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Packers OTAs 2017: Five position battles to watch

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Green Bay takes the field in front of the public for the first time in the 2017 season today; here are a few battles we’ll be watching.

 NFL: Green Bay Packers-Training Camp Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, the Green Bay Packers began the Organized Team Activities portion of the offseason workouts with a closed practice. At least a few Packers players were excited about the work the team put in on Monday, but today is the day for fans to start sharing in that excitement.

After all, Tuesday marks the first public practice of the year for the Packers, as fans can watch from outside Ray Nitschke Field. With so many moving parts on the 90-man roster, here are a handful of positions that should feature intriguing battles up and down the depth chart.

Cornerback

This is one of the few positions on the Packers’ roster that does not have a clear path forward at the starting positions. It should be a five-man fight for the two boundary spots, with rookie Kevin King and returning veteran Davon House battling with third-year corners Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, and LaDarius Gunter. Ultimately, it seems likely that Randall and Rollins are best-equipped to play the slot, with the other three lining up as boundary corners.

However, it is anyone’s guess who will emerge as the favorite to start following spring practices and heading into training camp. Keep an eye on how the snaps are divided up early on and who is lining up in the slot vs. on the outside, but remember that the Packers rarely throw rookies in with the ones in their first practices.

Outside Linebacker

Unlike at cornerback, the Packers have the starting jobs locked down at outside linebacker with Nick Perry and Clay Matthews. However, behind those two, it is anybody’s guess who will be in line to take the backup snaps. For now, the easy money is on Jayrone Elliott and Kyler Fackrell as the primary options thanks to Vince Biegel’s foot surgery. However, watch for any sign of improvement from Reggie Gilbert and wait to see how rookie Johnathan Calvin lines up, as he could help replace Datone Jones as an elephant end.

Running Back

Much like the edge rushers, the Packers have a starter at tailback in Ty Montgomery (who will still wear #88, to the chagrin of one particular sportswriter and our everlasting amusement). Behind him, the Packers have a quintet of talented rookie running backs, three draft picks and two undrafted players.

If one of these players can demonstrate pass-blocking chops early on, that should go a long way to making him the primary backup to Montgomery. It’s easy to bet on one of the higher draft picks, such as Jamaal Williams or Aaron Jones, but my sleeper pick to impress is William Stanback, who impressed as a tryout player at rookie minicamp and earned a contract.

Slot Receiver

Randall Cobb plays the slot, so that’s the end of the discussion, right?

Wrong.

As Jordy Nelson continues to get older, he is likely to take more and more snaps from the slot. Think of Larry Fitzgerald as the template for Nelson’s progression; Fitz was almost exclusively a slot receiver over his past few years, and his size makes it very difficult for smaller corners to cover him. Nelson got heavy use in the slot in 2013, when Cobb was out with a broken leg, and he had a few big plays from there last season (like his 58-yard gain against the Falcons in week 8, seen here) In addition, Davante Adams has done a little work in the slot as well, so it’s hardly a spot for #18 alone.

It will be interesting to see how much work Nelson is taking inside at this point in the offseason, as it could be a sign of whether the team intends to line him up there more in 2017 than in 2016.

Punt/Kick Returner

Although the Packers added five running backs and receivers in the draft, none of them has any significant experience as a return man, which could be a problem. Ty Montgomery is now the starting tailback, which means that the Packers are unlikely to use him as the primary kickoff returner next season. Meanwhile, Micah Hyde, the team’s primary punt returner over the past few years, departed for a free agent deal with the Buffalo Bills.

On punts, Trevor Davis has shown some ability, including a 55-yard return last season, and Cobb is still dangerous, so those two are likely the top options in 2017. Meanwhile, Jeff Janis still shows flashes on kickoffs and Davis had a few chances there as well last season.

However, both Davis and Janis are in a tough fight to make the roster, and there’s no guarantee for either one of them this season. It would be encouraging if another player would emerge as an option on returns, given the relative lack of depth there on this team.