Training camp starts on Thursday, with the first three weeks featuring the most competitive practices. Here are the battlegrounds at each position.
Quarterbacks: Unless Scott Tolzien gets hit in his throwing shoulder by a wayward punt, there’s not much of a battle. Tolzien, with a strong offseason — and even a strong preseason last year — will be Aaron Rodgers’ backup, with Brett Hundley the obvious No. 3 based on draft pedigree and long-term potential over the more-polished Matt Blanchard.
Running backs: The running back group is much more unsettled. Do the Packers go with a total of four or five running backs/fullbacks? At running back, first-year player Rajion Neal is ahead of undrafted rookies John Crockett and Alonzo Harris. He impressed before getting hurt last summer and showed excellent hands throughout the offseason. The Packers might go with two, figuring they can stash their No. 3 back on the practice squad. At fullback, is there room for two with sixth-round rookie Aaron Ripkowski joining Pro Bowl veteran John Kuhn? Is there even a need for two, considering Kuhn averaged about a dozen snaps per game last season?
Wide receivers: The battle will be Jared Abbrederis against his knee. Assuming Jeff Janis and Ty Montgomery are the fourth and fifth receivers, can Abbrederis return to form and earn a roster spot after last year’s torn ACL?
Tight ends: Considering the interest in Jermaine Gresham, it’s possible there could be a new face added once some cuts are made around the league. Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless should hold down the fort. It will be up to first-year player Justin Perillo, sixth-round rookie Kennard Backman or undrafted free agents Mitchell Henry and Harold Spears to win the No. 3 role. Neither jumped to the forefront during the offseason — Perillo missed most of the practices with an undisclosed injury — but the in-the-pads blocking will be key.
Offensive line: The starting five are entrenched and Don Barclay and J.C. Tretter project as the top backups. Who will be the backup left tackle? Ideally, it would be Tretter. Otherwise, the Packers might have to turn to Bryan Bulaga switching to the left side and Tretter stepping in for Bulaga on the right side.
Defensive line: Never mind the suspensions to Letroy Guion (three games, for now) and Datone Jones (one game) for a moment. What will this unit look like when it’s at full strength? If there’s strength in numbers, this could be a powerhouse. The starters project to B.J. Raji, Mike Daniels and Guion. Jones (three starts) and Josh Boyd (four starts) received ample playing time last season. Mike Pennel and Bruce Gaston were on last year’s roster, Khyri Thornton was a third-round pick last year and Christian Ringo was a sixth-round pick this year. Undrafted rookie Lavon Hooks rounds out the group. That’s 10 players at a group that might keep six. A few good players are going to miss the cut.
Outside linebackers: Who starts opposite Julius Peppers? Matthews started six games at inside linebacker last season, with Nick Perry filling his spot four times and Mike Neal in the other two. Neal, however, played almost 300 more snaps than Perry last season. As coach Mike McCarthy would say, there are more than 11 starters. Perry and Neal will get plenty of playing time, regardless of who gets the first rep.
Inside linebackers: Matthews played inside linebacker for the final eight games but he wasn’t confined to that spot. So when Matthews gets his shot outside, who will join Sam Barrington as the inside tandem? The favorite is Jake Ryan, the fourth-round pick out of Michigan. At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he’s got the size the Packers desire. However, don’t rule out Joe Thomas as a run-and-hit counterpart to the hard-hitting Barrington.
Cornerbacks: If they’re healthy, there’s little doubt that Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde will be the starting trio in the nickel package. Who’s next? First-round pick Damarious Randall, who was sidelined for the start of the OTAs because of an ankle injury, played only on the outside during the offseason practices. Second-round pick Quinten Rollins played outside and in the slot. Given Hayward’s history in the slot, the Packers could move him outside if the best option is to put Rollins inside. The next battle will simply be to make the roster, with Demetri Goodson and Ladarius Gunter being the top challengers for perhaps one spot.
Safeties: Sean Richardson is being paid to be the No. 3. The Packers might go with only three because of Hyde’s versatility. If they keep four, it will be Chris Banjo against Jean Fanor. Banjo has 16 special-teams tackles in 22 career games — making him the favorite as the Packers start from scratch on special teams.
Special teams: The obvious battle is at punter, with incumbent Tim Masthay trying to hold off Cody Mandell. Masthay got into a rut during the second half of the season after setting and then beating the team’s net punt record in each of his first four seasons. Inconsistent would be a fitting description of both punters’ performances during the offseason. Rookie third-rounder Montgomery has a chance to return kickoff and punt returns, though Hyde has been tremendous on punt returns the past two seasons. For his career, Montgomery returned three punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns. Finding a kickoff returner will be key after the Packers finished 30th and 31st the past two seasons.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.