Today, the quest for another Super Bowl begins in earnest in Titletown.
Although the Green Bay Packers have been working on strength and conditioning over the past few weeks as part of the NFL’s offseason workout program, Monday May 22nd marks a significant step forward in the team’s search for a 14th NFL title and fifth Lombardi Trophy. This week, the Packers will begin to practice on a football field as a team for the first time since the conclusion of the 2016 playoffs.
Last season, of course, ended in heartbreak as the Atlanta Falcons drubbed the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, but with the start of a new season brings new hope. Another reason for Packers fans to hold more optimism for the 2017 season is the team’s offseason additions.
First, the Packers became more dynamic and afforded themselves new flexibility in their offensive formations with an uncharacteristic set of free agent signings. Tight end Martellus Bennett signed a new three-year deal with the Packers and provides head coach Mike McCarthy with the most complete tight end he has had in his entire tenure with the team. Bennett and fellow tight end signee Lance Kendricks — a Milwaukee native and former Wisconsin Badger — will allow the offense to attack the middle of the field more thoroughly while also providing good blocking ability.
General manager Ted Thompson then astutely used free agency to fill a few significant holes on the roster, signing cornerback Davon House, defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, and guard Jahri Evans to short-term deals. At a minimum, all three should compete for starting jobs at need positions, and these additions helped Thompson focus on drafting the best values available at the end of April.
By all accounts, Thompson did just that, landing one of the most impressive athletes at the cornerback position in years with the team’s first pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Kevin King’s size, speed, and quickness should immediately give him an opportunity to contribute on the boundary, and he could develop into a lock-down corner in time. That 6’3” frame should also allow him to compete with larger NFL receivers on a different level than that of the team’s recent corners, almost all of whom stand 5’11” or 6 feet tall.
The rest of the draft cannot be overlooked, as the team found numerous players who are likely to contribute as rookies. Safety/linebacker Josh Jones spent much of rookie orientation practices working on a hybrid role on the middle of the defense, while outside linebacker Vince Biegel should have a chance to chip in from day one in a pass-rush rotation. For Biegel, the only disappointment of his first month in Green and Gold was the re-injuring of a broken bone in his foot that cost him two games as a senior; the surgery to fix that break should keep him out until the start of training camp in July. On offense, at least two of the team’s running back draft picks should see significant playing time early to help spell starter Ty Montgomery, while the team added depth at receiver and on the interior of the offensive line.
Following the draft, the team landed a number of intriguing rookie free agents to help the depth and competition across the roster. With no jobs assured to back up the guard and center positions, players like Geoff Gray and Adam Pankey should have a chance to make an early impact; the same goes for Cody Heiman at inside linebacker and a slew of young cornerbacks fighting for playing time.
Meanwhile, two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers returns to the field motivated and ready to continue the hot streak that he put together to close the 2016 season. Over the final ten games last year (including playoffs), Rodgers was stellar, posting over 300 passing yards per game, completing more than two-thirds of his passes, and racking up 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions. That equates to a passer rating of 114. Adding Bennett and Kendricks to Rodgers’ weaponry, plus another year of development for the likes of Davante Adams, Geronimo Allison, and Trevor Davis, should make the Packers’ offense one of the most productive again in 2017.
However, the journey begins with a more modest start. This week, the Packers will conduct their first set of Organized Team Activities practices, which consist of non-live contact drills in helmets and shorts, with the first public look at the team coming at Tuesday’s practice at 11:30 AM. It is in this OTA phase that Mike McCarthy and company begin to install the offensive and defensive schemes for the upcoming season, but it is also a time for the returning players to begin acclimating to the new additions on the field. Rodgers, in particular, will get to throw to the likes of Bennett, Kendricks, and rookies DeAngelo Yancey and Malachi Dupre, in an effort to start building confidence, chemistry, and trust with his new targets.
There is a long way to go before an NFL champion is crowned in the Twin Cities next February, but the Packers have their sights set on one goal: hoisting that Lombardi Trophy once again. The journey starts now.