Jones, who sustained a bruised lower back when he took a helmet to that area in the first training camp practice last Saturday, returned to the field on Thursday for both practices and said he felt no lingering effects as he did his usual work at outside linebacker.
The absence wasn’t nearly as long as last year, when Jones strained his back during the conditioning test on the day players reported for camp. That injury kept him out of the first two full weeks of camp and left his roster spot in jeopardy until he was able to play in the final three preseason games.
“I didn’t think it was going to be that long, but then again you never really know until a couple days go by and you can feel it start getting better,” Jones said. “But I’m glad I was able to turn it around so fast.”
This year, with Jones a potential starter at outside linebacker opposite Clay Matthews, the roster spot isn’t really a worry. But Jones didn’t want to sit out any longer than he had to, especially with the experimenting the coaches are doing at his position.
Earlier this week, veteran Brandon Chillar was moved from inside to outside linebacker and worked with the starters and in the nickel package in Jones’ absence, and Matthews was flipped from the right side to the left side.
When Jones returned on Thursday, he had to make an immediate adjustment, getting shifted from the left side, where he played last year in tallying four sacks over the final five games of the regular season, to the right side. With Chillar one of several veterans taking the morning off and Matthews taking only limited snaps in the morning, Jones was paired primarily with Brady Poppinga.
“I’m excited to play the right side if I get a chance to,” Jones said. “Clay had all those sacks on that side, so maybe I can.”
When Chillar returned in the evening, he remained paired with Matthews on the No. 1 unit in both base and nickel. Jones and Poppinga were together with the No. 2 defense. So it appears even though Jones started seven games at outside linebacker last year in place of Aaron Kampman and was with the No. 1 units throughout the spring, the starting job is up for grabs.
“There’s competition everywhere,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said following the evening practice. “We’re not giving the job to Brad, we’re not giving it to Brandon. Availability is the No. 1 component of being on the field. Brad’s had an issue with that beginning of last year and the beginning of this year. We’ve got healthy competition. We like the rotation now that it’s been created with Brandon over there.”
If he has to battle for a spot, that’s fine with Jones. A seventh-round draft pick a year ago who wasn’t even on the field until midway through camp, he’s used to having to work for any playing time he gets.
“I don’t know exactly what’s going on with everything, but you have to compete for your job always,” Jones said. “It’s the NFL. It’s the best players in the world. I would have to compete for a spot if I was anywhere on the team.”
Runnin’ with the 1s
In addition to Chillar, several veterans sat out the morning practice, allowing some younger players to step in and take snaps with the No. 1 units during the nearly two-hour workout.
Given the morning off were cornerback Charles Woodson, receiver Donald Driver, offensive tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton, defensive ends Ryan Pickett and Cullen Jenkins, center Scott Wells, linebacker Nick Barnett and tight end Donald Lee.
Among the young players who got to run with the 1’s was Mike Neal, a second-round draft pick from Purdue who took Jenkins’ right defensive end spot and who could be in line to be the “next man in” behind the starters on the defensive line despite his rookie status.
“You’re a rookie but you need to learn fast,” Neal said. “Like coach says, you don’t get a redshirt season this year. This ain’t no season where you can just sit back and be like, OK, I can learn. You have to be able to learn on the fly, you have to be able to learn and produce.”
That’s what makes snaps with the first unit so valuable, especially for players new to the NFL and still adjusting to the overall speed of the game.
“It helps you out because then you get put into those situations where … this is game-time situations,” Neal said. “It’s two-minute. This is how fast the calls are going to be coming in, this is how fast the ball is going to be moving. So it gets you acclimated with those types of situations, which will definitely help you out. So when you get thrown in a game, you’re not just out there running around looking lost. You feel more comfortable.”
Other young or less experienced players getting their chance to work with the top units on Thursday morning were Bryan Bulaga at left tackle for Clifton, Breno Giacomini at right tackle for Tauscher, Justin Harrell at left defensive end for Pickett, Desmond Bishop at inside linebacker for Barnett, and Brandon Underwood at cornerback for Woodson (which also moved Pat Lee up to the nickel corner spot).
At the other positions, Jason Spitz filled in at center for Wells, while Jordy Nelson and James Jones both moved up at receiver in Driver’s absence.
Interns at work
The Packers have two interns on the coaching staff and two in the scouting/personnel department for this year’s training camp, and all four of them are former NFL players.
On the coaching side, the interns are Carnell Lake and Joel Hilgenberg.
Lake played 13 seasons as a defensive back in the NFL (1989-2001), the first 10 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he played under Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers and was a teammate of Packers safeties coach Darren Perry and linebackers coach Kevin Greene. Lake also played for Capers for two seasons in Jacksonville (1999-2000) before finishing his career with the Baltimore Ravens.
Lake was a five-time Pro Bowler and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s. Last year he was a coaching intern at the Philadelphia Eagles training camp and then spent the season coaching cornerbacks at his alma mater, UCLA.
Hilgenberg played 10 seasons (1984-93) for the New Orleans Saints as an offensive lineman, mostly at center. He was a teammate of Packers offensive line coach James Campen for two years with the Saints (1987-88) and made the Pro Bowl in 1992. Hilgenberg is the younger brother of former Chicago Bears center Jay Hilgenberg.
The two player personnel interns are both former Packers, linebacker Jim Nelson and running back Tony Fisher.
Nelson, a non-drafted free agent from Penn State, played 16 games with the Packers over his first two seasons in the NFL (1998-99) before moving on to play three years in Minnesota (2000-02), two in Indianapolis (2003-04) and one in Baltimore (2005).
Fisher played in 60 games over four seasons with the Packers (2002-05) after making the team as a non-drafted free agent out of Notre Dame, where he was a teammate of Ryan Grant’s for one season. Fisher compiled 880 yards rushing, 900 yards receiving and nine touchdowns in Green Bay before concluding his career with the St. Louis Rams in 2006.
In addition to Jones, guard Daryn Colledge (elbow) and guard/tackle Marshall Newhouse (concussion) were back on the practice field Thursday for both workouts after missing time due to their injuries.
Safety Will Blackmon (knee), defensive end Ronald Talley (knee) and wide receiver Brett Swain (knee) took the morning off as part of their one-a-day schedule but returned in the evening. Blackmon ended up dropping out of the evening practice early, however. Safety Derrick Martin (ankle), who had been on a one-a-day schedule, also missed both practices.
Running back James Starks (hamstring), cornerback Al Harris (knee) and safety Atari Bigby (ankle), all on PUP since the start of camp, continued to sit out, while wide receiver Jeff Moturi (knee) was placed on injured reserve.