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By CHRIS HAVEL
Every offensive starter returns on NFL’s most explosive unit; ‘D’ under scrutiny as secondary works to replace T. Williams
The Packers enter training camp in an enviable position.
The NFL’s top offense returns every starter in addition to backup offensive linemen J.C. Tretter and Don Barclay, plus third-round draft pick Ty Montgomery and second-year receivers Jared Abrederis and Jeff Janis. With Aaron Rodgers pulling the trigger and Eddie Lacy ready to ramble there appears to be no letup in sight.
The situation is far less settled on defense.
Whatever advantage might be gained by Julius Peppers’ experience in the scheme and Clay Matthews’ inside-out versatility could be mitigated by the defensive line’s suspensions and Tramon Williams’ departure. Defensive end Datone Jones faces a one-game suspension for his off-season arrest on marijuana possession charges. Nose tackle Letroy Guion currently is looking at a three-game suspension for his arrest on weapons and marijuana charges.
To further complicate matters, veteran cornerback Tramon Williams’ departure via free agency means a new running mate for Sam Shields. Clearly, B.J. Raji, Josh Boyd and a handful of defensive backs are embracing the opportunity to play early and often. The options up front on the defensive line are limited.
Raji, who is coming off a torn biceps, appeared to be in decent shape this offseason. He has to regain his previous form if the Packers’ defense hopes to be competent against the run.
Boyd, who was green as grass two years ago, has matured and developed into a viable option at defensive end. His forte is playing the run. Whatever the defense might lose with Jones’ absence in terms of pass rush will be offset by improved run defense from Boyd.
My guess is that either Guion or Jones, or perhaps both, could lose their starting jobs because of the suspensions. The competition should be fierce up front, especially when Jones and Guion return.
Second-year pros Mike Pennel and Khyri Thornton also need to step up early in camp. Their progress will be seriously tested by the Packers’ veteran offensive line.
Meantime, let the battle begin at cornerback opposite Shields. Casey Hayward appears to be the starter going into camp, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be pushed or supplanted by Micah Hyde, Damarious Randall or Quinten Rollins. The Packers have played extensively with rookie defensive backs in the recent past, including Shields and Hayward.
Williams’ absence will be greatest early in the season. It’s impossible to replace his savvy, experience and athleticism in a matter of months. However, Packers GM Ted Thompson certainly didn’t leave the cupboard bare of defensive backs.
If Hayward stays healthy and recaptures his rookie form he should be the starter opposite Shields all season. But if he continues to miss practice time with nagging injuries, and then misses assignments in games because of it, the Packers should be quick to look elsewhere.
For my money, I’ll line up with Hyde over Hayward every time. That is until Hayward proves he is accountable and available. Hyde has been both and then some. He has a knack for finding the football, and he is a sure tackler near the line of scrimmage.
In coverage, Hyde has some limitations, but he also is a young player who continues to ascend. My best guess is that Hyde will be the starter opposite Shields at Soldier Field against the Bears in the regular-season opener.
Randall and Rollins will be interesting to watch throughout camp. Their talent is apparent. So is their enthusiasm. What remains to be seen is how they react to being beaten, which will happen, and whether they can be the ball-hawks their athletic prowess suggests.
Other defensive backs include former basketball player Demetri Goodson, who should have a key role on special teams, and Tay Glover-Wright, a practice-squad holdover.
The safety position has gone from being a defensive liability to perhaps its strongest unit. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a rising star and Morgan Burnett has settled in to become a reliable veteran. Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo also return to provide depth.
Interestingly, the inside linebacker position doesn’t seem to be as great a concern as it has been going into camp. Matthews’ ability to line up inside certainly helps, as does Sam Barrington’s growth last season.
Jake Ryan, the fourth-round pick out of Michigan, also gives the position a sense of stability. He could end up being one of the really good draft picks among many for Thompson.
Even with the question marks on defense, the Packers enter camp looking ready to make a serious Super Bowl run. Whether the Packers’ defense comes together and rises to championship caliber remains to be seen. But the Packers certainly have the players to get it done on that side of the ball.
Let training camp begin.
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 (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’ MVP Parties the evening before home games.