GREEN BAY – Did you pull a Rip Van Winkle in the offseason? You ought to read this.
If you fell into a deep slumber when Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald crossed the goal line in overtime late on the evening of Jan. 16 and are just now waking up as the Packers get set for the 2016 opener in Jacksonville, here’s what you need to know.
It’s the top 10 news flashes from the past seven-plus months to get you ready for a new season. In no particular order, here we go:
1. Jordy Nelson is back and ready to roll. The plan wasn’t for Nelson to miss the entire preseason after last year’s knee injury, but a “hiccup” with his other knee reduced his training camp to just two weeks of limited practice. He’s good to go now, though, and just as important, the Packers made it through a preseason without losing a starter to a season-ending injury for the first time since 2011, as Nelson’s ACL last year had been preceded by B.J. Raji’s bicep (2014), Bryan Bulaga’s knee (2013) and Desmond Bishop’s hamstring (2012). However …
2. The offensive line has a new left guard and center. Veteran Josh Sitton was released in the most surprising cut-down day decision of the Ted Thompson-Mike McCarthy era, and Corey Linsley is beginning the season on the physically unable to perform list due to a recurring hamstring injury. Fourth-year pro Lane Taylor, with two career NFL starts, is stepping in for Sitton, while previous super sub JC Tretter has taken Linsley’s place, and there’s no looking back. “Lane Taylor is ready,” McCarthy said. “If you have an offensive line where you’re just talking about one guy, your offensive line is probably not very good. If you’re talking about your offensive line as a unit, then you’ve got a good offensive line. That’s what our goal is.”
3. Aaron Rodgers has a new weapon. Thompson took the rare step of dipping into free agency to sign tight end Jared Cook, who gives Rodgers the type of size and speed at tight end he hasn’t enjoyed since Jermichael Finley was running down the seam. The early returns on the Rodgers-Cook connection in training camp and the preseason couldn’t have been more promising.
4. Eddie Lacy dedicated himself to conditioning. Called out by McCarthy at the end of 2015, Lacy trimmed down in the offseason and reported back to Green Bay in better shape. The offense showed a determination to run the ball in the preseason, and Lacy responded with 20 carries for 114 yards and a TD. For the fourth straight year, Lacy is backed up by James Starks.
5. The draft produced an influx of big guys. Green Bay’s seven selections featured four linemen – two on defense in UCLA’s Kenny Clark (first round) and Northwestern’s Dean Lowry (fourth), and two on offense in Indiana’s Jason Spriggs (second) and Stanford’s Kyle Murphy (sixth). Clark and Lowry could play a fair amount from the get-go, while Spriggs will be the insurance at offensive tackle the line lacked last year. Also from the draft …
6. Rookie Blake Martinez has taken over a key role on defense. The fourth-round inside linebacker out of Stanford is not only starting but wearing the communication helmet. He’s being paired with 2015 fourth-round pick Jake Ryan in base and nickel, and Martinez likely will stay on the field in the dime as well. Last year’s dime ’backer, Joe Thomas, is next in line here as Sam Barrington was released at cut-down time.
7. Clay Matthews has returned to outside linebacker. A successful fill-in at inside linebacker for the past season and a half, Matthews is back at his familiar pass-rushing spot, feeling renewed and energized. The rest of the Packers’ edge rushers from 2015 – Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, Datone Jones (as he continues to transition from defensive line) and Jayrone Elliott – are back except Mike Neal, while third-round pick Kyler Fackrell of Utah State was added in the draft.
8. The PED story from last winter was put to rest. Matthews and Peppers were named in an Al Jazeera-America report as having received and used performance-enhancing drugs, and as the NFL investigated, it threatened to suspend the Packers’ stars if they didn’t submit to interviews. The players’ union initially resisted but eventually agreed to have them talk, and both were cleared with the NFL finding “no credible evidence.”
9. The bearded fullback is now named Aaron Ripkowski. The Packers didn’t re-sign John Kuhn, who went to New Orleans as a free agent. The fullback job has been turned over to Ripkowski, a 2015 sixth-round draft pick from Oklahoma, who has the look of the next player on his way to cult-hero status.
10. For the first time in seven years, there’s a new punter. And the change didn’t happen in the conventional way. Veteran Tim Masthay and rookie Peter Mortell, a Green Bay native, were slugging it out in training camp, but prior to the final preseason game, the Packers released both and claimed Jake Schum off waivers from Tampa Bay. The last time the Packers changed punters was in 2010. Hmmmm …