GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers went 15-1 last year and nearly every key player is back for the 2012 season. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions to be answered when training camp kicks off July 26. Here are five that we’ll be keeping an eye on:
Is Graham Harrell ready to be Aaron Rodgers backup?
The unproven backup – it’s been a common theme during Mike McCarthy’s time as the Green Bay Packers head coach. First it was Aaron Rodgers, then Matt Flynn and now Graham Harrell.
A record-breaking quarterback at Texas Tech, Harrell is entering his third year in Green Bay after spending time on the practice squad and active roster the past two seasons but has never thrown a regular-season pass. It was in their third year that Rodgers and Flynn showed they would be able to fill-in, without the offense missing much of a beat, with their performances against Dallas and New England, respectively.
Packers fans don’t want to think about the possibility, but what if Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP, suffers an injury and can’t play for a couple weeks? Is Harrell ready? McCarthy, offensive coordinator Tom Clements must determine that. Coaches have given glowing reports about Harrell this off-season but questions will remain until the improvement is seen on the field under game conditions.
Can the running backs stay healthy and productive?
Running back Ryan Grant is still on the market, but the Packers appear completely disinterested in the 29-year-old back. If fact, the club gave his locker away, to wide receiver Diondre Borel, during the offseason. That means the Packers appear willing to go into this season with a guy who has struggled to stay healthy (James Starks), a guy coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament (Alex Green) and a guy who is likely best suited as a third-down back (Brandon Saine).
When minicamp ended, coach Mike McCarthy said he was satisfied with the depth at running back – but that could change quickly if history is any indication. When healthy, Starks is their best runner, but it seems very risky to rely on a player who missed his senior season of college due to a shoulder injury, didn’t play until late in his rookie year due to hamstring injury and struggled during the second half of last season after suffering knee and ankle injuries.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear how much work Green will get as he comes back from the knee injury that ended his season at Minnesota in late October. It’s believed he’ll be ready to go, and if so, he could provide a little bit of change up to Starks.
Saine, an undrafted free agent a year ago, played in eight games but does not appear to be an every-down back.
The Packers don’t need a big-time running game with reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers under center and an embarrassment of riches at the receiver position, but consistency and the ability to run out the clock at the end of a game could be very valuable.
Who will be the third cornerback?
For much of the past two years, Sam Shields has been the No. 3 cornerback when the Packers go to five defensive backs, but he’s not guaranteed that spot this year. His willingness to tackle has been questioned – so much so, in fact, that he was replaced by Jarrett Bush during early downs against the New York Giants in the NFC Divisional Playoff game in January.
In minicamp, Bush was still with the starters when they went to their nickel defense, but he’s not the only option. Davon House, a fourth round pick in last year’s draft, looks stronger and quicker than he did prior to getting hurt early in training camp last summer. The Packers also have rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward; when he was drafted, cornerback’s coach Joe Whitt said he had a complete game and specifically mentioned the fact he is a willing tackler.
With the league becoming so pass-happy; it will be vital to not only have a third corner but a fourth and fifth corner, too. What the rotation looks like will be one of the more interesting battles in camp.
Who’s next at safety?
With three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins no longer on the roster – he was cut this spring after suffering a career-threatening neck injury last year – the spot opposite Morgan Burnett is another major question mark.
For the past two years, nominal starter Charlie Peprah has filled in. In 2010, it was for Burnett, who got hurt against the Lions in early October; last year, it was for Collins, who went down in Week 2. While Peprah has been a nice stop-gap measure, the Packers have to be hoping one of their younger guys steps up.
Peprah didn’t participate in organized team activity practices or minicamp because off-season knee surgery, so that process started early. M.D. Jennings benefited the most from Peprah’s absence, getting to work with the first team on a regular basis. Jennings played in 15 games last year, almost exclusively on special teams, but has had a strong off-season. The real question is whether he can hold up physically at just 6 feet tall and less than 190 pounds.
Another option is rookie fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian, McMillian will have to adjust to the speed and complexity of the NFL coming from Maine, but Green Bay has had some luck in drafting safeties from small schools. Collins played at Bethune-Cookman and started as a rookie in 2005, while William & Mary alum Darren Sharper played a big role as a rookie in 1997, before taking over as the starter the following year.
While much has been made of the possibility of moving cornerback Charles Woodson to safety, it’s likely that his only time there will come when they are in their base 3-4 defense.
Is the pass rush better?
The team spent money and draft picks this offseason to help lift a pass rush that finished 27th in the 32-team NFL in sacks last year with 29. That’s nearly 20 fewer than the club had in its Super Bowl season of 2010. Enter the Packers first two picks of the draft: Outside linebacker Nick Perry, and defensive end Jerel Worthy. Add undrafted free agent outside linebacker Dezman Moses and free-agent defensive linemen Anthony Hargrove and Phillip Merling, and it’s clear the team is throwing as many bodies as possible at a problem, with hopes of finding a solution.
While we won’t see everything the defense has to offer in terms of scheme in the preseason, it’s likely we’ll find out, at least a little bit, if Green Bay can get to the quarterback with just four guys. It’s been the key for the New York Giants in each of their championship seasons, and it’s something that will take the pressure off the secondary that was forced to cover for entirely too long at points last year. Last season, the Packers blitzed the second-most of any team in the NFL, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
We’ll also see if outside linebacker Clay Matthews and nose tackle B.J. Raji can rebound after significant drops in production last year.
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.