Postcard from camp: Packers
The Packers welcome back Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley and others from injury
Aaron Rodgers wanted Mark Tauscher and James Jones back, but he's not the GM
The Pack won't be worse than 12-4 despite playing at home five times in 107 days
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Don Banks had to say about Packers camp in Green Bay, Wis., which he visited on July 30. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
In Green Bay, Wis., aka "Titletown,'' where the Packers players still practice that quaint and time-honored tradition of borrowing bikes from kids to ride rather than walk the short hop across the street from Lambeau Field to the team's Ray Nitschke Field practice site. Everybody was on their Schwinns Saturday night before Green Bay's first practice of camp, which was attended by an enthusiastic crowd of roughly 2,000.
1. Green Bay got better just by getting healthy. It's not mere hyperbole. Players such as running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley, safety Morgan Burnett, linebacker Brad Jones and defensive end Mike Neal have all returned healthy this year after missing most of last season on IR. Grant and Finley are especially eager to make up for missing out on so much of last season's Super Bowl run, and that should help the defending champs fight the post-Super Bowl letdown syndrome. "I did rehab every day, 24/8. I added an extra day to it,'' Finley said, in his trademark overstatement. "If anybody does try to relax this year, we got a bunch of guys who will step up and take over.''
2. Aaron Rodgers is definitely the man these days in Green Bay, but he's not the GM. That doesn't mean, however, that what he says doesn't carry some weight within the organization. Early last week, Rodgers was quoted on radio saying the re-signing of Packers free-agent receiver James Jones should be the team's "No. 1 priority.'' In the same interview, he added his hope of the team retaining veteran offensive tackle Mark Tauscher. Packers GM Ted Thompson was at least partially listening, because while Tauscher was one of five Green Bay veterans released last week in cap cuts, the team re-signed Jones, its No. 3 receiver, to a new three-year contract Sunday afternoon. Just an hour before Jones signed, Rodgers hinted to me and another reporter that the Packers might be successful in their pursuit of Jones.
3. We might already have our answer as to who replaces departed left guard Daryn Colledge. First-round pick Derek Sherrod, who was drafted as a left tackle out of Mississippi State, worked with the first team at left guard in Saturday night's camp-opening practice. The Packers have never been afraid to move guys around on the offensive line in an attempt to get their best five players on the field at the same time, even if some are playing new positions. Colledge signed with Arizona last week, but the beat goes on for the Packers offensive line.
With ex-Packers defensive end Cullen Jenkins signing a five-year, $25 million deal with the Eagles (who else?) on Saturday, Green Bay is officially looking for someone to fill his old 3-4 defensive end slot. The Packers will probably use more of a rotation, but Mike Neal, a second-round pick out of Purdue in 2010, is going to get plenty of playing time. Neal missed all but two games last season due to rotator-cuff surgery, but the 6-foot-3, 294-pounder is powerfully built and looked impressive early on.
The Packers don't really do free agency, as you know, so our pick in this category is second-round rookie receiver/return man Randall Cobb, from Kentucky (someone has to call him "Tex'' by now, right?). The Packers return game was one of their real weaknesses last season, but Cobb should add more than just some speed and explosiveness to the punt and kickoff returns. He's a 5-10, 192-pound slot receiver who some have likened to Percy Harvin or Josh Cribbs, and Cobb even handled some Wildcat quarterback duties at Kentucky.
I don't see the Packers doing any worse than 12-4 this year, but it's a weird schedule for the champs. They play on all the major holidays -- Thanksgiving, Christmas night and New Year's Day. There're four night games, five national TV games, all the usual treatment for a defending Super Bowl winner. And how's this for a quirk: Green Bay opens at home and plays its last two games at home, but in the 107 days that fall between Sept. 9 and Dec. 24, the Packers take the field just five times at Lambeau.