With training camp set to open next week, it’s high time to dive in to the 2017 season, a season where anything less than a trip to US Bank Stadium in February will be a disappointment.
As usual, virtually all of the indispensable players return–only the departure of TJ Lang will sting (though the signing of veteran Jahri Evans as a short-term replacement should soften the blow). With a new draft class and some actual living, breathing free agents signed from other teams, there will be no shortage of fresh faces to watch this summer. There are also some compelling storylines to pay attention to.
Here are my ten most intriguing things to watch at during training camp and through the preseason, in no particular order:
1. The new (and old) CBs: The group that took the field in Atlanta in the NFC title game was overmatched and overwhelmed. With the drafting of Kevin King and the signing of Davon House, the Pack figures to have brand new starters on the outside this season. That will allow Damarius Randall to play on the inside, where he’s got a better chance to make plays. If King and House look comfortable this summer, it could have the biggest impact on the defense going forward. LaDarius Gunter will get a chance to compete as well, as will Quinten Rollins. At the very least, it’s a more competitive group, with Randall and Rollins getting the hint that this will be a prove it or lose it season.
2. Montgomery’s development at RB: When injuries forced him to switch positions midseason, it sparked reactions that the team was panicking. He quickly showed his potential and natural ability at the position that he grew up playing. His December game against the Bears was the best performance by a Packer RB since the Ahman Green era. With an offseason to get his body and mind ready, he has a chance to be a surprise breakout star at the position. He figures to get more work this preseason than a traditional starting RB, so it will be fun to see him pick up where he left off.
3. The OLB Group: The issue here is proven depth. There really is none, so we will all be watching the contenders to see if they appear ready to grab their opportunity. It’s hard to imagine Clay Matthews and Nick Perry getting a ton of reps, as valuable as they are to the team’s prospects. With the departures of Julius Peppers and Datone Jones, the top backups are now second year guy Kyler Fackrell and Jarone Elliott. Rookie Vince Biegel has a golden opportunity to grab the #3 role, but he’s recovering from foot surgery and appears unlikely to hit the field for at least a few weeks. That will slow his development. Hopefully he’ll heal up in time to play in the last couple of preseason games.
4. Two tight end looks: The biggest shocker of the offseason was Ted Thompson doubling down at tight end in free agency. The signing of Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks gives Mike McCarthy a chance to diversify the offense. Expect McCarthy to borrow from the Pats playbook a bit, hearkening back to the Gronk-Hernandez days, and allowing McCarthy to use Bennett as an inline tight end, where he can block (one of his strengths) or break into a route. When you add in the Pack’s three 1,000 yard receivers, the offense should be as lethal and unpredictable as ever. We’ll get our first glimpse in August.
5. Josh Jones: The Pack’s second second round pick is getting lots of hype and was targeted by the Pack’s scouts for nearly a year. It sounds like he will step into the Micah Hyde role (minus the returner part) and be a part of the nickel and dime formations (which would put him on the field most of the time). We’re being told he’s a true playmaker and has the ambition and drive to be the best. He figures to get a ton of reps this summer so it will be fun to see what he’s got. If he can bring some nastiness and toughness as is expected, he’ll be a welcome addition to the unit.
6. WR Competition: The top three receivers are obviously locked in, and Geronimo Allison has the inside track at the #4 spot. After that, there are six guys competing for two or three spots. It seems likely the Pack will keep seven like they did last year, unless injuries or performance changes the dynamic. Jeff Janis is on the bubble, though his special teams chops gives him a chance to stick for one more season. Second year guy Trevor Davis is the fastest receiver on the roster, but he’ll be pushed by the two rookies, Yancey and Dupree. Maybe one of them lands on the practice squad, but if they shine in the preseason, someone could pluck them away (there’s a good chance several GMs are kicking themselves for not sniping Allison after the promise he showed last preseason). Throw in Max McCaffrey, a holdover from last year’s practice squad and intriguing 6’6″ and 21 year old rookie Michael Clarke, out of Marshall, and there will be a whole lot receivers to keep an eye on this summer.
7. Hundley’s next step: An injury robbed him of last year’s preseason, so this will be a pivotal summer for him. In a perfect world, he shows command of the offense, a strong arm and an ability to use his legs when needed in leading the Pack’s offense for a good part of each preseason game. The Pack is most certainly looking to move him before next year’s draft and his August audition will go a long way in identifying a suitor, as well as the degree of compensation. His development is even more important since he’s a heartbeat away from being the starter for a Super Bowl contender. Should Rodgers miss any time this season, we’ll all feel a teensy bit better if Hundley looks capable this August.
8. Cory Linsley’s health: Over the past few seasons, it’s always seemed like either Linsley or JC Tretter has been hurt. When one is down, the other is ready to step into his spot. With Tretter gone after cashing in in Cleveland, the Pack has lost its security blanket at center. And Linsley is dealing with another injury, recuperating from ankle surgery and will likely start the summer on the PUP list. Suddenly Don Barclay may be back on our radar (shudders). Will someone step up and look the part as Linsley’s backup? Will Linsley be healthy to play any preseason games? With the changing of the guard on the offensive line, the unit could use some reps with its preferred starting five. The team is counting on Linsley being ready. We’ll be watching.
9. Running back derby: After Montgomery, the running back depth chart is wide open. With Thompson drafting three of them, it will be fascinating to watch the competition unfold. Jamaal Williams appears to have the most upside, but Aaron Jones could become a nice third down option. And don’t sleep on Mays, who’s built like a truck and has made a living at being overlooked. All three will get plenty of game action. They’re likely fighting for two spots on the 53 man roster.
10. Justin who? Back in the spring, the Pack cut punter Jason Schum and replaced him with former Miami Hurricane Justin Vogel. It’s one of those transactions that takes on a lot more weight as we get closer to the regular season. I’m a little leery about depending on a rookie punter, especially when I start thinking about bad weather games late in the season. But Schum was underwhelming and if Vogel stumbles, the team can probably find a capable replacement on the street. But it would be nice to see Vogel shine this summer. I know I’ll be paying close attention every time he takes a snap.
There are other compelling storylines, like who will claim the returner jobs and how much Jahri Evans has left in the tank. Or the number of snaps Rodgers gets in the preseason games and the development of second year D-linemen Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry.
It will make for a fascinating August, as the Pack looks to build on last season’s furious finish. The first month figures to be the toughest on the schedule, with road games in Atlanta and Dallas. A quick start will go a long way in determining whether there are any games at Lambeau next January–which will greatly enhance the chances of attaining something we’re all dreaming about: that invitation to the big game at the People’s Stadium.