The Green Bay Packers are just four practices into this year’s training camp and already, some realities are starting to take shape.
As is the case with all teams, there are needs coming into a new season. The theme for the Packers in 2014 was fixing some existing issues in the middle. What that refers to is both the middle of the defense and the offensive center positions.
The Packers seemed to have found a solution at center last season with Evan Dietrich-Smith. EDS fared well for most of the season and had the all-important endorsement from his quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. It seemed that EDS would be a priority for the Packers to re-sign after the 2013 season. Instead, the Packers chose to let him go and turned their focus to J.C. Tretter.
Tretter was a fourth round selection in 2013, having played offensive tackle at Cornell. As with any high draft pick, the Packers had high hopes for Tretter until he suffered an ankle injury during the offseason that landed him on the physically unable to perform list until very late in the year.
Having missed all of last season, Tretter is, for all intents and purposes, a rookie this season. He has been with the team for a full season and surely has taken mental reps during practice but nothing is a substitute for reps on the field, with the pads on. Not only is Tretter expected to be the team’s starting center, having had no previous experience in a NFL game, but he will be the Packers fourth starting center in as many seasons.
There was a mix of doubt and optimism surrounding Tretter coming into this offseason and the true telltale sign would be the padded practices. Those began on Monday and immediately, it became evident that Tretter has a lot of work to do. He faced up against nose tackle B.J. Raji during one-on-one drills and was mauled. Whether Raji has a new attitude and excitement about being turned loose at nose tackle again or Tretter just isn’t in regular season form, there is still some cause for concern. During this week’s No Huddle Radio podcast, we joked that perhaps Tretter was asked to go easy on Raji and help boost the big man’s confidence this year. All kidding aside, I wish that were the case.
After Wednesday’s practice, head coach Mike McCarthy addressed Tretter’s struggles and said that he needs every rep in practice and that he hasn’t seen anyone prepare more for camp than Tretter. That could be some coach speak and bravado from a coach whose success this year is riding on an unknown in Tretter. It could also turn out to be true.
As I’ve said many times before, I am no guru when it comes to the offensive line but it seems to me that those types of players can either play or they can’t. That said, it’s still too early to start any talk about pulling the plug on Tretter at center. A few practices are one thing. A few preseason games and more practices are another. Packers fans have to be crossing their fingers that Tretter works out and can stay healthy. Otherwise, more shuffling of the offensive line could be done and that means less continuity from last season.
On the defensive side and looking at the picture on the defensive line last season, nose tackle Ryan Pickett was aging and Raji spent most of his time at defensive end instead of at the nose, where he is most comfortable and prefers to be. As a result, Raji turned in his worst statistical performance during his time in Green Bay.
Having turned down a previous contract offer from the Packers rumored to be worth $8 million per season, Raji became a free agent following 2013 and tested the market. He ended up right back in Green Bay at a bargain price of $4 million for one year “prove it” deal. So far, Raji appears to be motivated to do just that.
His energy in camp has been described as high and he has been one of the best performers in one-on-one drills. As long as that translates to the field during game situations, the Packers may end up with a big (no pun intended) bargain this season. With the emergence of defensive end Mike Daniels and despite the loss of Pickett, the Packers appear poised to take a step forward with their defensive front and with Raji anchoring the middle.
At middle linebacker last year, A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones faced constant scrutiny for being pedestrian and lacking any type of playmaking ability. Hawk showed some more flash in his game, but the output from this area was still very average, at best. I have heard next to nothing about either during camp so far.
I have heard some about Jamari Lattimore. Lattimore stepped in last season when Jones was out with an injury and, in spots, played well. He also didn’t play so well in others. Consistency is something that comes with playing time and Lattimore strikes me as the kind of guy who would seem to improve as time goes on. He was reportedly one who gave a rousing speech at halftime during last year’s game against the Dallas Cowboys. He’s part of that new attitude that Daniels has been talking about bringing and if his intensity reaches his play, we could see a new tandem at middle backer.
Some are saying middle linebacker is this year’s safety and quarterback position from a year ago. That is in reference to the team’s allowing themselves to be stuck with subpar performers at a position because they didn’t have the right type of guys in the fold. M.D. Jennings was a disaster at safety and the Packers played musical chairs at quarterback when Aaron Rodgers went down because they had to scramble after letting go of both backups they entered camp with. I don’t see the situation as being that dire, given the depth. Still, any 3-4 defense needs stellar play from their middle linebackers and that’s not how I would describe what we can likely expect from both Hawk and Jones.
At safety, the Packers were faced with the consequences of not drafting one in 2013 and a misread on former fourth-rounder Jerron McMillian They were left with M.D. Jennings next to Morgan Burnett as the starter in every game in 2013. Packers safeties recorded zero interceptions all season long and for the first time in over 50 years.
Packers general manager Ted Thompson seemed to finally get the message and used his first draft choice in 2014 on Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Touted as one of the best safety prospects in this year’s crop, HHCD fell to the Packers with the 21st overall pick (ironically, Clinton-Dix will wear #21 this season) and could emerge as a starter. Some may be saying “could?”. Most first round picks are projected as starters and immediate contributors.
Keep in mind that being a starter simply means being on the field for the first snap. The Packers run many variations of their defense and use different personnel for each. So far in camp, the Packers have used some packages that have had HHCD, Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde on the field at the same time.
Hyde is learning the safety position and expected to contribute there this season. He has performed well in practices so far, but has admitted that learning the mental side of the position is his biggest challenge. Burnett has this season to improve on last year and turn the proverbial corner or face a possible slide down the depth chart or exit from Green Bay after this year.
Also in the mix is Sean Richardson, who returned to the team late last season after recovering from a spine injury the year prior. Richardson has also made some nifty plays during practice and is making a case for himself as well.
While there are still questions about how effective Hyde, HHCD and Richardson can be this season, the Packers appear to be in much better shape and should get more production out of this group in 2014.
Whether the Packers have truly fixed their issues in the middle this season is still a question, but they have at least addressed them. Through the first week of work, it would appear that this year’s defense is ready to take a step forward and be more of a factor. If they can all stay healthy as well, the return of some hard-nosed football could be in store this year.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: