Commentary

Packers ready to follow Rodgers' lead

Originally Published: August 3, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- With no Brett Favre distractions this summer, the Green Bay Packers feel young, fresh and optimistic about the 2009 season.

Training camp practices have moved to a pristine new grass field on the other side of the Don Hutson Center. Bleachers able to comfortably seat 1,500 loyal Packers fans enhance Wisconsin's best summer vacation attraction. Most importantly, pro football's youngest team for the past three seasons is starting to show some seasoning.

With QB Aaron Rodgers entering his second full season as a starter, the Packers internally are thinking playoffs again. Management likes the roster, and unlike in 2008, when they came off a 13-win season, the Packers might be able to sneak up on some teams like they did in 2007.

Here are five things that caught my eye at Packers camp:

1. Rodgers the unquestioned leader: There is no question that this is Rodgers' team now that the books are finally closed on Favre. Team president Mark Murphy informed shareholders and the local media last week that the Packers will retire Favre's No. 4 in time. Then over the weekend, general manager Ted Thompson cleaned up the books on Favre's trade to New York when the Jets agreed to return the Packers' conditional seventh-round pick in 2010 that had been included in the deal.

Rodgers showed Favre-like toughness last season, playing through a second-degree separation of his right shoulder without missing a start. He needed to make slight adjustments to his throwing motion during a five-week stretch to subdue the pain, but he still threw for 4,038 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. The pain is now gone and he's back to his natural delivery, which produces one of the strongest, prettiest passes in the league. His next step is to improve his efficiency in the final four minutes of games, but Rodgers earned the confidence of his teammates last year and should get only better this season.

[+] EnlargeRyan Pickett
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireRyan Pickett is being asked to learn a new position. So far, he's enjoying the challenge.

2. Pickett embracing change: Seeing nose tackle Ryan Pickett smiling and joking around in defensive line drills caught me off guard. At 29, Pickett is making a career change from being a 4-3 defensive tackle to a nose tackle in the Packers' new 4-3. That's a position switch that usually turns veterans surly and resistant. Normally, defensive tackles prefer shooting gaps in the 4-3 as opposed to wrestling with two blockers as a nose tackle. But Pickett loves it. The 340-pound Pickett called friends around the league who play nose tackle and has embraced the move.

If Pickett succeeds at the nose, the Packers could be the most successful 3-4 transformation since the San Diego Chargers in 2004. By the way, a big reason the Chargers succeeded with the 3-4 switch was nose tackle Jamal Williams' willingness to embrace it.

3. Cooking up pressure: Dom Capers has enough linebackers to run a 3-4 defense that can pressure the quarterback. The longtime NFL defensive coordinator, entering his first season with the Packers, has been a master of finding outside pass-rushers. In Green Bay, he has at least three options on the outside: Aaron Kampman, Jeremy Thompson and Clay Matthews.

Kampman, a career defensive end, is having a tough adjustment not playing from a three-point stance and being asked to drop into coverage, but he's working hard at it. Thompson has been a little bit of a surprise in how well he's making the switch, and he is staying slightly ahead of Matthews as the starter on the right side. The linebacker transition might take the longest time, but the Packers are off to an encouraging start.

4. Finley emerging: The most interesting development on offense is how Jermichael Finley is emerging at tight end. Donald Lee is clearly the starter, but Finley is a 6-foot-5, 247-pound target who might be able to expand the passing offense out of two-TE sets. Lee was third on the team last season with 39 catches for 303 yards. Jordy Nelson and James Jones have a great battle going for the No. 3 wide receiver spot, but Finley could challenge the third receiver for playing time with the way he's coming on.

5. O-line in flux: It's pretty clear the offensive line is in transition. Right tackle Mark Tauscher wasn't re-signed. Left tackle Chad Clifton is on the sidelines recovering from arthroscopic surgeries to both shoulders and both knees. And center Scott Wells is being challenged by Jason Spitz for the starting job.

Thompson has drafted enough mid-round players who have the bodies to fit the job descriptions, but the key to camp is settling on a starting offensive line. Clifton should be fine. How guards Josh Sitton and Allen Barbre fare could be the key to the success of the running game and pass-blocking.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer