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In Sports Commentary

The performance of rookie tight end Richard Rodgers is something to watch in training camp. (PHOTO: Matt Becker/Green Bay Packers)

5 things to watch for at Packers training camp

Training camp is upon us, with the Green Bay Packers reporting today and the first official practice beginning Saturday morning at 8:20 a.m. in the shadow of Lambeau Field.

This team has Super Bowl expectations, which makes training camp a bit more interesting than say, in Miami or Oakland.

While this list could easily be 100 deep, here are five things to watch for this camp.

5. The center position

The old saying that the "NFL stands for Not For Long" remains as true today as it ever was, but I'm not sure the Packers wanted it to apply yearly to their center position. Scott Wells, Jeff Saturday and Evan Dietrich-Smith have manned that spot each of the last three years, and now it will fall to inexperienced youngsters J.C. Tretter (injured all of last year) or fifth-round draft pick Corey Linsley.

Ideally the Packers don't want to have to look for a veteran who is either currently out on the street or is cut later in camp, so both of them will have to prove they can make the proper line calls as quickly as quarterback Aaron Rodgers calls – or changes – a play.

4. The backup running back spot

One would think with a Pro Bowl running back and Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy (1,178 yards, 11 TDs on the ground) returning the Packers are set – and they are – but Lacy did miss the better part of two full games with a concussion last season and got the job in Week 1, in large part, to a preseason knee injury to DuJuan Harris.

You can never have too many capable running backs in this league, especially when your plough horse has a style such as Lacy's. Harris is back, as is veteran James Starks and second-year man Michael Hill. Is Harris as good as the Packers coaches felt he was heading into 2013? Will rookies Rajion Neal or LaDarius Perkins surprise?

3. Young defenders

This isn't so much about rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as it is about the other top picks the Packers have used on defense the last two years – will some, or all, of them live up to the potential Ted Thompson saw in them? It could be a make-or-break season for Nick Perry (1st round, 2012), who showed some promise last year (four sacks, three forced fumbles) in just 11 games – this after playing in six in his rookie year. The same can be said for lineman Jerel Worthy (2nd round, 2012), who missed all but two games last season after accumulating 2 ½ sacks in 14 games his rookie year.

Casey Hayward (2nd round, 2012) came on like gangbusters in his rookie campaign (6 interceptions, 21 passes defensed) but appeared in three games last year because of injury. Last year's first round pick, defensive end Datone Jones, played in all 16 games and had 3 ½ sacks. The Packers will need some production out of this group.

2. Colt Lyerla

Yes, tight end Richard Rodgers was a third round draft pick and veteran Andrew Quarless is still on the roster (and who knows what's going on with Jermichael Finley) but all eyes will be on this undrafted rookie free agent who last played a football game on Sept. 28, 2013 at the University of Oregon.

He possesses all the physical tools to be an impact player in the Packers offense (6-feet, 4-inches, 242 pounds, 4.61-second 40-yard dash, 39-inch vertical jump) but was available to the organization off the street because he was first suspended by Oregon, quit, then was arrested for cocaine possession and interfering with a police officer.

Head coach Mike McCarthy called Lyerla "rusty" in rookie camps, but he will be put in positions to succeed. Should he perform well, and prove capable enough on special teams, he could find himself on the opening week roster and a big-time player down the line.

1. Julius Peppers

The Packers' biggest offseason acquisition was the 34-year-old defensive end-turned-linebacker who is entering his 13th season (No. 56 pictured above). Due to substantial injuries along the Chicago Bears defensive line last year, Peppers was often moved inside – and he finished with his lowest sack total (7 ½) since 2007. But, if his career pattern is any indication, he has followed up any single-digit sack number with at least 11 the following year.

The Packers are no doubt hoping he has (at least) one more of those seasons left in the tank, especially with Clay Matthews commanding double teams. If Peppers plays a full season, the eight-time Pro Bowler will go over 200 regular season games, and of the 12 defensive lineman ahead of him on the all-time career sack list, the majority began to lose their dominance at about Peppers' age and end-of-season game tally.

Will snaps at a new position benefit him like John Abraham, who had 11 ½ sacks last year playing linebacker in Arizona the age of 35? Will he continue to be a pass rushing force like only three other linemen before him – Chris Doleman, Reggie White and Bruce Smith – into his late 30s? These are questions the Packers hope are answered affirmatively in 2014.


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