Thank Heaven for Some Action
Kelly O’Day, Editor-
After what seems like an interminable wait, the Packers were finally back in some semblance of action with the Organized Team Activities (OTA) practice on May 23.
Unlike last year, most veterans weren’t excused from the action and notably Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb attended. Clay Matthews was missing, although that was likely due to lingering effects of his injuries from last year. That and the Packers’ conservative treatment of previously injured players, a smart strategy. Why risk an important player’s health when it doesn’t matter? Jordy Nelson didn’t play a single snap of preseason games last year, much less participate freely in OTAs.
Mike McCarthy alluded to the situation, at least by ignoring it, when he said something closely to the effect of: I know you’re wondering about injuries, but since it’s early preseason, I don’t have to tell you anything.
Of course, new veterans Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks and Jahri Evans were on site to begin learning their changed roles. All were looking good on the practice field and were saying the right things off of it, post-practice.
Bennett – a known free-thinker who has played for several teams, including a long stint with the Bears, and most recently winning last year’s Super Bowl with the Patriots – quoted on twitter, “A creative adult is a kid who survived.” His creativity and off-the wall ideas and stories are legendary. Just his past home design and furnishings seem more like they belong to a Disney park than an NFL tight end.
Warm-ups were just starting, Kendricks was catching passes one-on-one with an assistant coach, and Bennett was swapping uncomfortable shoes for light, sleek ones. I sidled up to say, “Hey, big dude, we’re glad you’re a Packer.”
He gave me a quick look and nodded, adding, “I am, too.”
Green Bay experienced a resurgence at the tight end position last year with Jared Cook, when he was healthy, but there’s no denying Bennett and Kendricks represent serious potential improvement. Bennett was one of the top overall free agents, and Kendricks is coming off a career year. They both had more production last year than Cooks (although no one is quickly forgetting Cook’s sideline catch to set up the winning field goal in the Dallas road divisional playoff game), and both are known to bring strong blocking to the position.
Bennett has talked this off-season about his desire to mesh with Rodgers, and has shown it thought his social media contacts and communication at the line in early practices.
Nelson and Davante Adams juggled on the sideline for warm-ups, moving from tennis balls to footballs, separately at first, then in combination with the footballs. They weren’t half-bad, of course, and you could see the benefit from the drill.
Then they were catching passes fired from a coach at short range to all different spots in their radius. There were very few drops, a couple out of their leaping range.
On the other hand, the defensive backs had a lot of drops in interception drills in the way-too-early-for-judgment practice. Of course, top 2017 draft selection Kevin King (cornerback, Washington, Round 2, pick 33 overall) wasn’t there, due to his school being on the quarterly system. In an antiquated rule, NFL bylaws don’t allow draftees from schools still in session to attend team activities, and only semester-based schools were on hiatus by May 23. Second pick Josh Jones (safety, N.C. State, Round 2, pick 61) was working with the safeties on different drills.
It may have been early, but Aaron Rodgers’ stuff looked like it was on fire, from footwork in drills to his passing accuracy in individual and 11-on-11 offense-on-defense drills. He threaded the needle to Kendricks on one notable pass, then hit wide receiver Jeff Janis in stride on a bomb, but Jones was also going for the ball a little late and crashed into Janis. Janis jumped up looking a little hot (I don’t blame him, it was no contact, like the rest of OTAs. He did hold on to the ball.), but the “D” guys had lots of jokes and laughs for Jones over the unintended hit.
Jones’ locker is located at the end of the short QB section. In interviews, Rodgers joked “he’s on an important row here and he brings some swag to this row. That’s important, there’s not a lot of swag with Brett (Hundley), Joe (Callahan) and (Blake) Martinez. So it’s nice having some athleticism in this row.” Jones has shown an abundance of personality in the early-going, but in a disarming fashion rather than overbearing manner.
Rodgers also laughed about how star-struck the rookies can be in the early days of the locker room, how they aren’t sure if they should approach him. He mentioned knowing all their names, but offered he couldn’t admit it to them right away.
Some highlights of the after-practice interview session included center Corey Linsley joking about how Evans has been told he will now need to block up to twice as long as his previous job with New Orleans. Rodgers was known to ditch-and-duck for up to nine seconds last year before working a successful play, much longer than the normal 2.7 seconds he has said will guarantee no defender reaches him.
Ty Montgomery has put in serious off-season weight-lifting work to build himself up for the rigors of a full season of running back punishment. He looks jacked and is reportedly up to 220 pounds, with nary a visible bit of fat. Not only that, but Pro Football Focus (PFF) recently graded him as by far the most-elusive back in the league based on last year’s production, with a score of 97.6. The Ravens’ Kenneth Dixon (87.3), Raiders’ Jalen Richard (86.0), Browns’ Duke Johnson (72.5) and Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi (71.6) rounded out the top five. Montgomery also led the league in average yards after contact (4.6), a full yard more than the next qualifying RB.
Head coach Mike McCarthy also complimented last year’s first-round pick, nose tackle/defensive end Kenny Clark, on his weight-room dedication. Clark seems primed to increase his snaps and production, the way he did toward the end of last year. The four-game suspension of Letroy Guion for taking performance-enhancing drugs will open the door for early opportunity, although he will be fighting Mike Daniels, second-year end Dean Lowery and FA signee Ricky Jean Francois for snaps. Brian Price and Christian Ringo will also look for snaps.
Bryan Bulaga discussed the rumor of him moving from right tackle – where he had an excellent season last year, ranked in the top 20 in PFF advanced metrics among all tackles (where left tackles are valued more highly) – to right guard to accommodate back-up and second round pick from last year, Jason Spriggs. The rumor has quelled since the Evans pick-up, and Bulaga gave it little credence, noting no one in Lambeau had ever mentioned it to him.
Evans – a six-time pro bowler and four-time First Team All Pro – is a huge man with a very sizable front porch, although that hasn’t stopped linemen from being very effective in the past. It was fun to contrast that view with nearby draft pick Kofi Amechia, who is svelte for an offensive lineman. He lit up when asked about his downfield blocking, noting that is a strength of his game. He still has beefy arms for a rookie and showed quick feet in his highlight tapes.
Many more story lines will open up and develop over the course of the off-season, and really throughout the entire year in this injury-riddled sport, but it was interesting to get an early look at some of those tales.
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A couple of interesting advanced-metric articles involving Packers: