering his third season, flourished as a part-time starter and the defense’s frequently deployed inside dime linebacker with 90 tackles (71 solo), an interception and 10 pass breakups, including the playoffs. Heiman is an intriguing newcomer. The 6-2, 229-pound undrafted rookie dominated at the Division II level with Washburn University.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Kevin King, RCB Davon House, SS Morgan Burnett, FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Backups – CB Damarious Randall, CB LaDarius Gunter, CB Quinten Rollins, CB Demetri Goodson, S Josh Jones, S Kentrell Brice, S Marwin Evans, CB Josh Hawkins, CB Herb Waters, S Jermaine Whitehead, CB Lenzy Pipkins, S Aaron Taylor, CB Donatello Brown, CB Daquan Holmes, CB Raysean Pringle.
The biggest offseason overhaul for the Packers came at the position that needed the most help. The 392-yard, four-touchdown thrashing administered by Matt Ryan through the air in the Atlanta Falcons‘ 23-point victory in the NFC Championship epitomized just how horrid Green Bay’s defense was against the pass last season. Thompson promptly shook things up by cutting veteran shutdown corner Sam Shields, who missed all but the first game of the season with a concussion, and allowing versatile defensive back Micah Hyde to sign with the Buffalo Bills in free agency. In turn, the Packers invested their top two draft picks in dire help for the secondary. The hope would be King, taken with the first selection in the second round (No. 33 overall) out of Washington, is starter ready in Week 1 this season with his impressive 6-foot-3 height and ball skills. However, he had to miss a long stretch of spring workouts since Washington still was in session with classes. Thompson brought back House, who left Green Bay two years ago to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars, as a dependable seventh-year pro with starting chops. Presuming House and King get the starting nods on the outside, underachieving 2015 first-round draft pick Randall will have to hold onto key role manning the slot in coordinator Dom Capers‘ liberal use of nickel and dime packages. Gunter, who took over for Shields in the starting lineup last season, as well as fellow holdovers Rollins, Goodson and Hawkins also will challenge for playing time. Burnett and Clinton-Dix are the leaders on the back end. Clinton-Dix earned his first Pro Bowl trip with a team- and career-high five interceptions. Burnett led the defense with 108 tackles (93 solo), counting the playoffs. The fly-to-the-football Jones, the team’s second second-round draft pick this year (No. 61 overall), should see the field a lot in the hybrid role Hyde previously had. The Packers saw some good things out of Brice and Evans as undrafted rookies last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Mason Crosby, P Justin Vogel, LS Derek Hart, KOR Jeff Janis, PR Randall Cobb or Trevor Davis.
Crosby will turn 33 a week before the Sept. 10 season opener against the Seattle Seahawks. If the Packers’ roster doesn’t turn over with their specialists by then, Crosby will be working with two NFL neophytes who were barely teenagers when he broke into the league in 2007. Vogel emerged as the punter in the spring workouts as the team released incumbent Jake Schum, who had been sidelined with a back injury. Vogel excelled as a directional kicker at Miami (Fla.) last season, averaging 43.8 yards. Perhaps as unlikely, fellow undrafted rookie Hart is the team’s new long snapper. Hart, who last played competitively in 2015 in his final college season at James Madison, had been working as an engineer for Harley-Davidson in Pennsylvania last year before he felt an itch in the fall to return to football. Should Hart falter in the preseason, the Packers could bring back 32-year-old Brett Goode, who handled the snapping duties in Green Bay the last nine seasons and remains unsigned as a free agent. The seemingly ageless Crosby padded his team-record points total (1,267) with one of his most productive and accurate seasons in 2016. He connected on 26 of 30 field goals (86.7 percent) and tallied 122 points in the regular season, then had a memorable sequence the last two minutes of regulation with field goals of 56 and 51 yards (the latter as time expired) to lift the Packers a 34-31 upset win at the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs. Still to be sorted out is the seemingly annual ritual of who will return kicks. What happens with roster decisions at wide receiver will give some clarity. Janis replaced Montgomery as the primary kickoff returner late in the season and averaged 25.7 yards in three runbacks during the playoffs. Cobb has the most experience on punt returns, and Davis had a 55-yard runback as a rookie last season.