The 2014 Green Bay Packers Training Camp is here at last. Over the next five weeks, starting jobs will be won, roster spots will be determined and the cast of characters that will compete this fall will come together after four pre-season games. There will be 17 public practices conducted on Ray Nitschke Field beginning Saturday morning at 8:20 AM. Before the final 53 man roster is assembled and the team travels to Seattle to open the regular season against the reigning Super Bowl champion Seahawks on September 4, I have five burning questions that need answers.
Can Peppers still be salty?
He's a lot closer to the end than the beginning of his career. At 34, Julius Peppers arrives to give the Packers defense a pass rushing shot in the arm. Last year, he delivered just a handful of sacks on a Chicago Bears defense that completely collapsed. There were whispers this off-season that Peppers, the former number one pick of the Carolina Panthers, is on the inevitable downward slide. General Manager Ted Thompson doesn't believe it's happening just yet. Peppers won't simply be a hand on the ground defensive end cued to charge toward opposing quarterbacks, he'll be asked to play stand up linebacker as the team resurrects the "elephant" position. Peppers will be engaged by playing a variety of positions around the defense, primarily to keep teams from focusing all their protection attention toward Clay Matthews. Julius seems energized by his move to Green Bay, he's proven to be pretty durable and if there is indeed life in his legs for this season at least, his acquisition should provide big dividends.
Are there loose ends at tight end?
It's hard to believe Jermichael Finley will be in the team's plans for 2014. The free agent is still on the mend from the neck fusion surgery that was required after he went down against Cleveland last fall. After what happened to Nick Collins three years ago, the Packers may not want to be the team that medically clears Finley to play, and take the risk of a worse outcome. Two other position incumbents are coming off injury, Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick. Each has offered only a flash of consistent production. Ryan Taylor, who's only carved his niche on special teams returns, as does last year's free agent Jake Stoneburner. The team drafted an athletic pass catching tight end in Richard Rodgers who was impressive during the off-season program. They've also added free agents in Justin Perillo and arguably the most curious prospect of them all, Oregon's Colt Lyerla. Who is most likely to seize Finley's reins? My guess is Quarless but we'll all keep a close eye on Rodgers and Lyerla.
Is the secondary still a primary concern?
Not a single interception from a Packer safety last year was one of the most head-scratching statistics of 2013, Morgan Burnett got a big contract but got no help from his running mate at the back of the secondary. Jerron McMillian flamed out and M.D. Jennings wasn't the answer either. It's why the Packers rolled the dice on the Roll Tide national championship winning safety Ha Ha Clinton Dix with their number one pick. He played a couple of positions in Alabama's secondary, called the coverages and exhibited solid athleticism. Can he transfer that to the pro game right out of the gate? It will be a bumpy learning curve for sure. Micah Hyde got a long look at safety during the mini-camps. Chris Banjo and Sean Richardson will be given opportunities too. At cornerback, Tramon Williams and the new, higher tax bracket tandem Sam Shields need to stay healthy to anchor the umbrella. It will help having Casey Hayward back after his season long hamstring yank. Jarrett Bush and Davon House provide veteran insurance for a unit exposed by one glaring hole a season ago.
Will the doctor stay OUT of the house?
Cracked bones are one thing, stressed muscles and ligaments are another. Aaron Rodgers' collarbone and Clay Matthews' thumb are, no pun intended, bad breaks of the game. The Packers have spent a ton of money on consultants and medical experts to figure out why they've been plagued by a rash of pulled hamstrings, quadricep strains, ankle sprains and the like. The training and preparation type of injuries have done as much to derail recent seasons as have the catastrophic broken bones to star players. There's no denying the talent across the board on this team but for a deep run in the playoffs, the doctor has to stay out of the house this fall.
Can the playoff hurdle be cleared?
Division titles are all well and good, if you root for the likes of Cincinnati, Houston or Dallas. That's not the standard in Green Bay, owners of 13 NFL titles. The last came four years ago now. Reaching the playoffs with a meager division winning record like last season, or one that earns a first round bye hasn't mattered of late. The San Francisco 49ers have seen to that. The Packers have been grinding their teeth since leaving North Texas with the Vince Lombardi trophy in 2011 to get back over that next post-season hurdle that has been hard to clear. They have in Rodgers, the quarterback to do it, now in his prime. They've unearthed a run game with Eddie Lacy. The defense must improve and play with consistency and obviously, it will help to be as healthy as possible come Christmas time. The Lions, Vikings and Bears (oh my!) are sick of chasing the Packers in the NFC North but that is their lot. Green Bay is still the team to beat among this quartet, but time is running out to see if they'll be good enough to reach the conference championship level, much less a return engagement in football's biggest game.
Looking forward to chronicling the journey every step of the way.