Training camp checklist: Top 10 things to look for when watching practice

Injuries, conditioning, depth chart guaranteed to dominate headlines when Packers kick off 2013 season

Just as no two NFL teams are identical, neither are the training camps they will be conducting in the next month. However, there are some aspects common to all.
Injuries, conditioning and team depth charts are several key areas that media members will be chronicling as each day’s practice unfolds. When the Packers kick off the 2013 season with Friday’s first practice of training camp, railbirds should consider these 10 areas of importance:

#1: Injuries.

Who’s healthy? Who’s hurting? Why didn’t so-and-so practice today? These questions will dominate Packers head coach Mike McCarthy’s post-practice news conferences on a daily basis.The only thing McCarthy dislikes more than injuries is discussing them. But he also knows they are a distasteful but unavoidable reality of football. What McCarthy hopes to dodge (fingers crossed) are the devastating season-ending injuries.
In 1994, Wisconsin native and fourth-year defensive end Don Davey lined up across first-round draft pick Aaron Taylor in the one-on-one pass rush drill. At the whistle Davey tried to get the edge and Taylor responded by sliding to his left. The trouble was Taylor’s cleat stuck, he lost balance and the awkward move resulted in a traumatic knee injury.
In the blink of an eye Taylor’s season was finished. Hopefully, the Packers can avoid such catastrophes this camp.

#2: Conditioning.

The question works both ways. Who’s in terrific shape? Who’s fat, sloppy and just plain lethargic? The answers will be quickly apparent. Big men such as Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji will be scrutinized, but not as critically as skill position players. While a slightly overweight Johnny Jolly might rate a footnote, an out-of-shape running back, receiver or defensive back will be exposed in short order.

#3: Depth chart.

While the Packers’ depth chart may be unofficial for now, there is no escaping the reality of who’s lining up where and behind whom Friday. This weekend’s practices are sure to provide a glimpse into what McCarthy and his staff expect from certain players.
Is Marshall Newhouse working at right and left tackle? Will Casey Hayward get reps at corner in the base defense? Which receiver is first up as the No. 4 behind James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb? It will be interesting to see how McCarthy splits reps between running backs Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin, Alex Green, DuJuan Harris and James Starks.

#4: Flashing.

This applies mostly to the rookies and undrafted free agents. For example, if first-round pick Datone Jones “flashes” by dominating in the one-on-one pass rush drill, it will be the day’s top headline. It’s the same for rookie tackle David Bakhtiari. If he’s routinely stoning Jones, Nick Perry and others in those drills it will be noteworthy. For lesser-known players such as Northern Iowa receiver Terrell Sinkfield, it will be crucial to show that his 4.2 40-yard dash time translates onto the field in pads.

#5: Same player/new look.

Whether defensive coordinator Dom Capers truly intends to use defensive lineman Mike Neal as a “hybrid” will be apparent early on. The question then becomes, “Is Neal an impact player in that role?” This also applies to physical changes. Some years ago Donald Driver spent an entire offseason reshaping his body. He added muscle without sacrificing explosiveness in order to increase durability. He went from a spindly 180-something pounds to a chiseled 203 pounds. Everyone knows how that worked out for him.

#6: Position group assessment.

A year ago, it was fairly obvious early in camp that the Packers’ defensive backs were bigger, stronger and more athletic. Jeron McMillian, Sean Richardson, House and Hayward joined Morgan Burnett, Sam Shields and Tramon Williams to form an impressive-looking position group.
Which unit will stand out as a group? My curiosity is with the offensive line and the linebackers (especially the inside linebackers). Do they collectively show the power and explosiveness to go cleat-to-cleat with teams like San Francisco and Seattle?

#7: Scheme/sub-packages.

Will Johnathan Franklin be given a chance to develop into a third-down back? It might depend on his ability to pick up blitzes. Does House win the job as the dime defender? Will Andrew Quarless step up as the No. 2 tight end in tiger (double-tight end) personnel? Camp can be an indicator of McCarthy and Capers prefer to proceed within their scheme.

#8: Sense of urgency.

McCarthy has praised his team’s work ethic and focus in the OTA’s. Now we will see how that translates when the weather gets hot, the scrutiny and competition increases and the pads come on. Will his team play fast without being in a hurry?

#9: Pace of practice.

McCarthy, like all NFL coaches, preaches tempo. Does his team get in and out of drills in timely fashion? Do his assistants have to repeat drills because players aren’t getting what they need out of it the first time? Harry Sydney, the three-time Super Bowl champion, often talks about the great veteran leadership on the 49ers’ great teams of the 1990s. Occasionally, Joe Montana or Ronnie Lott – if displeased with practice – would get on any player or unit not carrying their fair share. It will be interesting to see if an Aaron Rodgers or a Clay Matthews will be even more vocal in their leadership roles.

#10: Backup quarterbacks.

Rodgers is sure to draw the “oohs” and “aahs” from the railbirds with his pinpoint accuracy and astonishing arm strength. That’s a given. The reality is that quarterback play as a group dictates to a degree the quality of the practice. In Oakland, for example, the Raiders’ offense had difficulty during OTA’s because Matt Flynn and Co. weren’t accurate enough to run anything resembling smooth offense.
Graham Harrell (6-2, 215, 2nd year) is capable, but how will B.J. Coleman (6-3, 231, 1st year out of Tennessee-Chattanooga) and Matt Brown (6-3, 225, rookie from Illinois State) carry themselves in the passing drills and when running the show?
The answers to these and many other questions will come to light beginning with Friday’s first practice of training camp.

Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio ( Havel also hosts Event USA’ MVP Parties the evening before home games.