By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA
Rodgers’ health headlines Green Bay’s ‘Top Five’ priorities going into season
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson and Oren Burks bring athleticism and awareness to a defense lacking both.
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The rookie receivers are at once intriguing and raw.
And Jimmy Graham is a beast.
Those are some of the obvious takeaways as the Packers’ OTA’s began last week at Ray Nitschke Field.
Here’s another: The only thing scarier than the offense not knowing where the pass rush is coming from is the defense not knowing, and right now the Packers are searching.
Let’s take a look at the Packers’ ‘Top 5’ priorities between now and the regular-season opener:
** No. 1 – Aaron Rodgers’ availability is a must.
It begins with the Packers’ All-Pro quarterback signing what is sure to be the NFL’s most lucrative contract. That is expected to happen sooner than later.
After that, it’s up to Packers head coach Mike McCarthy to do everything in his power to keep Rodgers upright.
That starts up front with the offensive line. Bryan Bulaga’s injury status and Jahri Evans’ absence create questions on the right side of the line, but the Packers should be OK there.
Whether rookie Cole Madison becomes the starting right guard remains to be seen, but even if that doesn’t happen there are options. Justin McCray, Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy will be given a chance to plug the hole at RG and RT, but I wouldn’t rule out GM Brian Gutekunst signing another veteran lineman.
In a perfect world, Madison steps in seamlessly – much like Corey Linsley at center and Lane Taylor at left guard – while either Spriggs or Murphy figures it out at right tackle.
Bulaga’s return shouldn’t be hastened out of desperation.
Clearly, the offensive line needs to protect better.
It also needs to be given an opportunity to run block. The Packers proved they could run effectively with Brett Hundley at quarterback. Imagine what Jamaal Williams, Ty Montgomery and Aaron Jones might do if defenses had to honor Rodgers.
The Packers’ running game, if effective, could go a long way toward keeping Rodgers out of harm’s way.
** No. 2 – The Packers’ new offensive weapons have to be on the same page and ready to roll at the outset.
Graham’s presence is critical to the team’s success.
The 6-foot-7, 265-pound tight end is everything fans could’ve hoped for in free agency. He stands out on the field, and that’s just when he’s in the huddle.
Graham’s catch radius will make Rodgers feel like he’s throwing it into the ocean. How can he miss?
The addition of veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis also comes as good news to Packers’ fans.
Lewis, like Graham, is a large man. At 6-6, 267, he’s almost identical to his counterpart. The difference is that Lewis, a 12-year veteran, is a dynamite in-line blocker.
The Packers’ potential for double-tight end personnel is limitless. Lewis, a former first-round pick, doesn’t have the speed to stretch defenses, but he is effective in the red zone.
Graham and Lewis afford the Packers’ offensive staff a chance to move the football and score points while sorting out the receiving corps early on.
Davante Adams’ 22 touchdown catches during the past two seasons is tops in the NFL. Randall Cobb, if he stays healthy, should benefit from Graham’s presence. Defenses are going to have to account for Adams, Graham and whichever running back is on the field. That means opportunities for Cobb.
** No. 3 – Finally, it appears the Packers’ defensive staff has enough able-bodied defensive backs to compete.
Alexander, the 18th pick overall, is fast, fearless and flashy.
Most important, though, he’s a football player.
In that regard, he’s like Jackson, the second-round pick.
What Jackson lacks in speed, which is minimal, he makes up for in awareness, instincts and ball skills. When Jackson gets his hands on the football an interception is a decent bet.
That said, the rookie cornerbacks will need all their assets to compete with Tramon Williams, Davon House and Quinten Rollins, and against Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins and Mitchell Trubisky.
** No. 4 – The Packers must conjure up a pass rush.
Clay Matthews and Nick Perry are the incumbent edge rushers. They have a combined 110 ½ sacks, but neither was dominant last season. In fact, Matthews hasn’t played a full season since 2015, and Perry’s only “breakout” year was 2016.
Nevertheless, it appears Matthews isn’t willing to accept one simple fact: The pass rush BEGINS with Perry and him.
It’s why I was stunned with what Matthews said regarding the Packers’ draft and their selecting just one edge rusher.
“Well, I wasn’t surprised with the first two picks; I’ll go ahead and say that,” Matthews told reporters. “But obviously, you look at the depth at the outside-linebacker position, and it’s not that great.
That’s not a slight to the guys who are behind Nick and me, but you look around the league, a lot of times they’re rotating in pass rushers. You look a couple years ago when we had Mike Neal and Julius Peppers here, and Datone (Jones) as well. We had a pretty good rotation.”
When you sift through the nonsense what you hear is this: Matthews didn’t think much of the Packers’ secondary last year, and he doesn’t think much of the OLB depth this year.
Another words, his excuse for not being an All-Pro player is twofold: We didn’t cover long enough, and we didn’t have enough capable bodies to rotate so I could stay fresh.
Matthews needs to stop putting his cleats in his mouth and start taking responsibility for getting the defense right.
I can’t for the life of me imagine Reggie White either directly or indirectly placing the blame on anyone else.
If Matthews wants more out of Kyler Fackrell, Reggie Gilbert and Vince Biegel, he ought to show them how a top-flight, highly paid pass rusher acts.
That’s if he still remembers.
** No. 5 – It seems like a natural segue to go from Matthews’ poorly stated opinion to locker room chemistry.
Matthews, Perry and Blake Martinez – along with newcomer Burks – need to be the defense’s mainstays.
I suspect Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Mo Wilkerson and Dean Lowry have it covered up front. I also think the defense’s secondary is going to be much-improved.
That leaves the linebackers to be the glue.
They are in fact the conduit between the pass rush and coverage. They need to be the defense’s voice, if not its soul.
The tight ends serve a similar purpose on offense.
They block for the backs, catch like the receivers and think like the offensive linemen. With Graham and Lewis, the Packers are gifted one of the top three tight end duos in team history, along with Ron Kramer and Marv Fleming, and Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson.
McCarthy always seems to have a handle on his locker room. And while it was disappointing to see the collapse after Rodgers’ injury, it is worth noting that McCarthy held it together well enough to be competitive despite a talent disparity.
Hopefully, the offseason has fixed the talent shortage.
It’s up to McCarthy to put it all together.