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Ashwaubenon renames street to fete McCarthy

Jul 23, 2014 -- 1:48pm
 
Photo/Packers.com
The Village of Ashwaubenon is renaming a street in honor of Packers coach Mike McCarthy.
 

ASHWAUBENON – On your way to your next Green Bay Packers game at Lambeau Field, you’ll be able to drive down McCarthy Way along with Lombardi Avenue and Holmgren Way.

The Ashwaubenon Village Board unanimously voted in favor Tuesday night of renaming Potts Avenue, which runs past the south end of Ray Nitschke Field, where the Packers practice. On Wednesday, the village and Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt, who first suggested the idea after McCarthy led the Packers to the Super Bowl XLV title, held a ceremony celebrating the change.

McCarthy, who never asked to have a street named in his honor, said Wednesday that he was “very humbled and honored” by the gesture.

The name change affects businesses on Potts Avenue from Oneida Street to Ashland Avenue. The portion east of Ashland Avenue will remain Potts, which is named after a person who developed a subdivision in the area, according to Ashwaubenon village president Mike Aubinger said.

McCarthy said this spring that he feels he’s at halftime of his coaching career in Green Bay, but renaming streets in honor of Packers legends hasn’t always worked out perfectly.

The new McCarthy Way will intersect with Holmgren Way, the former Gross Avenue renamed for ex-Packers coach Mike Holmgren in 1997 after Holmgren led the Packers to the Super Bowl XXXI title. Less than two years after the street was renamed for him, Holmgren left Green Bay to become the head coach and general manager of the Seattle Seahawks.

Not far from those two streets is also Brett Favre Pass, a short street which runs in front of the Brett Favre Steakhouse restaurant that was named in 1998. When Favre returned as a member of the Minnesota Vikings in 2009 vandals famously blocked the letter “P” at the beginning of the word “Pass.”

 
Via Google Maps 

2014 Most Important Packers No. 4: Jordy Nelson, WR

Jul 23, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Ever since coming into his own late in the 2010 season, Jordy Nelson has put up big numbers when healthy.
 

GREEN BAY – As much as Edgar Bennett loves the diverse personalities in his meeting room, the Green Bay Packers coach can think of one way his job could be made infinitely easier.

A room full of Jordy Nelsons.

“You wish all your guys shared that competitive nature, that mindset, that attitude, that drive, that professionalism,” Bennett said of the Packers’ leading receiver last season. “Here’s a guy who walked on in college – so nothing was given to him. And that’s what we talk about every day – you’ve got to earn it. That’s the mindset. If you walk in here thinking you’re entitled to something, you set yourself up for failure.

“He’s the blueprint. You see him, you look at how he conducts himself on and off the field – class. In the classroom, he’s a leader. On the field, he’s a leader. At practice, he’s a leader. I love it.”

There is certainly plenty to love about Nelson, who enters a contract year at age 29 coming off a season in which he caught a career-high 85 passes for a career-best 1,314 yards with eight touchdowns – despite a revolving door at quarterback following Aaron Rodgers’ fractured collarbone. Of his production, 50 catches for 847 yards came from Rodgers; 35 catches for 467 yards came from Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn.

How many catches might Nelson have had with a healthy Rodgers for a full season? We might find out this year – and even if Nelson isn’t as productive as he was a year ago, he’ll still be one of the better bargains in football until he gets a new deal.

Since finishing the 2010 season strong, including nine receptions for 140 yards in Super Bowl XLV, Nelson has been the Packers’ most productive receiver when healthy.

While he only had 45 receptions for 582 yards in 2010, he caught 16 passes for 281 yards and his only two TDs of the season in the final six regular-season games. He then had 21 catches for 286 yards in the playoffs.

Nelson then broke out in 2011, when he had 68 catches for 1,263 yards and an eye-popping 15 touchdowns in 2011. And despite missing four games and parts of two others in 2012 with a hamstring injury, he still caught 49 passes for 745 yards and seven TDs that year. Then came his career year last season.

The last time Nelson, a second-round pick in 2008, was in a contract year, he signed a three-year, $13.989 million extension on Oct. 2, 2011. That deal included $5 million in guaranteed money, including a $3.5 million signing bonus. The deal paid Nelson a base salary of $2.7 million last year, and according to Spotrac, which studies player salaries, Nelson currently sits at the 34th highest paid wide receiver in the NFL based on average annual salary. (His 2014 base salary of $3.05 million ranks 20th.)

At the end of the team’s June minicamp, he expressed confidence that a deal would get done – and hinted that he thought it might get done right around now, even with fellow wide receiver Randall Cobb also going into the final year of his deal.

“I think it’s a little bit different [than when Greg Jennings and James Jones departed as free agents] because we’ve gotten a lot younger,” Nelson said. “If I were to walk, and you’ve got Randall who could possibly walk, now you’re down to all rookies besides ‘Boink’ (Jarrett Boykin). I think it’ll be different. I wouldn’t be surprised if stuff starts picking up soon.

“There’s a time frame they work off of, so I’ve been informed of that so we’ll just wait and see when it hits. Everyone knows, deals get done closer to training camp.”

It’s hard to imagine the Packers not getting Nelson re-signed before the season begins, especially since he’s said he has no interest in going elsewhere. And given his close relationship with Rodgers – the two car-pool to the team’s flights to road games – and his standing in the local community, he’d be much more difficult to replace than even the popular Jennings or Jones.

“As far as what it takes to be a true pro. He’s that guy. I kept saying it last year. He’s one of the best at his position. No doubt about it. He’s one of the best at his position. He should’ve went to the Pro Bowl last year. But that’s fine and dandy. As always, our mindset is to earn it every single year.”

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. 5: Julius Peppers, OLB/DE

Jul 22, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Julius Peppers switched sides in the NFC North border battle, and his teammates are excited about the possibilities.
 

GREEN BAY – No one is comparing Julius Peppers’ signing with the Green Bay Packers to the 1993 Titletown arrival of Reggie White.

Not coach Mike McCarthy, who was in his first year as a lowly offensive quality control coach with the Kansas City Chiefs, his first NFL job; not Ted Thompson, who’d just joined the Packers’ scouting staff a year before White’s arrival; not even the few players in the Packers locker room who can be considered semi-football historians and know what White’s arrival meant to the franchise. (Five players on the roster hadn’t even celebrated their first birthday when White signed on April 6, 1993.)

White was 31 years old, not 34, when the Packers signed him. He was in his prime, not nearing the end of the line. He was the most sought-after free agent in the NFL’s brief history of unfettered player movement, not cast adrift by his team in a cost-cutting move.

But it was in 1996 – when White was 34 years old to start the season – that the Packers broke through and won Super Bowl XXXI. White had 8.5 sacks that season – and then had a Super Bowl record-tying three sacks in the Packers’ victory over New England in New Orleans – his impact was much greater than the number itself. Two seasons later, his last in Green Bay, he registered 16 sacks and was named NFL defensive player of the year, even though he turned 37 before season’s end.

According to terrific research by the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s Pete Dougherty, since the NFL began keeping sacks as an official statistic in 1982, only 14 pass rushers who’d reached their 34th birthday have ever registered double-digit sacks. They’ve done it a combined 26 times.

While Peppers didn’t have double-digit sacks last year for Chicago – he finished with 7.5 – he has had at least 10 sacks in eight of his 12 NFL seasons. He had 11 sacks in 2011 and 11.5 in 2012, If he can have something resembling that kind of production – while also helping fellow elite pass rusher Clay Matthews and others on defense be more productive – then McCarthy should be able to deliver on his “big letters” promise of defensive improvement.

“Julius is such an impressive person from all angles. Very professional in his approach, takes great care of himself, you can see that in [the initial offseason] workouts,” McCarthy said. “Then we hit the field [for organized team activity practices] for the first time, and just the way he moves. He looks awesome in (No.) 56. I was a little worried about finding a shirt to fit him, but we worked that out. He looks very natural at the outside linebacker position.”

The Packers intend to use Peppers in a hybrid position they’ve dubbed “elephant,” which is a defensive end/outside linebacker. After playing 855 snaps last year for the Bears, the Packers don’t plan on asking him to play that much.

What they do plan on seeing is how he and Matthews can work in tandem, and how two big-name, big-time pass rushers not only work in concert, but how they help others (Mike Neal, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, Nick Perry, and the inside linebacker group).

“I was a little shocked [by Peppers’ signing],” said Matthews, who had 7.5 sacks last season despite missing six games with the right thumb he broke twice. “I know we don't make too many offseason acquisitions especially, you know, such a big name. But obviously I'm happy to have him on this side of the ball. I know he's a tremendous threat. Tackles know what he possesses, as well as offensive coordinators, so I think it's just going to present new elements to this defense that we've been looking for. I'm excited, I know he is. Looking to make some plays this year.”

For his part, Peppers has never been paired with a player of Matthews’ caliber. Now that he is, he’s got as good a chance as anyone to join those other 14 players who had 10-plus sacks at age 34 or older.

“I haven’t really played with a guy like Clay, really my whole career,” Peppers said. “A really dominant player on the outside, I really haven’t had that ever. I’m excited to get out there with him and see what we can do.”

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.

Favre says he's not worried about being booed after all

Jul 21, 2014 -- 4:31pm
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Brett Favre now says he’s not worried about being booed upon his return to Lambeau Field – whenever that is.
 

GREEN BAY – Not even two weeks after Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy said that the team was not anticipating retiring Brett Favre’s No. 4 this season – and acknowledged that both the iconic quarterback and the organization were concerned about Favre fans having a negative reaction to him upon his return – Favre said Monday that he’s not in fact worried about being booed.

Speaking on the Carmen & Jurko show on ESPN 1000 in Chicago, Favre disputed the notion that he’s concerned.

"I've heard that was a concern of mine. I'm here to tell you I'm not worried about that," said Favre, responding to former Packers teammate John Jurkovic. “You can't please everyone. Not everyone's going to like you.  So be it."

When he spoke with reporters following a meeting to discuss the team’s financials on July 10, Murphy did say that Favre was worried about being booed. Favre had been scheduled to return to Lambeau Field last November but canceled the appearance.

“That is an issue. He doesn’t want it, and neither do we,” Murphy said. “He wouldn’t want to come back and get booed. You can’t control 80,750 people … [but] I really think as time goes on, every year that passes, it’s less likely that he would get booed, but that is an issue.”

On Thursday, Favre said it was because the Oak Grove High School football team, for which Favre was the offensive coordinator, was still in the Mississippi state playoffs. The school went on to win the 6A state title, and Favre said his schedule was the reason for the cancelation.

Favre revealed Monday that former president/CEO Bob Harlan has taken an active role in bringing Favre back for induction into the Packers Hall of Fame and the retirement of his No. 4.

"I've had contact with Mark Murphy on a regular basis in regards to how we're going to do this, the ceremony,” Favre said. “Bob Harlan, the former president, is working diligently [and is] spearheading the Packers Hall of Fame-slash-jersey retirement ceremony

"I do believe time heals wounds in a lot of ways. I'm fine with coming back. I know it's going to be a great ceremony when we are going to do it. It's just a matter of when. From my end, everything’s good."

Murphy didn’t explain why Favre’s number would not be retired this year when he spoke with reporters on July 10.

“I don’t anticipate having him retire a number this season, in a game this year,” Murphy said. “We have very good relations, and very good communication, but I don’t anticipate that this year.”

2014 Most Important Packers No. 6: David Bakhtiari, LT

Jul 21, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
Photo/Getty Images
David Bakhtiari started all 17 games last season, but the coaches are putting greater expectations on him in Year 2.
 

GREEN BAY – While it would be easy – and, accurate – to say David Bakhtiari’s play at left tackle as a rookie fourth-round pick helped save the Green Bay Packers’ 2013 season from disaster, everyone from head coach Mike McCarthy to offensive line coach James Campen to Bakhtiari himself knows that he won’t be graded on the same curve this year.

“I had a great rookie year. That’s how I look at it. I had a great rookie year; I had an OK year as a player,” Bakhtiari said during the offseason, which officially ends Friday when players report to St. Norbert College for training camp. “But I don’t have that tag this year. I want people to be like, ‘He had a good year as a football player.’ Not rookie, not second-year, any of that. Throw all that out. ‘He was a good player. He’s a guy we want on our team.’ I want the organization to want me here – want me at left tackle.”

The Packers don’t just want Bakhtiari at left tackle – they did decide to keep him there even though the man he replaced, Bryan Bulaga, is back from his season-ending knee injury and has moved back to his old spot at right tackle – but they need him there. And, they do need him to improve.

According to Pro Football Focus, Bakhtiari allowed 10 sacks (including two in the playoff loss to San Francisco), five QB hits and 29 QB hurries in 1,191 snaps. Every left tackle faces a steady diet of elite pass-rushers, and Bakhtiari was no exception last year. Still, those numbers would have been unacceptably high for anyone other than a rookie who was thrust into the starting lineup when Bulaga went down in training camp.

For comparison’s sake, when Marshall Newhouse served as the team’s starting left tackle in 2012, he played 1,256 total snaps and allowed nine sacks, eight hits and 37 hurries

“He did well as a rookie but he’s got to play consistently,” offensive line coach James Campen said of the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Bakhtiari. “He’s taken that next step from the standpoint of being stronger -- he’s bigger than he was last year, has gained some weight. You’ve got to remember, Dave’s a young kid. He’s just like Bryan -- a very young kid that came out [of college] as a junior. He’s still going to grow some.

“[It’s a matter of] just being consistent while seeing the game, picking up on tendencies and those type of things. He played against a lot of good rushers last year. He had a gauntlet of guys who are very good rushers. It’s retaining what he did last year and then building forward.”

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has made it abundantly clear that he will not change his style of play because of last year’s fractured collarbone, which means that he’s likely to take a few hits when he’s extending plays and improvising outside the pocket. That makes it all the more vital that his blindside protector not allow Rodgers to absorb additional punishment.

At the same time, Bakhtiari isn’t going to change his approach, either – and that means not stressing over the fact that he’s got the back of one of the best quarterbacks in the game.

“I wasn’t overthinking my position. I was just playing football,” Bakhtiari said. “If you want to block a player, just go out in the game and do it. Don’t think about the variables – that it’s Aaron Rodgers that I’m blocking for, or that I’m going against Aldon Smith or DeMarcus Ware or Julius Peppers or on and on and on – I just said, ‘If I do what I do, then I can block anyone.’ That is what I do know. That’s what my coaches know, that’s what the GM knows. That’s why they drafted me. They wouldn’t have drafted me if they didn’t think I could play.”

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. 7: Randall Cobb, WR

Jul 20, 2014 -- 7:00am

 

 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Randall Cobb missed 10 games last season with a small fracture of his tibia just below the knee.
 

GREEN BAY – In the unlikely event that he would have forgotten just how brutal last season was for him, Randall Cobb only needed to walk the halls of Lambeau Field en route to practice this offseason to be reminded.

“It feels good, not walking around on crutches, not rolling around on a Segway,” the Green Bay Packers’ fourth-year wide receiver said after using both those pieces of equipment while sidelined with a leg injury for most of last year. “Just being back at practice and being back with the camaraderie of the guys, it's just a great feeling to be back out there.”

Cobb missed 10 games after sustaining a small fracture at the top of the tibia in his right leg, near the knee. Like quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was sidelined for basically eight games with a broken collarbone, Cobb came back for the regular-season finale at Chicago and caught a game-winning, last-minute 48-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to beat the Bears and send the Packers to the NFC North title and a playoff berth.

And as memorable as that play was – Cobb caught just two passes that day, both of them for touchdowns – the season on balance was a frustrating one. After starting the season with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games and finishing the first quarter of the season with 25 receptions for 325 yards and two touchdowns – putting him on pace for 100 receptions for 1,300 yards and eight TDs – Cobb went down on a low hit by Baltimore safety Matt Elam on Oct. 13. The Packers put him on injured reserve with the designation to return, but there was no guarantee he would indeed be activated.

And while he did return against the Bears and also caught two passes for 51 yards in the team’s playoff loss to San Francisco, the season still felt like a lost year to Cobb, who’d led the Packers in receptions (80) and receiving yards (954) while adding eight touchdowns.

Knowing what he could have accomplished last year had he stayed healthy – and knowing he’s in a contract year with a chance for a sizeable payday if he delivers – it was clear in conversations with Cobb during the offseason that he is ultra-motivated.

“I'm expecting myself to have a big year this year,” he said. “So I’m just preparing myself day in and day out and doing everything to put myself in the best situation to be able to help this team and find a way to get to a Super Bowl.”

The reason Cobb is so valuable to the offense – aside from the fact that he’s simply an excellent player – is that he is extremely versatile and can line up in a variety of places, but also that the Packers offense doesn’t have anyone who plays the slot receiver position as effectively as Cobb does. While rookie fifth-round pick Jared Abbrederis has the look of an NFL slot receiver – Cobb himself said he sees a lot of similarities between Abbrederis and him, and Cobb has also taken the ex-University of Wisconsin star under his wing – he is still a third-day draft pick with a lot to learn before he can be counted on as a regular contributor.

At the same time, just as Nelson frequently lined up in the slot while Cobb was sidelined, Cobb believes he can be an effective outside receiver and does not want to be pigeonholed as only a slot player. The Packers intend to line him up in a variety of spots – in the slot, out wide, in motion, in the backfield – just as they have in the past.

“Not giving away anything whatsoever, I think he can play inside or outside. I think he can be utilized in a number of different ways,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. “No doubt about it, he can play outside. He came into a similar situation playing outside and inside. It depends on what we ask him to do at the time.”

Wherever he lines up, after what he endured last year, Cobb simply wants to be back on the field – making an impact.

“I feel great. I had a great off-season. We got a lot of work in this off-season. So I'm really excited to get back this season,” said Cobb, who played 385 snaps (including playoffs) last year, as compared to 733 in 2012 (when he missed three games with a knee injury) and 309 as a rookie second-round pick in 2011. “Even me and Jordy as vets, we feel like we have something to prove every day and set a standard.”

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. 8: Sam Shields, CB

Jul 19, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
The Packers made Sam Shields the team's third-highest paid player with a four-year, $39 million deal this offseason.
 

GREEN BAY – If you do the math that comes with Joe Whitt’s projections about Sam Shields, it computes to this: The Green Bay Packers’ fifth-year cornerback is going to be really good for a really long time.

The way Whitt sees it, Shields, who won’t turn 27 until December and returned to the Packers in March on a four-year, $39 million deal that will pay him $15 million this year alone, is still improving at a position that he didn’t even play until his final season at the University of Miami (Fla). That’s why the Packers cornerbacks coach is confidently predicting a lengthy run of quality play – because the Packers are already getting it from Shields and he’s still not tapped out.

“Sam’s best football is still in front of him,” Whitt explained. “I honestly believe he has two more years of ascending and then he’s going to play at that level for another four years. That’s six years of just really good football ahead of him.

“He might have more. I don’t know what he’s going to have after that, but I see two more years of getting better and four more of holding that type of high quality play.

“When Sam walked into the room four years ago in 2010, he was the ninth guy (on the depth chart) and he ended up starting against [the Philadelphia Eagles] in the very first game (as the No. 3 cornerback in the nickel defense). If you work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are. If you work hard and you show that you’re the guy that can make plays, you’ll be given an opportunity.”

And no one has seized his opportunity more than Shields, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent, was a vital contributor as the third cornerback in the nickel package on the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl XLV team and now has a chance to be in the conversation with the best cover men in the league if he plays at the level his coaches believe he can.

“It’s like I tell everybody, it’s just the beginning,” Shields said. “I still sit back and think about what I went through when I first started, when I switched to D. I sit and talked to my friends and family about it. It still amazes me, like ‘Hey, I’m in this position.’ It’s all a blessing.”

Shields is now the Packers’ third-highest paid player in terms of average annual salary, as his $9.25 million average ranks only behind quarterback Aaron Rodgers ($18.7 million) and outside linebacker Clay Matthews ($11.6 million), who received lucrative long-term extensions in April 2013. Given his lofty status, he’ll be looked upon to be a shutdown corner, even though veteran Tramon Williams is coming off a bounceback season and appears to have plenty left in the tank, and the coaches are excited about the healthy return of Casey Hayward, who finished third in the NFL defensive rookie of the year balloting in 2012.

“Everybody knows [Shields is] a press (coverage) guy who can make plays in that area. Now, we need to show he’s a complete player – zone, two, three; understands landmarks and drops; and improve the tackling aspect of it,” Whitt said. “He needs to be a top level corner in every aspect of the game. And he has that ability.”

In 14 regular-season games last year, Shields had a team-high four interceptions and was credited in the Packers’ official stats with 64 tackles and 25 pass breakups. According to Pro Football Focus, in 900 total snaps, Shields was targeted 84 times last season and allowed 42 completions for 664 yards for an opponents’ passer rating of 72.7.

He missed two games in the middle of the season with a hamstring injury but had what turned out to be one of the biggest plays of the season, an interception that helped the Packers to an enormous come-from-behind victory at Dallas on Dec. 15. His season ended with a high-ankle sprain in the playoff loss to San Francisco that he said would have kept him out for the rest of the year, even if the Packers had won that game.

Now, he’s ready for a greater impact as he matures as a player and has a better grasp on the game.

“There’s a lot more things I’m still learning. And it’s getting better,” Shields said. “I’m getting some more years on me, some more time to learn different things. It’s getting better.

“You know, when I first got here, I didn’t know the difference. It was frustrating. ‘Man, it’s not for me.’ [But] I stuck in there, I kept working. I got it right.”

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. 9: JC Tretter, C

Jul 18, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
For the fourth time in four years, the Packers will have a new starting center on opening day. Aaron Rodgers hopes this is the last time.
 

GREEN BAY – There is a school of thought that with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, just about anybody can play center for the Green Bay Packers.

Not only does that theory fly in the face of what coach Mike McCarthy had insisted just two years ago was a position that required – demanded – veteran experience, but there’s at least one guy who doesn’t think that opinion is a valid one.

Aaron Rodgers.

“I appreciate the faith in me,” Rodgers said during the offseason. “But I think that center’s a very vital position to every offense.”

Which is why JC Tretter, who enters training camp next week as the starter at center among three players who’ve never taken an NFL regular-season snap, will be vital to the Packers’ offensive success in 2014.

“JC’s doing a really good job. I think he’s been here (at Lambeau Field) every single day since [last] season ended,” McCarthy said as the offseason wound down. “I don’t think there’s been a day that I’ve walked through the locker room from February all the way through that he hasn’t been here. I think that is really shown as far as the way he’s jumped in there. So far, so good. I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen.”

He’ll have to continue that arc after the Packers let incumbent starter Evan Dietrich-Smith walk as an unrestricted free agent, seeing him sign an affordable four-year, $14.25 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that will pay him $3.5 million this season.

The challenge for Tretter, a fourth-round pick from Cornell last year, is that he essentially took a medical redshirt last year after breaking his ankle during a fumble recovery drill in the first organized team activity practice last year. He opened the season on the physically unable to perform list, and although he was activated to begin practicing on Nov. 19 and was activated to the 53-man roster on Dec. 10, he never saw game action.

Still, he did practice for the final two months of the season, and he spent the full offseason with the starters in OTAs and minicamp.

"Any time you get on the field and you see looks outside of the iPad and get an actual 3D representation of what you're seeing, it's definitely beneficial," Tretter said. "It's better than looking at a piece of paper and looking at it that way. It helps you see the field and you have to actually turn your head and look. It's not just, ‘OK, it's right there. OK, there you go.' It's definitely much more helpful to get out there. Even being out there and taking a mental rep. You hear the protections, you see the look and you can kind of make your calls that way."

Should Tretter falter, the Packers’ options are two other unproven players (rookie fifth-round pick Corey Linsley and practice-squadder Garth Gerhart) or moving guards Josh Sitton or T.J. Lang, who filled in for Dietrich-Smith on two occasions last season after Dietrich-Smith went down with a knee injury.

But whoever it is – and the smart money is on Tretter, whom the coaches are enamored with – it’ll be the Packers’ fourth starting center in four years. The Packers started Scott Wells there in 2011 and he went to the Pro Bowl before getting a four-year, $24 million deal from St. Louis. After Wells’ departure, McCarthy pushed for the team to sign veteran Jeff Saturday, who started 14 games before being benched in favor of Dietrich-Smith for the final two regular-season games. Dietrich-Smith held the job last year, and now he’s gone, too.

Interestingly, after Wells left and the team signed Saturday, McCarthy said at the annual NFL Meetings that spring that the center position was not for the inexperienced, and that he was concerned that turning the job over to an unproven player like Dietrich-Smith at the time would slow down the offense.

Two years later, after Dietrich-Smith signed with Tampa Bay, McCarthy acknowledged at this year’s NFL Meetings that his inexperience could be an issue.

“I think it would be difficult to [have an inexperienced center]. It takes the right type of person (because) the center position, responsibility-wise, is the top 2-3-4 in football,” McCarthy said. “Mentally, everything [Tretter] could possibly do based on his medical situation that he went through, you'd be very pleased with now. He hasn't played a snap in a game – and I get all the concerns and I understand that – but he's another young man that's in there early in the morning every day working out, voluntarily.”

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 visits Green Bay, meets with Dr. McKenzie

Jul 17, 2014 -- 4:44pm
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Jermichael Finley’s quest to return to the field took him to Green Bay on Thursday, where he had an appointment with Packers team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie.
 

GREEN BAY – Jermichael Finley certainly knows how to get people talking.

The Green Bay Packers free-agent tight end posted a cryptic remark to his Twitter account (@JermichaelF88) on Thursday morning that had folks thinking – hoping? – that he was re-signing with the Packers.

In reality, Finley was indeed in Green Bay on Thursday, but according to an NFL source, it was to meet with Packers team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie at Bellin Hospital, as he continued his quest to return to the field following his career-threatening neck injury last October and ensuing single spinal fusion surgery.

According to the source, Finley’s meeting with McKenzie was to go over the results of his most recent MRI scans and to talk about where he stands medically as he continues his effort to resume his NFL career. Finley was not scheduled to meet with any of the Packers' football people at Lambeau Field Thursday, instead meeting with McKenzie at a local hospital.

The source emphasized that there was nothing imminent between Finley and the Packers, but that the team continues to monitor his health situation. Another league source said the Packers do remain interested in bringing back the veteran tight end if he is cleared medically by McKenzie. Finley received clearance from Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Pittsburgh Steelers doctor who performed the spinal fusion surgery in January, but Finley has yet to sign with a team after visiting the New England Patriots and New York Giants earlier this offseason.

Last week, Finley said that he is doing all he can to return to "Packer Nation," and it is his preference to return to the Packers if that opportunity presents itself.

In an extended interview with USA Today Sports’ Tom Pelissero last week, Finley talked about, among other things, his desire to play despite having a disability insurance policy that would pay him $10 million tax-free if he plays fewer than four NFL games.

“It’s a pride issue now. I’ve got a lot of pride,” Finley told Pelissero. “I’ve been playing this game for free for 20 years when I was a kid, so it ain’t about the money. It ain’t about how much I can get and how much my agent can get and whatnot. It’s all about the love of the game. We all know the money’s going to come and it’s going to go. I just want to go out there and be able to showcase these skills that I’ve been working on for months now, since I got hurt in October.”

Asked what he would do with himself if he were forced to retire, even with a $10 million payout, Finley replied, “I’ll have to figure it out. Go into broadcasting for sure. Raise my kids, spend as much time as I can with them, put all my time into that, build them into a great athlete or a great doctor or whatever they want to be.”

2014 Most Important Packers No. 10: Morgan Burnett, S

Jul 17, 2014 -- 7:00am
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Morgan Burnett had a disappointing year in 2013 and drew criticism after signing a lucrative contract extension.
 

GREEN BAY – Morgan Burnett still has the unwavering support of the Green Bay Packers’ coaching staff.

Now it’s up to the fifth-year safety to justify that faith by playing to the level those coaches believe he is capable of reaching.

“I still think Morgan’s a heck of a football player,” safeties coach Darren Perry said as the team’s minicamp wrapped up last month. “I know our critics may not agree, but again, Morgan’s going to be fine and he’s still a young player, ascending. We’ve just got to keep him going.”

Throughout the offseason, Perry, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and head coach Mike McCarthy all publicly expressed support for Burnett, a third-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2010 whose rookie season ended after four games because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Historically, the Packers’ top safeties have hit their stride in their fourth seasons – LeRoy Butler, Darren Sharper and Nick Collins each were selected to their first Pro Bowl in their fourth season – and if you don’t count Burnett’s rookie season in that equation, then this season he should be expected to elevate his game.

Even Burnett himself acknowledged during the organized team activity practices that it’s incumbent on him and not first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Micah Hyde – whichever one lines up alongside him in the Sept. 4 regular-season opener at Seattle – to raise his level of play.

During the NFL Scouting Combine in February, McCarthy had said that the other safety spot had been part of the issue with Burnett. The Packers opted not to extend a qualifying offer incumbent starter M.D. Jennings in restricted free agency, and he promptly signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Bears, who don’t appear to view him as more than a backup safety and special-teams contributor.

“We need more production next to Morgan, which I think would definitely help him,” McCarthy said at the time.

But in June, Burnett defended Jennings, which should put even more expectation on Burnett after the four-year, $24.75 extension he received last July.

“I don’t take nothing away from M.D., because in my opinion, M.D. was a really good safety, very underrated. He’s more athletic than what you really think he is. He was good back there,” Burnett said. “That’s why, like I said, there’s no excuses. Everybody has to come in and collectively get the job done.”

And that includes Burnett, who said only that he’s “got to improve, be consistent, [and] continue to play consistently at a high level.”

Last season, the Packers were the only team in the 32-team NFL to not get a single interception from the safety position. Burnett, who had 14 interceptions in three college seasons, has only six career INTs in 49 regular-season games – after an INT-free 2013, he hasn’t had a pick since registering two against Minnesota on Dec. 2, 2012 – and has broken up only 37 career passes.

Still, McCarthy was very passionate in his support of Burnett, even after watching the Seattle Seahawks' safety play set the tone for their top-ranked and Super Bowl-winning defense.

“You look at Morgan, there’s three components to his play,” McCarthy explained. “Really, the quarterback part of it, the communication, I thought he had a very good year. Productivity and tackling, he had over 100 tackles. So that’s a productive year. It’s the playmaking ability on the ball. Is he a product of what’s been going on back there? Cautious? [Unsure] whether to run through the ballcarrier/receiver, or make a break on the ball?

“I don’t think we’re far. You know, I don’t think it’s, ‘Oh my god, he’s a bust.’ It’s nothing like that.”

As a result of that support, Burnett certainly didn’t sound like a man who was overly concerned about 2014 being a make-or-break year for him.

“I don’t feel no pressure. I challenge myself as a player because my goal is to improve and get better each and every year, and I want to challenge myself to see where I’ve grown throughout my years in the league so far,” Burnett said in June. “That’s just my main goal coming into every season. I want to improve and get better and show that growth.”

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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