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2014 Most Important Packers No. 13: Mike Daniels, DE

Jul 14, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
Photo/Getty Images  
Mike Daniels is talking big, but he’s already shown that he can back it up.
 

GREEN BAY – Anyone can talk a big game. It’s another thing to deliver on that talk.

If Mike Daniels’ improvement from his rookie season to Year 2 in the NFL is any indication, the Green Bay Packers outspoken defensive lineman will be able to back up his words with action.

As the Packers’ offseason program was concluding, Daniels spoke his mind about the defense’s persona as not being tough enough and needing to be meaner.

“Me, personally, being a leader, I'm looking to make the defense a lot meaner, get after guys a little bit,” Daniels said following the team’s first minicamp practice on June 17. “A lot of times, you look on tape the last couple of years, some of our guys get shoved in the back after plays. I've seen it happen to some defensive linemen. Now that I'm older and I'm a little more vocal, that's unacceptable.

“Every game, one of our offensive guys gets knocked out, maybe two, so it's about time we returned the favor to other teams instead of just getting pushed around all the time. It's just a little bit of a different attitude. A little meaner. A lot meaner. Actually, being mean for once because, quite frankly, we haven't been. I think that's been our biggest problem on defense.”

He wasn’t done.

“I'm personally going to make that my job to really get the best out of everybody. I don't care if I've got to hit somebody before we get on the field. If that's going to [expletive] them off and they take it out on somebody on the other team, then so be it,” Daniels said, adding that he is “very comfortable” in his role as a leader.

“If something has to be said, I'm going to say it. If somebody has a problem with it, then we're grown men. We play a violent game. We get paid to be violent, so why not? If you deck somebody in the locker room because you had a disagreement, there's not going to be any sensitivity training. It's a barbaric sport, so that's how you're going to have to approach it.

“I'm tired of getting our face punched in by other teams. I'm not used to that."

For Daniels’ leadership role to grow, and for his words to have an impact, he will have to elevate his own game, just as he did last season, when he registered a defensive line-high 6.5

As a rookie fourth-round pick from Iowa in 2012, Daniels played 280 snaps in 16 total games (14 regular season, two playoffs) and had 19 tackles and two sacks. His biggest play was a late-season 43-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Detroit.

Last season, Daniels saw action in all 17 games, playing 553 snaps – mostly in sub packages as an interior pass rusher – and registering 37 tackles and 6.5 sacks in regular-season play, most among Packers defensive linemen and second only to Clay Matthews’ 7.5. He added another sack in the playoff loss to San Francisco and was credited with six quarterback hits and 27 quarterback hurries by Pro Football Focus.

"I thought Mike Daniels took a big step last year. He was our most productive guy in the defensive line last year. I think he'll continue to improve,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said during the minicamp. “Mike's one of the hardest workers we have. He's got a great defensive temperament. He's strong. He's explosive. We hope he can just pick up where he left off last year.”

Although the 25-year-old Daniels is undersized at 6-foot and 300 pounds, Daniels has played bigger than he is since entering the league. For the defense to deliver on coach Mike McCarthy’s big-letters promise of improvement, he’ll have to be even more of an impact player than he was last year. The feeling on the coaching staff is that he’ll deliver just that.

“Mike’s always been a tough guy. That’s what we loved about him,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “People were probably a little bit afraid of him because of his size and his height and he doesn’t have the NFL standard height and arm length. But we really loved him. He’s an ex-wrestler who will get in there and grapple with [offensive linemen]. He’s not going to be a finesse guy. He’s very tough.”

About The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 series presented by West Bend
The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 list is not a list of the 20 best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the 20 players the Packers can least afford to lose if they want to return to the Super Bowl, or the players who must have the biggest impact for the team to be successful. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others. Agree? Disagree? Chime in via email (jwilde@espnwisconsin.com) or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde, @ESPNMilwaukee or @ESPNMadison.

2014 Most Important Packers No. 14: Mike Neal, OLB/DE

Jul 13, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
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Mike Neal stayed healthy last season, and that led to production and a new two-year deal.

GREEN BAY – None of them – not Aaron Rodgers, not Clay Matthews, not Dom Capers – had been asked about Mike Neal. And yet, while the questions pertained to him, all three brought up the fifth-year outside linebacker/defensive lineman hybrid unprompted.

“Our defense is primed and ready,” said Rodgers, who had been asked about the offseason addition of veteran pass rusher Julius Peppers. “Adding Julius, a healthy Clay Matthews with the depth we have now with Mike Neal and Nick Perry, it will be a good test for our offense every day in training camp.”

Matthews, too, had been asked about Peppers, who figures to line up on the opposite side of him in passing situations.

“It's going to present some difficulties for the offense to not only block the two of us but other guys who have stepped up in recent history – Mike Daniels, Mike Neal coming on strong,” Matthews said. “[We] should be a formidable pass rush this year. So I'm looking forward to it.”

And then there was Capers, who finds himself with considerably more pass-rushing options than he had at the end of last season, when Peppers was playing for the Chicago Bears, Matthews was out with a broken thumb and Perry was fighting through a foot injury. He, too, had been asked specifically about Peppers, who like Neal will split his time between being a lineman and an outside linebacker.

“[Peppers] is one of those versatile guys. You’ve seen we used Clay in a lot of different ways. You’ve seen Mike Neal be a hybrid-type of guy,” Capers said. “[Neal] played a lot more last year than what we anticipated this time last year because he was still a down lineman ,and he played a lot more outside. He falls into that hybrid category where he can play a number of different spots.”

The point of this he said-he said-he said routine is this: While the talk of the offseason was envisioning what a healthy Matthews and a still-something-left-in-the-tank Peppers could do in tandem, don’t sleep on the potential contributions of Neal, who returned after a brief free-agent foray this spring, signing a two-year deal that included a $2.5 million signing bonus and could be worth as much as $8 million.

Neal, who turned 27 last month, ended up playing 751 snaps last season, the most of any outside linebacker, because of the injuries to Matthews and Perry, and finished with five sacks, four quarterback hits and a team-high 37 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. He dropped roughly 20 pounds last offseason in preparation for his hybrid role, and although he remains a work in progress with some of the skills required to be an outside linebacker (especially dropping in coverage), he got better as the season wore on.

More importantly, he saw action in all 17 games (including the playoff loss to San Francisco) after battling injuries his first three NFL seasons. His previous career high for games was 11 in 2012, when he missed four games while on an NFL suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He played just two games as a rookie second-round pick from Purdue in 2010 because of a shoulder injury that required major surgery, and he played in just seven games in 2011 because of a nagging knee injury suffered in training camp.

That’s why, after the team drafted defensive end Datone Jones in the first round last year and told Neal of the position change plans, he wondered if it was the beginning of the end for him.

“At first, when they drafted Datone and moved me out there, I started looking at it as, ‘Maybe this is just them trying to find me something to do,’ and then if I didn’t work out, I’d get traded or released,” Neal admitted. “[Instead], it’s kind of been a blessing in disguise.”

In more ways than one. Not only has Neal proven to be effective as a stand-up player, but the weight loss likely played a role in him finally staying healthy. Now, it’s a matter of replicating his success from a year ago.

One way the Packers could use Neal would be in bringing back their so-called “Psycho” package, a nickel personnel group that utilizes one down lineman and five linebackers. After unveiling it early on in his tenure with the Packers, Capers hasn’t used it much in recent years, in part because of a dearth of worthy linebackers.

Neal gives Capers the flexibility to play both as the lone lineman, something he’s done in the past, or serve as one of the five linebackers.

“We’ve got all the packages. It’s just going to be which ones work and which ones we think will be best to best utilize our personnel,” Capers said. “I think you make a mistake if you just try to take your guys and fit them into a defense, you have to take your defense and fit it around the guys. That’s what we’re kind of going through right now.”

About The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 series presented by West Bend
The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 list is not a list of the 20 best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the 20 players the Packers can least afford to lose if they want to return to the Super Bowl, or the players who must have the biggest impact for the team to be successful. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others. Agree? Disagree? Chime in via email (jwilde@espnwisconsin.com) or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde@ESPNMilwaukee or @ESPNMadison.

2014 Most Important Packers No. 15: Tramon Williams, CB

Jul 12, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Tramon Williams is recapturing his pre-injury form, and that is wonderful news for the Packers.
 

GREEN BAY – Joe Whitt is not one for hyperbole.

So when the Green Bay Packers cornerbacks coach compares the way Tramon Williams played during the second half of last season to the way the Packers veteran cornerback played during the 2010 season – when he elevated himself into the conversation as one of the NFL’s elite cover men – you know he’s not just saying that because it sounds good.

“Really, the last nine games – he played as good as everybody talked about 2010,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “From the New York game on, if you’re looking for much better play than that, you’re not going to get it from anybody in the league. Now, can we get it for 16 games and onto the playoffs and next year? I’m a firm believer if he’s healthy, we’re going to get it.”

Much has changed for the now 31-year-old Williams since he was tilting the field in the Packers’ favor in 2010 – especially during the team’s Super Bowl XLV playoff run. He is now among the team's longest-tenured players, and fellow cornerback Sam Shields (four-year, $39 million deal) surpassed Williams (five-year, $38.148 million extension in November 2010) as the team’s highest-paid defensive back.

And, of course, there was the debilitating shoulder injury he suffered in the 2011 regular-season opener against New Orleans that left him playing with one arm tied behind his back for most of that season and much of 2012.

“Truthfully, I don’t even worry about it,” Williams said of his shoulder now. “From my point, when I put in the work that I do, whatever the results are, I can live with it. Do I expect to play at a high level? Do I feel good? Absolutely. But you never know what happens.”

Given how he was playing late last year, there’s more certainty about how he’ll play in 2014 than there is about where he’ll be after this season. He’s entering the final year of that 2010 extension, and with younger talent at the position (Shields, Casey Hayward, trial safety Micah Hyde and Davon House, who is also entering a contract year), it’s possible he will be working elsewhere in 2015.

“You always wonder. Coming from my perspective, I’d never been injured up until the shoulder injury, so that was new to me, something different to fight,” Williams said. “I got through that, and I’m still feeling great. I feel like I can go for as long as I want.”

But for now, he’s focused on replicating – and improving upon – last season, when he played more snaps on defense (1,124 in 17 games) than any other player, and finished the year with 91 tackles (according to the Packers’ official stats) along with three interceptions and 14 pass breakups while playing all 16 regular-season games. He then had an interception (after which he ran over San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick) and a pair of tackles in the season-ending playoff loss to the 49ers at Lambeau Field.

According to Pro Football Focus. Williams finished having been targeted 93 times, allowing 53 completions for 714 yards with four touchdowns allowed (78.0 opponent passer rating). PFF charged him with 10 missed tackles while crediting him with three quarterback hurries and three QB hits along with his two sacks when blitzing from the nickel spot. He showed no signs of the nerve damage that had limited him.

The game when Williams truly looked like his old self was on Nov. 17 against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium – the same place where he’d drawn criticism the year before for what some thought was turning down a tackle. Although the Packers lost, Williams was their best player, registering eight tackles, including two for loss and picking off Eli Manning for his first INT of the season.

“That New York game might be one of the best games he’s played since we’ve worked together – out of all of them,” Whitt said. “You might go back to the Atlanta game in 2010 in the playoffs, but that New York game, he tackled at such a high level, he played fast. He played at a speed quicker than most other people, and he said it going into the game. He said, ‘Joe, I’m not worried about anything.’ And that’s the way he played. ‘Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen; I’m just going to play all-out and I’m not worried about trying to be perfect. I’m just going to play football.’”

About The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 series presented by West Bend
The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 list is not a list of the 20 best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the 20 players the Packers can least afford to lose if they want to return to the Super Bowl, or the players who must have the biggest impact for the team to be successful. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others. Agree? Disagree? Chime in via email (jwilde@espnwisconsin.com) or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde,@ESPNMilwaukee or @ESPNMadison.

2014 Most Important Packers No. 16: Bryan Bulaga, RT

Jul 11, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
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After ending the past two seasons on injured reserve, Bryan Bulaga is back at right tackle and hoping for a full, healthy season.

GREEN BAY – Bryan Bulaga was back where he belonged during offseason spring practices – back on the field. The one place he wasn’t? In the locker room when reporters were.

The Green Bay Packers veteran offensive tackle was focused more on his comeback from back-to-back season-ending injuries than he was on talking about it with the media, but he did let two of his closest friends on the team, left guard Josh Sitton and backup right tackle Don Barclay, in on how he was feeling.

“The first week (of organized team activity practices), I know he told me he was a little bit shaky here and there, just [because] he hadn't done anything in a year,” Sitton said. “But it seems like he's back to normal.

“He's the type of guy that's going to work his ass off to get healthy – and he's done that. I think he probably could have played at the end of last season at some point, from what he told me. But he'll be just fine."

Barclay, who filled in at right tackle after Builaga’s 2012 season ended with a November hip injury, and who worked at right tackle last year after Bulaga’s offseason move to left tackle, saw Bulaga struggling with his disappointment after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the annual Family Night Scrimmage last August. But as the season went on, Barclay watched Bulaga become a de facto coach and help both him and rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari.

“I think he was just so focused – it was tough for him. Two years in a row … mentally, it kind of gets you upstairs,” Barclay said. “He might have been down in the dumps for a little bit, but after, he started to come out of his shell and coming around and talking to everyone. After being mad about the situation, he definitely helped out us, helped out me, helped out Dave. He was good about it.”

Now, though, Bulaga is in a good place – according to those who know him – as he enters a contract year and is back in the starting lineup at right tackle, where he started as a rookie first-round pick in 2010, when he became the youngest player ever to start a Super Bowl. While the experiment of moving him to left tackle was over before it started, the coaches liked what they saw from him in shorts and helmets, despite wearing a bulky brace on his knee.

“(Bulaga) looks pretty good. He’s moving around and getting back into football,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “With anyone coming off of not playing for a while, just getting their timing and punch down and hands coordinated and those types of things, those things will come. It’s great to have him out there.

“He progressed every day. He’s coming around fine.”

Added head coach Mike McCarthy: “I think all of our players that are coming off injuries, and specifically Bryan Bulaga, you want to get back out there. [But] it’s a progression again because he hasn’t been on the field obviously since last training camp. Bryan’s done a lot of good things and he’s stronger, so I think this has been a very good work for him.

“Bryan’s so consistent. He’s a very good worker, very diligent, very anal in his approach. And, he’s the ultimate pro. I thought he had a very good offseason.”

If Bulaga returns to his pre-injury form – McCarthy insists he was on the verge of being a Pro Bowl right tackle at the time of his 2012 hip injury – Sitton believes the line has the makings of an outstanding group. While Barclay was a respectable replacement in his 21 starts (including playoffs), Bulaga is simply a better player – when he’s healthy.

“Absolutely. He's a hell of a player,” Sitton said. “He was a first-round draft pick for a reason. He's a stud. If we can stay healthy as an offensive line, I think this can be the best offensive line we've had in a while, probably ever since I've been here. So I think we've just got to stay healthy.”

About The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 series presented by West Bend
The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 list is not a list of the 20 best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the 20 players the Packers can least afford to lose if they want to return to the Super Bowl, or the players who must have the biggest impact for the team to be successful. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others. Agree? Disagree? Chime in via email (jwilde@espnwisconsin.com) or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde,@ESPNMilwaukee or @ESPNMadison.

At camp, Packers weigh few practices, competitive advantage, tradition

Jul 10, 2014 -- 4:42pm
 
Photo/Getty Images 
The tradition of Packers training camp means the Packers can’t – or, to this point, won’t – further limit open practices.
 

GREEN BAY – When Mark Murphy was playing safety for the Washington Redskins in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the team’s fans would have had ample opportunity to see their football heroes.

“There’s no question it’s completely changed,” the Green Bay Packers team president and CEO said Thursday, during a meeting with reporters to discuss the team’s finances. “With [Redskins coach] George Allen, we used to have three-a-days – two practices and then a walkthrough.”

Today, the number of camp practices have been limited by the new collective bargaining agreement. But there is also a league-wide trend toward closed training-camp practices, and the Packers are walking a fine line because of how much the annual rite of summer means to their fan base.

So, the team is trying to balance the reduced number of training-camp practices allowed by the CBA, its passionate fans’ desire to see more workouts and coach Mike McCarthy’s desire to keep some of his schemes and personnel groups under wraps for competitive reasons.

The Packers are scheduled to hold 16 open-to-the-public practices this summer, plus the scrimmage-turned-practice for the annual Family Night on Aug. 2. Multiple teams have reduced the number of open-to-the-public practices in recent years, with the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles, for example, scheduled to have just two open practices this summer.

According to Jeff Ash of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Packers’ NFC North rivals also have lower open-practice numbers: The Minnesota Vikings will hold 15 open practices (plus 15 open walkthroughs), the Chicago Bears will hold 14 open practices and the Detroit Lions will have just eight.

In 2010, the last year of the old CBA, the Packers had 25 open practices. Last year, they were down to 19.

The official Packers training-camp schedule for this summer includes four days listed as having “no public practice.” It is unclear if those practices will be open to the media.

“I think the challenge for us is, coming to Green Bay and coming to training camp is obviously something that a lot of our fans across the state and the region have done for years,” Murphy said. “They come anticipating two practices a day. I think they know now that things have changed (because of the CBA), but I think the challenge for us is, there’s only one practice a day now, so we have to have other things around to keep them entertained and keep them in the community.”

For McCarthy, who like many coaches is concerned about tipping his hand to upcoming opponents, the challenge is also a competitive one. 

“I think everybody associated with the organization, football included, knows for us those training-camp practices are a tradition,” Murphy said. “And then, the [kids on] bicycles – if you close practice, you can’t really have the bicycles. We talk through a lot of those things. We realize how important it is to the community.”

Murphy: New Thompson deal a 'top priority'

Jul 10, 2014 -- 4:00pm
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Packers president Mark Murphy said Thursday that getting GM Ted Thompson a new deal is high on his to-do list. 
 

GREEN BAY – Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson hasn’t shown any signs to team president Mark Murphy that he doesn’t want to work beyond his current contract, which is why getting Thompson a new deal is one of Murphy’s next tasks.

Speaking during a meeting with reporters about the team’s financial report, Murphy made it clear that the 61-year-old Thompson has not indicated to him that he is planning to retire anytime soon. Thompson is entering his 10th season as GM after taking the job in 2005, and his contract is scheduled to expire after the 2016 NFL Draft.

“It’s a top priority,” Murphy replied when asked about an extension for Thompson. “I think Ted has been instrumental, obviously, in the run we’ve had, so that is a real priority.”

Thompson suffered an undisclosed medical issue this offseason that wasn’t life-threatening but did require surgery and prevented him from traveling for part of the offseason. At the NFL Draft in May, Thompson appeared to be returning to full strength.

Asked if Thompson has given any indication he might not want an extension, or that he might not want to keep working in his current job, Murphy replied, “No, he has not. No.”

2014 Most Important Packers No. 17: Brandon Bostick, TE

Jul 10, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Without Jermichael Finley, the Packers’ offense needs a playmaking, pass-catching tight end. Brandon Bostick might be the answer.
 

GREEN BAY – The reason Mike McCarthy has always loved Jermichael Finley – in addition to the Green Bay Packers head coach’s fatherly affinity for the 6-foot-5, 247-pound tight end – is an offensive philosophy that dates back to his days as an assistant coach running his first NFL offense.

“I learned this in New Orleans,” explained McCarthy, who after a one-year stint as the Packers’ quarterbacks coach under Ray Rhodes became the New Orleans Saints’ offensive coordinator from 2000 through 2004. “I think anytime you have a chance to build an offense and develop schemes, a base principle of mine has always been the fastest way to the end zone is through the middle of the field. So, having big athletic body types to win in front of the quarterback is vital to the success of a high-powered offensive passing game, in my opinion.

“I don’t think you can have enough, whether it’s a big receiver or an athletic tight end.”

With Finley’s NFL future in limbo – despite him saying Wednesday that he’s feeling great and wants to return to Green Bay – the closest approximation to the matchup problem Finley created for opposing defenses is 6-foot-3, 250-pound Brandon Bostick, who has a not-so-grand total of seven career NFL receptions, all of which came last year, before a foot injury that required surgery ended his season.

“Brandon’s got to be a consistent player on offense,” McCarthy said this spring, after Bostick gained medical clearance to begin practicing again. “His body type is definitely a challenge for the opponent with some of the things he’s able to do, particularly his ability to get down the field in coverage. So I think he definitely took a step last year and I’d like to see him do the same. I thought he came on strong right before his injury, playing tight end. I thought he did some good things blocking.”

With training camp less than three weeks away, there isn’t a position on the roster more unsettled than tight end. De facto starter Andrew Quarless, whom the team re-signed to a two-year, $3 million contract in March, missed every organized team activity and minicamp practice with an undisclosed injury. The team’s other two returning tight ends, Ryan Taylor and Jake Stoneburner, have yet to show much on offense. And rookie third-round pick Richard Rodgers and undrafted rookie free agent Colt Lyerla, while athletic, are newbies.

“I think this is a big time [opportunity]. Not only for me, but everybody,” Bostick said after the final minicamp practice. “When I come back [for training camp], I want to be the starter.”

He has as good a chance as anyone. Two years ago, he came to the post-draft rookie orientation camp on a tryout basis as a converted basketball player from tiny Newberry College and later earned an undrafted rookie deal. He spent all of 2012 on the practice squad, then made the team coming out of training camp last year as the fourth tight end. All of his production – seven receptions for 120 yards and a touchdown – came after Finley went down with a career-threatening neck injury on Oct. 20. According to Pro Football Focus, Bostick was targeted 14 times in his 144 offensive snaps last season. His three drops all came against Minnesota on Nov. 24.

“I thought Brandon made some real strides by the end of the season. His effort level was really high. He seemed to have a better understanding of what he was being asked to do. As with everything, great effort can overcome a lot of bad technique,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “The more reps that Brandon gets, the better off he’s going to be.”
With a measure of uncertainty at wide receiver following the offseason departure of James Jones – McCarthy’s preferred personnel group in passing situations last season consisted of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jones, Finley and a back when they were all healthy – finding a suitable pass-catching tight end is vital. If Finley does not return, although Quarless is likely the team’s best all-around tight end, Bostick appears to be the team’s best option in the passing game.

But he’s aiming higher than that.

“Last year, I was more focused on making the team and doing the little stuff. Now, I’m focused on, I want to be the starter. I want to be that guy,” Bostick said. “Everything I’m doing right now [is because] I want to be the starter.

“I think I can accomplish anything I want to. If I’m not the starter, I’ll do whatever they tell me to. Special teams last year, I was good on special teams. I just go out there and be the best I can.”

About The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 series presented by West Bend
The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 list is not a list of the 20 best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the 20 players the Packers can least afford to lose if they want to return to the Super Bowl, or the players who must have the biggest impact for the team to be successful. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others. Agree? Disagree? Chime in via email (jwilde@espnwisconsin.com) or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde@ESPNMilwaukee or @ESPNMadison.

Finley: 'I'm working as hard as I can to get back to Packer Nation'

Jul 09, 2014 -- 2:52pm
 
Photo/Getty Images
Jermichael Finley continues to work out and continues to hope for a return to the NFL, preferably with the Packers.
 

GREEN BAY – While the waiting remains frustrating, Jermichael Finley remains hopeful that he will continue his NFL career – and he wants to do it with the only team he’s known as a pro: The Green Bay Packers.

Speaking in a brief phone interview between workouts Wednesday, the free-agent tight end said that he is feeling good and that he still fully intends to resume his football career. And he hopes it’s with the Packers.

Finley received medical clearance from his surgeon, Dr. Joseph Maroon, in late May, but despite visits to the New England Patriots and New York Giants, and a check-in with the Packers’ medical staff, he remains unsigned.

As he worked out Wednesday, though, Finley was in good spirits. He didn’t sound discouraged by the waiting game and said he continues to be in great shape physically.

“This is the best I’ve felt in this entire crazy process,” he said.

While Finley didn’t discuss other potential suitors and didn’t say whether the Packers have reached out to him recently, he made it clear that coming back to Green Bay is his preference.

“Tell everybody I'm working as hard as I can to get back to Packer Nation,” he said.

The enduring question with Finley remains whether an NFL team doctor will clear him, paving the way for him to sign with that team. Finley’s agent, Blake Baratz, told NBC Sports’ Pro Football Talk Live in late May that his client also must seriously consider the $10 million in tax-free money he would receive from a disability policy should he never play football again. Finley had the policy in place before undergoing C3/C4 spinal fusion on Finley in January. He suffered a bruised spinal cord on Oct. 20 against Cleveland.

“Opinions can be subjective. Dr. Maroon’s opinion may not be the opinion of 31 other team doctors,” Baratz told host Mike Florio in a telephone interview, during which he broke the news of Maroon clearing Finley. “Now, a lot of the teams that are interested in Jermichael are getting copies of the films, he’s going to start taking visits [on Friday], and the process will start moving along.

“He may not be 100 percent there yet, but he’s very close. He’s working out, he’s in phenomenal shape, he can do everything right now. The question is just whether everyone would sign off on him taking a hit right now, which obviously he wouldn’t need to do anyway.”

Asked by Florio if Maroon had given Finley full clearance to play football again, Baratz replied, “That is correct. … The final question is whether those other doctors, whether they’re NFL team doctors or independent doctors, would also green-light him to take a hit.”

Later in the interview, when asked about the $10 million policy, Baratz again acknowledged that other doctors might not clear Finley, even though Maroon, the Pittsburgh Steelers' team neurosurgeon, did.

“I think in [Finley's] case, it will be fairly easy [to collect] because there’s going to be a lot of experts and doctors that would not clear him today,” Baratz said. “Now, three weeks from now, or six weeks from now, or nine weeks from now, and he plays in X number of games, it’s a different story. But if he shuts it down right now, he’s got a very sound argument to collect on the disability plan.”

Tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said last month that he and Finley had exchanged some text messages throughout the offseason and that he has not given up hope that he’ll be coaching Finley again.

“I’m absolutely hoping for the best. Nothing would please me more than to be able to welcome Jermicahel Finley as a member of the Green Bay Packers again,” Fontenot said then. “[But] that’s a decision that unfortunately isn’t going to be made by any coaching staffs. It’s going to be a medical decision, ultimately. So whatever they say, we move with. Sure, I’d love to see him back, but not at the expense of him possibly further injuring himself.

“Again, it’s up to our medical staff. Those are the guys that we trust and we listen to.”

The Packers open training camp on July 26.

2014 Most Important Packers No. 18: Jamari Lattimore, ILB

Jul 09, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Jamari Lattimore isn’t listed as a starter on the depth chart, but neither was Desmond Bishop in 2010.
 

GREEN BAY – Jamari Lattimore looks at his body of work after three NFL seasons and is unimpressed.

Yes, he made the Green Bay Packers roster as an undrafted rookie free agent linebacker out of Middle Tennessee State in 2011, and after spending most of his first two seasons as a core special-teams player, he played a career-high 272 defensive snaps on defense last season, starting four games for an injured Brad Jones and recording 38 tackles (31 solo), two sacks and a forced fumble.

“I haven’t accomplished, to me, really nothing,” Lattimore said during organized team activity practices this spring, having returned on a one-year, $1.431 million restricted free-agent deal. “[My goals are] to make a lot of plays to help the team. There’s a lot of different levels [of success]. For me, I have to accomplish a lot more before I take that. I’ve got a lot to do.”

And this very well could be the year he does it. Even though veterans A.J. Hawk and Jones are expected to remain the starters in the base defense – “Brad’s our starter, until I’m told otherwise,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said during the mandatory minicamp last month – Lattimore appears poised to see extended time on defense as part of a linebacker rotation. While coach Mike McCarthy wouldn’t divulge any of his plans for the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Lattimore, he certainly would fit McCarthy’s stated plan of using more personnel groupings and getting more players involved.

“I like his athletic abilities,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s a guy, you saw him make plays in space. He has enough athletic ability against some of the skill you play against. When Brad went down, he had some very good games for us where he impacted the game with his athletic ability. You can never have enough good athletes out there and Jamari just gives us another athletic option.”

As a rookie in 2011, one of the veterans who befriended Lattimore was Desmond Bishop, who the previous year had been trapped on the depth chart behind former first-round pick Nick Barnett. But when Barnett suffered a season-ending wrist injury early in the 2010 season, Bishop not only filled in for him but was one of the defense’s most impactful players, helping make it a top-5 unit en route to the Super Bowl XLV title.

On a defense that has largely been devoid of playmakers since then – Bishop suffered a ruptured hamstring tendon in the 2012 preseason and never played another snap for the Packers, who released him prior to last season – Lattimore has shown a knack for making things happen. Even on special teams, he blocked a kick and recovered an onside kick last season.

“He wants to be a playmaker. He wants to be an impact player,” Moss said. “So far, it’s been primarily on special teams, and we can only see if that’s going to be the same or see what’s going to happen as far as playing on defense. But there could be an opportunity there. If it does show up, you’ve got to be ready to take it and seize the moment.”

That’s the lesson Lattimore took from his friend Bishop, and he vows to be ready if that opportunity comes his way. He’s always been vigilant in his preparation – he actually needed injuries to both Jones and veteran backup Robert Francois (ruptured Achilles’ tendon) to get his shot on defense last season – and the possibility of a greater role this season has fueled him even more.

“I feel like I took advantage of the opportunities I’ve been given, and any other opportunities that might present themselves, I’m going to try and take advantage of those, too,” Lattimore said, adding that he and Bishop did talk about how to balance the challenge of impatiently waiting your turn behind an incumbent starter and staying prepared should opportunity arise.

While Lattimore was reluctant to talk much about himself or his opportunity – “I’d rather just let my actions show … Talk less and do more,” he said simply – Moss had plenty to say about him, reinforcing the idea that Lattimore could be a key contributor this year.

“Last year, Brad gets hurt, he goes in and plays really, really well,” Moss said. “He stepped up and to his credit he played his ass off when he was in the games. He ended up playing at a high level, for the most part, on special teams. He really took a big step last year.

“This year, we look for him to pick up where he left off and, whatever we ask him to do and how we ask him to do it, he should be ready to go. His attitude is ‘Hey, I’ve gone in the game, I’ve done some good things. If I’m given an opportunity, I should continue to be very productive.’”

About The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 series presented by West Bend
The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 list is not a list of the 20 best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the 20 players the Packers can least afford to lose if they want to return to the Super Bowl, or the players who must have the biggest impact for the team to be successful. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others. Agree? Disagree? Chime in via email (jwilde@espnwisconsin.com) or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde@ESPNMilwaukee or @ESPNMadison.

2014 Most Important Packers No. 19: Micah Hyde, S

Jul 08, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
The Packers took Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at No. 21 in the May draft, but Micah Hyde could be the one starting on opening day.
 

GREEN BAY – Micah Hyde isn’t conceding anything.

While the Green Bay Packers’ ongoing troubles at the safety position the past two seasons may have made the first-round selection of Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix a no-brainer pick in the May NFL Draft, it was Hyde, not the rookie, who spent the entire offseason working with the No. 1 defense alongside Morgan Burnett.

And while things certainly could change in training camp, the coaching staff has high hopes and expectations for Hyde, who stepped in as a rookie fifth-round pick and played 428 snaps on defense last season, mostly as a slot corner in the nickel and dime defenses.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy spent much of the spring touting Hyde as being starting-caliber – “Micah Hyde deserves the opportunity to be an every-down player on our defense,” he said on March 25 – and if that’s the case, Clinton-Dix will have to unseat Hyde as the starter during the team’s four preseason games and 17 training-camp practices, including Family Night.

“My attitude is, the way I see it is, I want to get on the field,” Hyde said during the mandatory minicamp last month. “It doesn’t matter who they bring in or what they do, what position they put me at – I feel like I’m going to give myself a shot to play. And the coaches understand that also. They want a competitive atmosphere. And that’s what I want, too.

“Coming in here every day, working, learning and just figuring stuff out. I feel like, yeah, everything is open right now. I understand that.”

Unlike 2010, when Burnett, a third-round pick from Georgia Tech, immediately worked alongside incumbent starter Nick Collins with the No. 1 defense from the very first snap of the offseason, Clinton-Dix wasn’t afforded that opportunity.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said the move had more to do with getting a longer look at Hyde at safety – a position he hadn’t played since early in his time at Iowa – than any opinion the team has about its first-round pick.

“Last year, we had discussions about Micah at safety, but by the time we had them, I don’t think it would’ve been fair to him to put him back there,” Capers explained. “So when you’ve got a guy like Micah that you feel can make some plays – and we’ve seen him at nickel, we’ve seen him at dime, we’ve seen him at corner, and he might end up playing all those for us, because I would see him being the dime right now – you want to get him a background at safety so it opens up more possibilities.”
“I don’t think that sets [Clinton-Dix] back whatsoever, and I think it’s a positive for Micah and us because hey, you’ve seen how much we’ve had to move people around from week to week.”

Perhaps Clinton-Dix will follow the path Collins did as a second-round pick in 2005. Collins didn’t work with the No. 1 defense immediately; instead, then-defensive coordinator Jim Bates mixed him in along with veterans Arturo Freeman, Mark Roman and Earl Little.

But by the start of preseason game action, Collins had moved into the starting group, and on opening day, he was starting alongside Roman.

“He is a very capable rookie. People say that hey, we jumped up and drafted him too soon. We'll see about that,” Bates said during a minicamp that offseason. “This guy is a football player. He's going to improve every day out here, he's challenging for a starting position. He will determine how fast he moves up the scale – when he plays, when he starts, if he can make that starting role this year. He controls that. He's learning the defense right now. There have been some ups and downs as far as the learning curve, but we're well pleased with where he's at right now.”

That sounded a lot like what current safeties coach Darren Perry said about Clinton-Dix, who was with the No. 2 base defense throughout organized team activity practices and minicamp.

“He’s a talented player but he’s young. He still has a ways to go,” Perry said. “You don’t want to get too excited now but you saw some things that you liked from him watching the tape. Again, he’s still learning and there’s still a thought process that he has to go through before he can let loose. Time will allow that to happen.”

One possibility is that Hyde will play safety in the base defense and perhaps in the nickel defense, then move to a slot position in the dime defense, with Clinton-Dix coming off the bench to replace him at safety. With the healthy return of cornerback Casey Hayward, who played the nickel spot as a rookie and in the three games his troublesome hamstring allowed him to play last season, it’s unclear what Capers would do with Hyde in that package, since Hyde was the nickel for much of the time Hayward missed last year.

Under that scenario, Hyde would be the every-down player McCarthy wants him to be.

According to cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, Hyde has been shuttling between the safeties room and cornerbacks room for meetings. And Whitt certainly made it sound as though the plan is for Hyde to be an every-down player.

“What we’re trying to do is do a great job of getting our best 11 players, no matter the position, [on the field.] Who are the best 11 guys? And then let’s put a package around whoever those 11 are. And that’s what we’re trying to do,” Whitt said. “He’s one of our best 11.”

About The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 series presented by West Bend
The 20 Most Important Packers of 2014 list is not a list of the 20 best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the 20 players the Packers can least afford to lose if they want to return to the Super Bowl, or the players who must have the biggest impact for the team to be successful. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others. Agree? Disagree? Chime in via email (jwilde@espnwisconsin.com) or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde@ESPNMilwaukee or @ESPNMadison.
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