GREEN BAY – The Packers fans lined up along the Oneida Street fence for Thursday’s OTA practice at Clarke Hinkle Field saw plenty that had to put smiles on their faces.
Back in uniform were native son and receiver Jared Abbrederis, offensive lineman Don Barclay and outside linebacker Andy Mulumba going through individual drills, all less than a year removed from ACL surgeries that sidelined them last year.
Also back in action, to a more full extent, was defensive lineman B.J. Raji, after missing all of the 2014 season to a torn bicep.
Following the workout, Raji declared himself full strength and without restrictions, eager to get back to being the anchor in the middle of the Packers’ defensive front.
“He should be well-rested,” joked linebacker Clay Matthews. “It’s good to see No. 90 out there. He’s only going to help this defense out tremendously, especially as a veteran leader. Great to have him back.”
As for Matthews himself, he was taking the majority of his reps at inside linebacker, where he played the second half of last season. He lined up next to Sam Barrington.
The linchpin of Dom Capers’ defense made it sound as though this year will begin the way last year finished, with Matthews moving to where he can help the most in any given situation. Only this time, he’ll have a more thorough understanding of the inside spot going into the season, rather than learning it on the fly.
“It’s important for me to be able to switch around,” Matthews said. “I need to make sure I know the little nuances. Last year it was kind of patchwork, as far as throwing me in there. Now that I’m actually learning why I’m doing certain things, it’s making the transition a lot easier.”
As he said last year, though, it’s not a full-blown position switch, and Matthews won’t be giving up what he does best.
“I’ll still rush the passer and still get after the quarterback,” he said. “We always have something up our sleeve.”
Matthews’ traditional outside linebacker spot was perhaps the thinnest on the roster Thursday, with Nick Perry, Mike Neal and Julius Peppers all not practicing. That provided an opportunity for a number of young outside rushers to take their cracks with the first unit.
Cornerback Casey Hayward also sat out with what he termed a “minor foot injury,” putting on hold for now his pursuit of the starting cornerback job in place of the departed Tramon Williams. Hayward said he’ll be ready for training camp.
On the offensive side, receiver Jordy Nelson only observed as he continues to rehab from offseason hip surgery. Nelson said he feels good and has no worries about his health.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers also sounded worry-free regarding the biggest change on offense – his head coach no longer calling the plays. That job now belongs to Tom Clements, who was Rodgers’ position coach for six years (2006-11) and his offensive coordinator the past three.
Rodgers sees little changing with regard to the offense and his responsibilities within it.
“Not much, I don’t think,” he said. “Tom and I have a great rapport from the years we spent as quarterback to quarterback coach.”
Rodgers was able to scramble out of trouble a couple of times on Thursday, a welcome sight after his battle with a calf injury during last season’s stretch run. He said it took a couple of months after the season ended to push the calf “to the max” during workouts, and his only concern now is that it doesn’t “aesthetically” look as good as it used to, but it’s no longer restricting him.
Given his status as league MVP and longest-tenured Packers player, Rodgers could certainly take it even easier than the five of 15 snaps in team periods he’s getting during these voluntary OTAs, but that’s not his style. As he often does at this time of year, he spoke of this being a different team and the leadership and chemistry that take shape.
“This is why I need to be here,” he said. “There’s a couple offenses. There’s one that’s on paper and there’s one that’s run in the game, and you’re always trying to build a bridge between the two, and that’s when you do it is right now.”
Additional OTA coverage - May 28