OK, summer vacation is over. For me and the Packers. It’s time to get serious and get ready for the new-look 2019 Packers. After three weeks of training camp, with the new coaching regime imprinting their stamp on the team, we’ve learned a lot about what has changed and we’ll get our first look Thursday night when the Texans come to town.
For the most part, the Pack has avoided the injury bug so far–other than the annual hamstring issues for Aaron Jones and Kevin King. Whatever happens over the next four weeks, all we can hope for is that the 10 most important Packers stay healthy. That list, for me, includes Rodgers, Bakhtiari, Adams, A. Jones, Linsley, Clark, Z. Smith, Martinez, Alexander and Amos.
With Matt LaFleur running things, much has changed at training camp, including this week’s joint practices with the Houston Texans, which will culminate in Thursday night’s preseason opener. So what have we learned about the 2019 Packers and what will we be watching closely on Thursday night?
For fans, the rookies are usually the biggest draw of the preseason quagmire. We’ve heard about these guys for the last three months and we finally get to see them on the field. #1 pick Rashan Gary has been turning heads and causing Packer reporters to carry drool buckets around; a man of his size with that combination of speed and power has his coaches and teammates jumping up and down. He should get plenty of opportunities to get comfortable during the preseason.
Darnell Savage, the Pack’s other #1 pick, will likely be on the field more this season than Gary, as he steps right into a starting role at safety. It’s likely he’ll be on a pitch count on Thursday, since he missed the first five practices of camp after getting his wisdom teeth taken out. But over the next few weeks it will be fun to see what a difference an athletic, instinctive safety can have on this defense. He and Adrian Amos should combine to give the Pack infinitely better play at that position that we saw in 2018.
Three other rookies should get a load of opportunities on Thursday night. Cornerback Ka’Dar Hollman will likely be on the field early and often, with injuries slowing King and Josh Jackson, and with Tramon Williams needing to save his legs. The defensive coaches have been impressed with his skills and his ability to stick with receivers off the line of scrimmage. This guy has fought for everything he’s ever gotten and he will likely make the most of his opportunity to shine.
Dexter Williams will get a lot of run by default, with hamstring injuries sidelining Jones and Jamal Williams. The Pack has added Corey Grant and Tra Carson to the running back stable in the last couple of weeks, so they’ll also get a chance to show why they belong as well. The rookie from Notre Dame seems to be a natural for LaFleur’s system and has a real opportunity with the injuries to get off to a running start.
Looking forward to seeing how the wide receiver competition plays out. Will the team keep six or seven? The Packers depth chart currently lists Adams, MVS, Geronimo Allison and Jake Kumerow as the top four–they are all locks to make the roster. The last two or three spots will be claimed by ESB, Trevor Davis, J’Mon Moore, Allen Lazard, Teo Redding, Malik Taylor and tantalizing rookie Darrius Shepherd. Only Adams figures to be on the sidelines for most of the preseason games. The rest of the guys will be auditioning over the next four weeks.
Barring injuries ahead of him, Jace Sternberger doesn’t figure to be a major contributor in 2019. While he could be the starter next season, his one season of major college football will likely cause him to have a slightly longer learning curve. Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis and Robert Tonyan all figure to get more snaps this season and I am fully aboard the Tonyan bandwagon. I wouldn’t be surprised if, by midseason, he’s the most productive guy of the group.
There’s plenty to watch on the offensive line as well. With Bakhtiari likely wearing a cap for most of the month, we’ll find out if the Pack has a capable backup at left tackle. Both Alex Light and Jason Spriggs will get the chance to show whether they’re up to it. Guard play will also be fun to watch with newly minted free agent Billy Turner entrenched at right guard and rookie Elgton Jenkins battling Lane Taylor for the left guard spot. Also looking forward to seeing Cole Madison get his reps, after his one-year hiatus from football.
Other things to watch on the offensive side of the ball: much has been made about how the fullback will be featured in this offense. Danny Vitale has pretty much locked down the job and as a kid who caught 135 passes at Northwestern, expect him to be a much more featured part of the offense than John Kuhn was in his glory days. Also, the backup QB job is up for grabs between DeShone Kizer and Tim Boyle. Here’s hoping one of them stands out and provides us some peace of mind that there’s a capable understudy ready, in case the unthinkable happens.
As for the defense, it’s hard not to get a little excited about year two in the Mike Pettine system. Much has been made about the money the Packers spent on free agency on this side of the ball (not to mention the continued draft equity). Za’Darius Smith has earned praise virtually every day in training camp, as he, Preston Smith and Gary join Kyler Fackrell in a remodeled outside linebacker group. I would expect all of these guys to get plenty of reps in the preseason as they get used to their new surroundings.
Pettine has labeled third year DL Montravius Adams as the most improved player on the defense and this will be our first chance to see what looks different. Clearly, the team felt confident enough in his improvement to show longtime stalwart Mike Daniels the door. Adams, Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry have a chance to be a top flight line, the key to making Pettine’s defense work. The Packers will likely be careful with Blake Martinez’ snap count, so look for seventh round pick Ty Summers to get plenty of snaps–he’s earned plenty of praise in training camp as well. James Crawford will also get a long look, after moving inside this season.
It’s the most interesting training camp in 13 years for the Packers and we’re all excited to see LaFleur’s system in action. It will likely be a work in progress and it remains to be seen how much, if at all, the first team offense plays together. We know that facing the Bears defense on the road to open the season would be tough for any team, let alone an offense that’s learning a new system. It may cause the coaches to put some of the front line players in harms way a bit, to work out the kinks and get comfortable.
We’ll learn so much about this team in the next four weeks. Let’s just hope the key roster decisions are made by plays made on the field and not by attrition caused by injuries.