With training camp set to start Saturday, the Green Bay Packers could tie the franchise record with a sixth straight playoff appearance this upcoming season, but will need some help from their younger defensive players to do so.
With quarterback Aaron Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy at the helm, Green Bay put up the third most yards in the league and 26.1 points per game last season, and that’s unlikely to change.
Where the Packers really needed help was defense. Ranking 24th against the pass and 25th versus the run, Green Bay proved unable to make any real stops last season. And in 2014 their schedule is packed with high-scoring opponents like New Orleans in Week Eight, Philadelphia in Week 11 and New England in Week 13. Not to mention the four games against NFC North rivals Chicago and Detroit, two teams that have highly potent offenses as well.
The pass rush wasn’t really the problem, with Green Bay ranking sixth with 44 sacks last year, even though team sack-leader Clay Matthews missed five games. What the Packers need are players who can force some turnovers and put the ball in Rodgers’s hands as often as possible. With 24 takeaways, only eight of which were fumble recoveries, Green Bay was tied for 18 th in the league with a middling plus-2 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio.
That’s where fourth-year linebacker Jamari Lattimore and third-round rookie draft pick Khyri Thornton enter. An undrafted free agent who took a restricted free agent tender during the offseason, according to Fox Sports Wisconsin, Lattimore started four games last season when Brad Jones was injured and totaled 2.0 sacks and a forced fumble.
At times Lattimore looked like the same player that generated 11.5 sacks in his final year at Middle Tennessee State, and consistent production during camp could translate into a starting spot ahead of Jones and right next to A.J. Hawk.
Staying in house for its next linebacker, the Packers used the draft to address their defensive front in the form of Southern Miss d-tackle Khyri Thornton.
As of now Thornton is listed behind defensive ends Mike Daniels and Jerel Worthy on the right side, but with an excellent camp he could open up holes for big-money pass rusher Julius Peppers on the d-line. The 34-year-old former Bear and Panther agreed to a three-year, $26 million deal in the offseason, and though he hasn’t missed a start since 2007, and only six total games in his career, Peppers might not be the same player he was five years ago.
The Packers could make Peppers’s job much easier with the 6-foot-3 and 304-pound Thornton, who was third on the Golden Eagles with 6.5 tackles for a loss and first with four quarterback hits. Some were surprised when Green Bay took Thornton in the third round, but his former Southern Miss d-line coach thinks the Packers made a wise decision.
"They're getting a guy that's going to work his tail off," said former Southern Miss defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "He's got some talents that will keep him there for a long time. He's a big, strong, physical man.”
There could also be a competition for the starting tight end job at Lambeau Field between Cal rookie Richard Rodgers and third-year player Brandon Bostick. The Packers are in need of some long-term insurance for Jermichael Finley, who missed 10 games due to injury last season and require an upgrade over Andrew Quarless.
Bostick has two years in McCarthy’s offense under his wing compared to Rodgers, but he’s only appeared in 11 games and totaled seven receptions for 120 yards and a touchdown.
Rodgers makes this a competition with some more size and the ability to block or act as a red zone threat for his quarterback. At Cal he moved into the slot in his junior year and flourished with a career-high 39 receptions for 608 yards. He might not have the speed to break off long runs after the catch in the pros, but Rodgers can certainly help the Packers improve their 26th ranked red zone scoring percentage from last season.