OTAs To Begin
Today marks the first day of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) for the Green Bay Packers. The OTAs run from today through June 18, with a total of 14 practices for the team. These are totally voluntary, but all players are expected to participate except for Nick Collins (family issues), Nick Barnett (knee), Cullen Jenkins (ankle), and Breno Giacomini (ankle).
These OTAs mark a change for the Packers as they try to rediscover the magic they had in 2007, when they went 13-3 and were an errant pass from the Super Bowl. The team comes in with a new defensive coordinator (Dom Capers), new defensive scheme (3-4), new special teams coordinator (Shawn Slocum), and two new, high draft picks (B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews). The Packers are trying to rebound from the dismal 2008 season and keep up with the reloaded Chicago Bears, always dangerous Minnesota Vikings, and the making-an-attempt-at-being-a-football-team Detroit Lions.
So what should we watch for with these OTAs?
First, the obvious: the 3-4. With Capers, Raji, and Matthews coming in, change is happening. How long it takes that change to happen remains to be seen. The only new members of the Packer defense are the two rookies and safety Anthony Smith, who was signed away from the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency. Raji will compete with the incumbent Ryan Pickett for the nose tackle job, where the the team will look to them as space-eaters to free up the linebackers. Both men are listed at over 330 pounds, something absolutely necessary for the scheme to succeed. Pickett has performed solidly in his time with the Packers, but it remains to be seen if he has the athleticism to be more than serviceable in the 3-4. Raji is expected to become an impact player over the course of his career on the defensive line.
Joining Raji and Pickett on the defensive line is the competition for defensive end. Defensive end is a thankless job according to many who have worked with it. Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel of Pittsburgh are regarded as two of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league, and I’m willing to bet the casual fan hasn’t heard of them. The Packers are hoping that Justin Harrell can make the transition to the 3-4 DE successfully, or else his time in Green Bay will most likely be up. Also expected to have big impacts in the defense are Johnny Jolly and Cullen Jenkins. However, any of the numerous defensive ends on the Green Bay roster currently have the potential to win the job, as nearly everyone is learning something new.
Talking about the Packers defense is like beating a dead horse, so something else to consider: Ryan Grant.
Last year, Ryan Grant rushed for over 1,200 yards, good for ninth in the league. However, we have no idea what Grant can do. After all, he only played half a season in 2007 and in 2008 missed all offseason activities before promptly hurting his hamstring the first week of training camp and never really being at 100%. The backups in Green Bay (Brandon Jackson, DeShawnn Wynn) have shown flashes of brilliance, and I’d expect Mike McCarthy and Joe Philbin to use them to put some pressure on Grant during these offseason workouts. While Grant’s total yards were good for someone who missed time, his yards per game (75.4) and yards per carry (3.9) could definitely use some improvement.
Grant’s performance ties in with the offensive line, obviously. The Packers offensive line in 2008 was banged up and inconsistent. As the younger guys continue to mature and develop, it takes some pressure off of the aging Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton. The trenches are definitely the place to watch for the Packers during these OTAs.