The Packers got closer to having their full team on the practice field on Thursday night.
Veteran free agent signees weren’t allowed to practice until Thursday, when the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified by the recertified players’ union. Having missed the first four practices of training camp, that group – consisting of kicker Mason Crosby, receivers Brett Swain and James Jones, fullback John Kuhn, tight end Spencer Havner and new arrival K.C. Asiodu at linebacker – got their first taste of action under the lights at Ray Nitschke Field, and Head Coach Mike McCarthy appreciated the presence the veteran crew brought to the workout.
“It was great to get everybody out there,” McCarthy said. “I thought practice as a whole picked up, as far as the structure and the mechanics we were trying to get done.
“I thought we took a step forward today as a football team.”
The well-rested players wasted little time getting involved. Kuhn and Swain resumed their usual spots on the first-team kickoff-return unit. Swain, who was also on the No. 1 punt-return team, made a couple of catches over the middle on offense against some tight coverage, one a quick slant from Matt Flynn and the other an in-route from Graham Harrell.
Havner wasn’t seeing much action for a while but then got going with a pair of short grabs over the middle in seven-on-seven work, one from Aaron Rodgers and another from Harrell.
Asiodu took a few reps with the first-team punt return, and he’s hoping to get more looks like that as he catches up in the playbook. A regular on special teams for the Rams two seasons ago, Asiodu knows “teams” are his ticket to making the roster and providing depth at inside linebacker.
“I was an undrafted free agent, so whenever you’re not a guy they’re paying big money … I call it ‘grinding’ on special teams,” he said. “It’s a will and a want-to type of thing, and I definitely have the will and the want-to.”
Jones was probably the most notable of the returning free agents, but he may have had the quietest night. In team work, he wasn’t on the same page with Rodgers on a deep comeback route, and later he and Rodgers failed to connect on a short fade to the end zone.
Toward the end of practice, as the players worked the two-minute drill for the second straight night, Jones made a short catch along the sideline on third down and Rodgers tried to force a tight one into him on fourth down, but it was broken up.
The free agents weren’t the only players returning to the field on Thursday. Second-year tight end Andrew Quarless had been out with a hip flexor but practiced for the first time. He made a diving catch over the middle in the opening team period.
Second-year defensive end Mike Neal also got full medical clearance to return to team drills after being limited in the first four practices.
Considered one of the keys to replacing the departed Cullen Jenkins on the defensive line, Neal had been out of full-contact work since injuring his shoulder at Washington last year in the season’s fifth game.
“It was great to see Mike get back to full-go,” McCarthy said. “He felt good after yesterday’s work, so we brought him all the way back today. Young player, just like most of our team. They just need reps, need to practice, need these live reps at night.”
McCarthy’s defensive coordinator couldn’t agree more, and Dom Capers had Neal taking some of his snaps with the first-team defense right away.
“We like a lot of things about Mike,” Capers said. “It’s just he needs time on the practice field. His techniques that he played in college are a little different than what we play.
“You’ve got a young guy, he was a high draft pick a year ago, and we liked the way he was progressing, but his season ended too quickly. We can’t get him out there quick enough.”
Other notes from Thursday’s workout:
There were some additions to the injury list, as tight end Tom Crabtree (hip flexor) and receiver Kerry Taylor (concussion) didn’t practice, and rookie Lawrence Guy (concussion) also sat out. Offensive lineman T.J. Lang was absent due to what McCarthy called a personal matter, and cornerback Tramon Williams dropped out of practice with hip tightness, though McCarthy said it isn’t believed to be anything serious.
Rookie defensive end Chris Donaldson (collarbone) returned to practice.
One of the bigger hits of the first three padded practices came from running back James Starks. During an inside running drill, Starks broke through the line, met rookie safety Anthony Bratton in the hole, and ran over him.
At least every other night, if not every evening, undrafted rookie Diondre Borel makes a standout play or two. A converted quarterback now playing receiver, Borel found an opening to catch a roughly 35-yard throw from Flynn on the final play of a seven-on-seven two-minute situation for a touchdown. Later, during team periods, he made an impressive two-handed leaping grab over the middle and hauled in a throw in traffic in the red zone.
Rodgers didn’t look particularly sharp early, but he made some pinpoint throws later in practice. During red-zone work, he threw perfectly over rookie tight end D.J. Williams’ shoulder on a short-corner route for a score, he connected with a diving Greg Jennings on a quick slant for a TD, and on a rollout he hit Driver along the sideline to open the final two-minute drill, with the veteran making a nifty sliding catch.
Family Night update: McCarthy said the annual “Family Night” on Saturday at Lambeau Field will be formatted much the same as in the past, with the first-team units going against the second-team on both sides of the ball. The primary difference from past years is that there will be no live tackling.
The Packers will have had only four practices in pads prior to “Family Night,” and McCarthy feels that’s too soon, given the lockout and adjusted schedule, to go live.
“It’s risk management,” McCarthy said. “You lose an opportunity to see your football team in live action. That’s important, but the fact of the matter is I have to really listen to my own words and trust the process.
“I’m not trying to be soft. I just don’t think it’s very smart to go out there, based on the experience that we have with so many new players, to put them in live action Saturday night.”