GREEN BAY—The current Packers offense will always revolve around Aaron Rodgers, but Mike McCarthy heads into 2014 feeling stronger than ever about the guys lining up in front of his quarterback.
“This offensive line, in my opinion, in my time here, has the chance to be the best offensive line that we’ve had,” said McCarthy, who kicked off his ninth training camp with a press conference on Friday, a little less than 24 hours prior to the first practice of camp, set for Saturday morning.
“I’m excited about that group.”
It’s easy to see why. Guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang are entrenched veteran starters, while Bryan Bulaga is back from knee surgery to play right tackle and David Bakhtiari is a year older at the prime left tackle spot.
“David is bigger, he’s stronger,” McCarthy said of last year’s rookie fourth-round pick, who was forced to step in when Bulaga was lost for the season. “He was able to play every game last year. That’s an incredible value to have as a young player, so he’ll be better.”
Former first-round pick Derek Sherrod and versatile veteran Don Barclay provide more depth at tackle than usual as well.
The Packers are turning the center spot over to second-year pro JC Tretter, a fourth-round pick in 2013, but he’ll be the only starter lacking significant experience up front. There’s a belief he’ll make rapid progress amidst the group of linemen surrounding him.
“I was very impressed with him in the spring,” McCarthy said. “I can’t wait to see him in pads.”
He also can’t wait to see all facets of his offense clicking. The running game was reborn a season ago but only operated half the year with Rodgers at the helm.
Rodgers will continue to have numerous options in the passing game, with a receiving group led by Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, but the offense could have nearly as many choices in the backfield to help maintain balance.
“Running the football is important, but running the football when you have to is of most importance,” McCarthy said. “Having Aaron back there obviously makes your run game, just from him being under center. Eddie Lacy had a great rookie season. James Starks had his best year, too. I’m excited about what DuJuan Harris is going to give us. I really like the depth at the whole running back position.”
McCarthy reiterated his excitement for a young tight end group whose development should accelerate once the pads go on, while backup quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien provide more insurance against another Rodgers injury than the Packers had a year ago at this time.
Given Flynn’s experience and Tolzien’s promise, it’s possible McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson could keep three quarterbacks on the active roster for the first time in a while, but McCarthy said they won’t “overreact” to Rodgers’ injury from last year. As usual, they won’t go into training camp with an eye on specific numbers for each position.
“We’re better already, because we’ve had Matt and Scott here from Day 1, so we’ll see what happens,” McCarthy said. “Ted’s not opposed to keeping three quarterbacks, but it really depends on the competition at the other positions.”
That competition will play out primarily during the four preseason games, which will be preceded by an altered schedule compared to years past.
In a way that will mimic McCarthy’s new in-season Friday-Saturday schedule prior to a Sunday game, the Packers will not practice two days before their preseason games; they’ll conduct a light workout the day before the game. Previously, the pattern was to have the final practice in a given week two days before the game, and get the players off their feet at least 48 hours before kickoff. What it all means is the Packers will not conduct practices on Fridays prior to games on Sunday; they'll conduct a light practice on Saturdays.
It’s the first time McCarthy has changed his in-season daily schedule in nine years, though he said he’s been considering it the last few seasons. Initiating the change in training camp is designed to get the players accustomed to the new regimen.
“It’s giving the team a chance to go down and do that particular (last pre-game) practice the first time, and get it right,” said McCarthy, who also made changes to the offseason program that have him feeling better about the state of the team now than he has since the offseason restrictions in the collective bargaining agreement took effect in 2012.
“Really, the battles, the competition, the look for the right fit starts,” McCarthy said. “How we felt coming out of the offseason, it’s given us the chance as a coaching staff to really mold and galvanize the football team, but it’s a process.
“This is our most important time of year.”