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World’s Best Packers Preview: Legacies on the Line

Our supersized preview leads with the Super Bowl and what another title would mean for the legacies of key members of the Packers. Also, yes, the Packers' offensive line hit a pothole. So, too, has the Jaguars' line. Plus, we take a deep look inside the Jaguars and focus on the running games, the tight ends, the Packers' "other" injured receivers and much, much more.

Statistics and Pro Bowls build careers.

Super Bowls build legacies.

And nothing short of that is at stake this season for the Green Bay Packers.

As long as Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback, the Packers will be a Super Bowl contender. So, the window of opportunity for this team might not be truly closed until No. 12 walks off the field for the last time in 2020-something. Nonetheless, the window of opportunity might never be so open as it is for this season.

This is a Super Bowl-caliber team. Again. Rodgers is on top of his game. Jordy Nelson is back and Jared Cook is here. Those two should give Randall Cobb the breathing room he lacked last year and should mean a rejuvenated Eddie Lacy won’t be running into loaded boxes again. Defensively, the Packers might have the best combination of pass rushers and perimeter playmakers this side of Denver. If they’re not crippled by injuries, this team could be a juggernaut once the calendar turns to December and January.

However, who knows what this team will look like next year. Starting offensive linemen David Bakhtiari, T.J. Lang and J.C. Tretter will be free agents, as will Lacy, Cook, outside linebackers Julius Peppers, Nick Perry and Datone Jones and jack-of-all trades defensive back Micah Hyde. The Packers don’t have the cap space to keep all of them.

That makes this a critical season for the Packers. And for some people who are authoring their legacies.

That starts with Rodgers. His two MVPs and statistical dominance make him a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Nonetheless, of the 50 Super Bowl champions, only 12 quarterbacks have won multiple titles. And the history of the NFL can’t be written without mentioning Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady, who have won four, Troy Aikman, who won three, and Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Roger Staubach, John Elway, Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning, who won two. (The lone non-elite quarterbacks to win two are Jim Plunkett and Eli Manning.) That’s the kind of best-of-the-best status that awaits Rodgers if he can add another championship as he enters the back nine of his career.

There is an obvious parallel between the Rodgers-led Packers and the Favre-led teams of the 1990s in that the rosters aren’t/weren’t loaded with Hall of Fame-worthy players. In fact, for today’s team, the only obvious Hall of Famers are Rodgers and Peppers. The only Hall of Famers on those Packers juggernauts from two decades ago were Favre and Reggie White.

In that context, Peppers is sort of the equivalent of White. White, obviously, won a Super Bowl but he would have been a Hall of Famer with or without the ring. Peppers, who ranks No. 1 among active players in sacks, should move into the top five all-time in that category this season. He’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer, too. The only thing left for him to accomplish is to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

“That’s why we play,” Peppers said. “To me, it would mean a lot. I know to this organization, to the guys in here, it would mean just as much. That’s why we do it. As far as any personal legacy or anything like that, I feel like it would be the icing on the cake. But I don’t want to think about what it would be without it because my mind is set on getting it this year. You compete and you put everything into it to try to get to your goal, and if you don’t get it and you did the best you can do, you’re pleased with that. But, obviously, the ultimate goal is the Super Bowl. It would mean everything to get it this year.”

If Favre and those Packers would have won Super Bowl XXXII, would LeRoy Butler be in the Hall of Fame? Butler was an elite safety and the third-best player on those teams behind Favre and White. But to date, he’s been nothing more than a fringe candidate who can’t get past the first round of balloting.

If there’s a potential comparable to Butler, it’s Clay Matthews. Butler, a four-time All-Pro in his 12 seasons, was a force in terms of productivity and versatility. Those traits also define Matthews, a one-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler in his first seven seasons. Butler seems destined to be forever locked out of Canton. Matthews’ fate has yet to be decided.

“I think, especially this year, having watched the Hall of Fame induction ceremony — which was something that I had never done before, with my former coach (Kevin Greene) going in and everybody wanting to see how far Favre’s speech would go — it inspires you a little bit,” Matthews said. “At the same time, it’s not something I think about week in, week out. That’s something for much later down the road. You look at those guys that were able to achieve greatness, you have to be able sustain a level of success for many, many years. I stick to the plan that’s allowed me to have some success in this league these past seven years. Hopefully, I can walk away from the game having zero regrets about how I played and the impact I had, and hopefully the respect you get from your peers and former players, coaches and all that goes along with it.”

Greene said at the Hall of Fame Roundtable last month that Matthews is a current player who is destined for enshrinement. A second Super Bowl would bolster that resume.

“You’re right,” Matthews said, “anyone can win one Super Bowl. To win multiple Super Bowls is very difficult. It means a great deal for your legacy, not just on a personal level but the city, the community. It’s obviously what you strive for. We’ve been on the precipice of getting back. We’ve been so close. Hopefully, we can make those plays that will allow us to take that next step. But, yeah, absolutely, you look at some guys who aren’t in, if they win two, then maybe. But I still view myself as not really a veteran but kind of young. I still feel good. I don’t feel like I’m on my way out. I feel like I have plenty more football to play.”

Like Matthews, coach Mike McCarthy has time to expand upon his resume. With a 104-55-1 record, he is one of 38 coaches in NFL history with 100 wins. Of that group, his .653 winning percentage ranks an impressive seventh. Mike Holmgren, who coached the Packers for seven seasons, fell short of the semifinal round of Hall of Fame voting last year but is seen as a solid candidate. He concluded his 17-year career with a 15th-ranked 161 wins, a .592 winning percentage, three conference championships and one Super Bowl.
Could McCarthy, with a second championship, join that conversation?

“I really think those are questions for when guys get to the end,” McCarthy said. “So, hopefully, God willing, that’s not a question I need to answer for a long time.”

Is it something he’s considered on some quiet offseason day at home?

“You ever been to my house?” McCarthy said. “I’m a lot busier at home than I am at work, I’ll just tell you that.”

Then there’s general manager Ted Thompson. Could he join his mentor, Ron Wolf, in the Hall of Fame? Thompson went from scout to director of pro personnel to director of player personnel under Wolf in the 1990s and helped build the Seattle team that played in Super Bowl XL. In his return to Green Bay, he has constructed a perennial powerhouse. The Packers and Patriots are the only teams with seven consecutive playoff berths. If there’s one person affiliated with this team that a second Super Bowl win could make all the difference, it’s the understated Thompson.

“It’d be nice to be considered but I’ve never thought about it,” Thompson said. “I’m not trying to do this ‘aw shucks’ thing. Those are for people like Brett Favre, you know?”

It also could be for general managers like Thompson. Since taking over in 2005, the Packers rank fourth with 108 wins. Since 2009, only New England’s 85 wins are more than Green Bay’s 77.

A second Super Bowl ring could make all the difference for his candidacy.

“I think about winning another one. That would be special,” Thompson said. “If you ask anybody in the NFL what your wish is, it would be to win this upcoming Super Bowl. That’s what all of the people in my business probably say and it’s certainly what I would say. That’s what I’d like to do.”

“(Legacies) will come with it,” he continued. “The organizational joy and sense of accomplishment that comes with winning a championship is remarkable. It’s something that all of us, those of us that have been fortunate to touch and feel and be a part of, would like nothing better than to do it again. But, yeah, if all of that other stuff came with it, that’d be OK, too.”

FINE LINES OR FINE MESSES?

The best offensive lines aren’t about five linemen. They’re about five linemen working as one. Every offensive line coach who’s ever walked the Earth has said something along those lines.

Well, forget that for Sunday’s game.

The Packers, of course, dumped Josh Sitton on Cutdown Saturday. Lane Taylor, a fourth-year pro with two career starts, will attempt to fill the two-time All-Pro’s shoes, even though Sitton took the vast majority of first-team reps throughout training camp. Nonetheless, offensive line coach James Campen swears Taylor will be ready for the challenge, thanks to a demanding training camp.

“There’s a lot of good football players on this team,” Campen said. “Those reps are high speed. We train at a very high speed in practice. So, very confident that that chemistry will be there. But he has seen everything. He’s been educated to see everything. These guys that are not playing are trained to be starters. I’ve said it a lot of times here and I truly believe it and they believe it, that’s there’s a job requirement for each five positions on that line. And when your time is up, you’re required to fill that job requirement. There’s a job requirement for left guard, same as there is for right tackle. Whoever is fortunate enough and wins that spot to be in that position, they’re expected to win. We expect all five to win. It’s a tribute to Lane. He’s worked very, very hard for this opportunity and I’m expecting him to take full advantage of it.”

In his two starts last year, Taylor allowed a half-sack and was not penalized. He didn’t, however, use those performances as a springboard to a strong training camp or preseason.

The concern isn't so much Taylor, however. It's the impact on the unit.

"The offensive line is important," Rodgers said. "It’s important to have a unit that’s cohesive and can play together for a long time. The best lines that we’ve had, it’s not always the most talented lines, but the lines that can play together for extended periods of times and avoid those injuries. So, we’re going to need those guys upfront to find a way to stay healthy and then learn to play … you know, Dave (Bakhtiari) learn to play with Lane and Lane learn to play with J.C. (Tretter) and get on the same page as quickly as possible. They’ve taken a lot of reps together in walk-throughs and in the games, so I’m not worried about Lane at all."

Campen made it clear that his unit will be just fine.

“Certainly,” he said, “this offensive line will be ready to go play Jacksonville. It will be ready.”

It’s a similar story for the Jaguars. Kelvin Beachum, who started 33 games at Pittsburgh the last three seasons, was signed by the Jaguars to play left tackle. And he will on Sunday, though he played just one quarter of the Jaguars’ third preseason game. He’ll replace Luke Joeckel, the second overall pick of the 2013 draft. After bombing in 30 starts at left tackle in 2014 and 2015, when he allowed a whopping 16 sacks and was flagged nine times for holding, he’s moved over to left guard.

That lack of continuity is not ideal, though Bortles swears he’s “excited” by the new-look line. Perhaps that excitement stems from knowing Beachum can’t possibly be worse than Joeckel.

“At the end of the day, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Bortles said. “You can let it worry you and bother you and have a feeling that you’re going to get hit in the back of the head, or you can just ignore it and have trust in that guy that he’s going to get his job done and you’ll have a pocket to throw from.”

As an aside, how much money is Bakhtiari, the Packers' left tackle, going to receive, either with an in-season extension from the Packers or a contract from another team next offseason? In 2013 and 2014, Beachum allowed a total of 15 sacks. Last year, he allowed four sacks in six games before going down with a torn ACL. That resume netted him a five-year, $45 million contract.

INSIDE THE JAGUARS

— Jacksonville hasn’t had a winning record since 2007 and has five consecutive seasons of 11-plus losses.

The Class of 2014 could be this downtrodden franchise’s salvation.

Bortles went in the first round and ranked No. 56 in the NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players of 2016” list. USC receiver Marquise Lee went early in the second round, and the Jags maneuvered back into the bottom of the second round to get another receiver, Penn State’s Allen Robinson. While Lee has been a disappointment, Robinson ranked No. 31 in the “Top 100.”

Miami (Ohio) guard Brandon Linder went in the third round. He’ll start at center on Sunday. Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin, who had four sacks last season, was selected in the fourth round. He’s suspended to start the season. Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith, the only player in the league with at least six tackles in all 16 games last season, went in the fifth round. At 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, he’s undersized but ranked No. 83 in the “Top 100.” Miami (Fla.) receiver Allen Hurns went undrafted but ranked No. 89 in the “Top 100.”
That’s five starters, including four standouts, from one draft.

“We’re excited about it,” Bortles said. “Everybody’s really going into their third or fourth year, so we’re growing up a little bit. We’re in the same offensive system, which is good. It gives us that continuity and chemistry and consistency. We look forward to playing Green Bay Week 1 and the test that they present.”

— Bortles threw for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns last season. Beyond those glittering numbers, Bortles joined Daunte Culpepper and Steve Young as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 4,000 passing yards, 35 passing touchdowns and 300 rushing yards in a season. Plus, Bortles, Kurt Warner and Dan Marino are the only second-year quarterbacks with 4,000-plus passing yards and 35-plus passing touchdowns.

"I think he's very talented,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “The arrow is pointing up. Anytime you put up the statistics that he put up a year ago, you can see that he's a talented athlete that's an ascending player.”

— It helps that Bortles is surrounded by an excellent group of targets, with Robinson, Hurns, Lee and Rashard Greene at receiver and Julius Thomas at tight end. Robinson is the star of the group, though. He caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards and a league-high-tying 14 touchdowns last season. Among players with at least 60 catches, his 17.5 yards average led the NFL.

Bortles has supreme trust  in Robinson and doesn’t think twice about giving him an opportunity, no matter how tight the coverage.

“I would never consider Allen Robinson a 50-50 ball and it getting intercepted a bad decision,” he said. “I’ll give him that opportunity 10 times out of 10.”

Impressively, Robinson’s 12 red-zone touchdowns were the second-most for any player since 2001.

“He's an outstanding football player,” Capers said. “He's very good at the point of the catch. A lot of times you'll see him go up and win

the battle with the ball. And they've got a lot of confidence in him, which, when you watch the tape, you understand why. He's an excellent receiver that's had big-play production for them.”

— Bradley knows what a quality secondary looks like. After all, before becoming Jacksonville’s coach, he was Seattle’s defensive coordinator. The Jaguars — on paper, anyway — have built a formidable secondary that should test Rodgers and the high-flying Packers attack.

Last offseason, they signed Davon House away from the Packers. In his first season as a full-time starter, he intercepted a career-high four passes and ranked third in the NFL with 23 passes defensed. This offseason, they signed Amukamara and drafted Ramsey. At cornerback, Gipson joins hard-hitting Jonathan Cyprien.

“We’re getting some length on the perimeter with Jalen and House,” Bradley said. “Those guys have length. For our style and what we ask them to do, that’s a good quality to have. And Prince has been a good acquisition, as well. I think he fits in well with what we’re asking of those guys. And then the safeties – Tashaun Gipson was a good free-agent pickup. He’s a guy that has experience back there, has been a strong leader for us just in the short time that he’s been here. And Johnathan Cyprien has been in the system for a couple of years now. He’s understanding it, but what we’re understanding him better and trying to put him in position of his strengths.”

JACKSONVILLE’S DEFENSIVE FACELIFT

Considering Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley’s previous gig was defensive coordinator for the Seahawks, there’s only one word to describe the Jaguars’ defense of last season.
Brutal.

They ranked 31st in points allowed, 29th against the pass, 31st on third down and 25th in the red zone. There’s more, but you get the point.

To provide a defense worthy of pairing with the league’s seventh-ranked scoring offense, the Jaguars opened the vault.

Defensive tackle Malik Jackson was signed away from Denver for a six-year, $85.5 million contract that included $42 million guaranteed. In his last three seasons, he had 14 sacks and ranked third among defensive tackles with 13 passes defensed.

Safety Tashaun Gipson was signed away from Cleveland with a five-year, $36 million contract that included $12 million guaranteed. From 2013 through 2015, Gipson ranked fourth in the league with 13 interceptions.

Cornerback Prince Amukamara signed a one-year deal worth $5.5 million to leave the Giants. He started 45 games, intercepted seven passes and added 43 passes defensed in his first five seasons.

The improvement continued in the draft. Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, the third pick of the draft, already is the Jaguars’ top cornerback. In the second round, they moved up a couple spots to take UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, who might have been a top-five pick if not for a knee injury that could leave him in a limited role on Sunday. In the third round, they added Maryland pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue. In the fourth round, they picked Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day. They added one more blue-chip prospect with the return of last year’s first-round pick, defensive end Dante Fowler, who missed his rookie season with a torn ACL.

That’s eight new faces, with Fowler, Jackson, Amukamara, Gipson and Ramsey starters in the nickel package that will line up against the Packers for most of Sunday’s game.

“They have a lot of top picks playing on that defense,” Rodgers said. “They’ve done a good job of continuing to add to the mix. Very stout front. They brought in Malik, who I train with in the offseason. He’s a great player and had a great year last year with Denver. Draft a young corner (Ramsey) to go with two solid corners already in the mix. Brought in Gipson from Cleveland. They’re already solid at linebacker and added Jack, who many believe is a first-round talent had he not been hurt. So, it’s a very good defense, very well coached. I have a lot of respect for Coach Bradley and the job he’s done and the improvement.”

The challenge for Bradley has been to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

“It’s always a challenge when you bring in free agents and draft picks, and you mesh them in with some veteran players that you have,” Bradley said during a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday. “But I’ve been really pleased with how fast they’ve matured together and how well they’re playing together as a group. You base it off of practice, and the limited production they’ve had in preseason games.”

It might not mean much — or maybe it means everything — but the Jaguars allowed seven points in the first quarters of the four preseason games. Facing Rodgers and Co., who should have one of the best offenses in the NFL, will provide a great measuring stick.

“I think this is the next step for us,” Bradley said. “We need this challenge. Talent-wise, skill-set-wise, very pleased with that, but it still needs to come together as a far as playing well as a unit, and that trust is so important. That trust is building and it’s building at a rapid pace. I think that’s why we’re excited, but it’ll be tested this weekend.”

HISTORY LESSONS

— It’s going to be hot — really hot — in Jacksonville, with a predicted high of 92 and a “RealFeel” temperature of 103, according to Accuweather.com’s midday Friday forecast. Barring an unforeseen cold front, that would make this the third-hottest game in franchise history, behind 102 at San Diego in 1978 and 102 at Arizona in 2003. That’s made the weather a, ahem, hot topic. But an overblown topic?

“No, it’s not overblown,” said defensive tackle Christian Ringo, a native of Jackson, Miss., who played collegiately at Louisiana-Lafayette. “The heat is something real.”

McCarthy tried his best to spin the weather into a nonfactor, pointing out that it was only 6 degrees warmer in Jacksonville on a daily basis for training camp compared to Green Bay. Still, 92 and humid is miserable and it has to be an advantage for the Jaguars.

“I’ve never lived outside the state of Florida and every year I talk about how hot it gets,” Bortles said. “It’s not something you get used to. I don’t know if it’ll have any affect. It may have some, it may have none. It definitely won’t affect us. We’ll be ready to go.”

— The Packers lead the series 3-2, including a 24-15 victory at Lambeau Field in 2012. In that game, House — then with the Packers — blocked a punt that Dezman Moses recovered for a touchdown.

Under McCarthy, the Packers are 6-4 in openers, including 2-2 on the road. This marks the fourth consecutive season in which the Packers started on the road, with losses to San Francisco (2013) and Seattle (2014) and a win at Chicago (2015). The Jaguars have lost four consecutive openers, including at home to Carolina last year.

— While the Packers are 1-3 in their last four openers, they’ve been one of the hot-starting teams in the league. During McCarthy’s tenure, the Packers are 22-12 in September, with that win total trailing only New England (24) and Denver (23). Rodgers’ September passer rating of 104.8 trails only Peyton Manning among quarterbacks who threw at least 100 passes in September since 2008.

“I don’t know if there’s a recipe for it but I think it’s always a combination of things for your football team,” McCarthy said. A healthy training camp is probably the most important.”

The Packers emerged from camp healthy. While key special-teams performers Jeff Janis, Chris Banjo and Jayrone Elliott might be sidelined, the only projected starter on offense or defense who is sidelined by injury is center Corey Linsley.

— Capers spent in the 1999 and 2000 seasons as Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator. In that first season, the Jaguars yielded a league-low 217 points en route to a 14-2 record. After the 2000 season, Capers moved onto Houston to be the Texans’ first head coach.

“A lot of years have passed by since I was there,” he said. “It'll be like any other away game, quite frankly.”

NOTEWORTHY NUMBERS

— Much of the receiver spotlight has been on Nelson, and for good reason. However, Nelson’s not the only receiver coming off an injury, with injuries to Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery either slowing or taking away two of the team’s most versatile weapons.

“Those are guys you want to get the football to,” McCarthy said.

Cobb played most, if not all, of last season with an injured shoulder that sapped him of his upper-body strength. While Nelson’s absence played a role, the injury has to be at least somewhat to blame for Cobb’s production tumbling by 12 catches, 458 yards, 3.6 yards per catch, 1.12 YAC per catch and six touchdowns.

Montgomery’s season-ending ankle injury turned out to be a big loss, too. In the first six games, Montgomery caught 15 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns. Moreover, the team went 6-0 and averaged 27.3 points per game. Without him for the final 10 games, the team went 4-6 and averaged 20.4 points per game.

“Across the board, health is a huge key,” Nelson said. “I think if you look at teams that are successful throughout the year, they’re healthy. I think we were an anomaly when we won the Super Bowl with 15 guys or whatever it was on IR. You’ve got to have guys healthy. Getting those guys back is what you want. Ty started off great until he had his injury. Randall started the season with his and it was a constant battle. A lot of people don’t understand that maybe you’re ‘healthy’ to play every game but it can be a battle week in and week out.”

— Rodgers and Bortles have different styles. For Rodgers, it’s his cool, ruthless efficiency. Rodgers is the NFL’s all-time leader with a 1.61 percent interception rate. Tom Brady is next at 1.93 percent. If Rodgers opened Sunday’s game with 13 consecutive interceptions, he’d still be ahead of Brady.

“Last year, I think Aaron threw eight interceptions only,” defensive coordinator Todd Wash told reporters in Jacksonville. “We were just in there looking at some stuff today and he threw one when I was in there so I got excited about that. He makes good decisions. His receivers, if he doesn’t make a good decision, his receivers do a nice job of turning into DBs so they are not interceptions, For us, obviously we have to pressure him and keep him in the pocket, but try to make him make some bad decisions.”

Bortles, on the other hand, threw 18 interceptions last season — one off Peyton Manning for most in the league. By contrast, Rodgers threw 19 over the past three seasons combined. He’s a risk-taker who doesn’t hesitate to give his receivers a chance to make on the play. That’s not a winning recipe against the Packers, who have 148 interceptions since Capers took over as defensive coordinator in 2009. That’s 17 more than any other team.

“Probably just quit throwing the ball to the other team so much,” Bortles said of the next step of his career. “I think if I can eliminate that and I did a lot of stuff this offseason to try to help that out, whether it was mechanical stuff to be a more accurate passer or mental stuff to make faster, better decisions. Hopefully, I can help us out on that side of things and not turn the ball over so much.”

— The Jaguars have a couple of underrated linebackers.

Paul Posluszny and Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David were the only linebackers in the NFL last season with at least 125 tackles and three interceptions, with Posluszny recording 133 tackles and three thefts. Since 2007, Posluszny is one of only three defenders with 12-plus sacks and 12-plus interceptions, with 13 sacks and 14 picks.

Telvin Smith, a member of NFL Network’s “Top 100” team, led all players age 25-and-younger with 128 tackles and 99 solo stops last season. A fifth-round pick in 2014, Smith is one of six players with 200-plus tackles and multiple forced fumbles, fumble recoveries and interceptions over the past two seasons.

— Green Bay has qualified for the playoffs in each of the past seven seasons, tied with New England for the longest active streak. However, its five-year run atop the NFC North was snapped by last year’s regular-season-ending loss to Minnesota.

“I don’t want to be flippant about it,” McCarthy said. “Division titles are important, but I don’t lose any sleep over it because we have a bigger goal. We don’t hang division-title banners around here. Frankly, once you cross the threshold into the playoffs, it’s about getting to the final game and winning, and I want everybody to think that way. I want everybody to behave that way and train that way, and inspire for that to be. Now ultimately how do you measure success. This is a successful football program on anybody’s standards.”

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— The Packers are Jaguars are living the good life at tight end. For Jacksonville, it’s big-play threat Julius Thomas and nitty-gritty Marcedes Lewis. For Green Bay, it’s Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers. Cook and Thomas are the headliners.

Cook, who the Packers signed have he was released by the Rams, looks like a potentially dominant force and Pro Bowl player. The one knock on Cook was his penchant for dropping passes — 15 in the past three seasons, according to STATS — but he didn’t drop any in training camp or the preseason, by our observation.

“You get spoiled if you see it once and you’re like, ‘Well, why can’t we get it all the time?’ That’s why you coach and that’s why you play and you practice,” tight ends coach Brian Angelichio said. “You practice to perform and to master the details and the techniques it takes to do those things that these players can do. But certainly you get excited when you see some things that I like to say when the players can overcome coaching and just do the things that you’re like, ‘Wow, OK, I gotcha.’ So yeah, you definitely get excited."

Over the past three seasons, Thomas leads all tight ends with 29 touchdowns. Most of that production came in Denver, with back-to-back seasons of 12 touchdowns, before being limited to 46 receptions for 455 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games last season. At 6-foot-5, the former record-setting basketball player at Portland State is one big, athletic challenge.

“Really, anywhere on the field he’s a matchup nightmare,” Bortles said. “I think there’ll definitely be stuff that we have for him, really every single category: third down, red zone, base, all that. There’ll be plays where we’re trying to get him the ball and get him involved because he’s an extremely good player and a playmaker.”

— On one side of the ball, it’s Green Bay’s running game against Jacksonville’s run defense. Running the ball was one of McCarthy’s preseason focal points, and Lacy had a big preseason with 20 carries for 114 yards. Who knows how much weight he’s actually lost but he certainly looks more explosive than he did last season.

“I wasn’t here last year but just in having an opportunity to be around some pretty good running backs in my short time coaching in the NFL and based on how he looks, his fitness level and how he’s been practicing, I would say that he’s definitely ready to go,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said.

Taking away Lacy and James Starks will be the priority for the Jaguars.

“I think McCarthy wants to run the football,” Wash said. “If you look at the past success he has had, if he runs the ball over 20 times a game, 25 times a game, their percentage of wins is up. We are built to stop the run. We look forward to the challenge with our guys up front and with our linebackers. With Lacy, you better have a tackling plan. He is a big man. As a matter of a fact, I think he is bigger than some of the defensive ends we are going to have playing. He is physical, he is a downhill type of guy and their running scheme matches his style. Then obviously when Starks gets in, he is a good mix up. They have done a great job of getting him in space and working Lacy downhill. It is going to be a heck of a challenge for us.”

— On the other side of the ball, stopping Jacksonville’s running game will be the priority for the Packers. And the biggest challenge. The starting defensive tackle tandem of Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion is a strength to the team. But the depth couldn’t be any less raw. At this time last year, first-round pick Kenny Clark was at UCLA, fourth-round pick Dean Lowry was at Northwestern and 2015 sixth-round pick Ringo was on the practice squad. None of the three have played an NFL regular-season snap.

Ready or not, they’ll be playing on Sunday. If they aren’t up to the task, it could be a long day under the blazing Jacksonville sun.

“It’s going to be important to stay fresh,” Lowry said. “I think we’re ready to go in and contribute. It’s what we’ve been working toward the whole offseason and camp. To contribute as a rookie is a pretty special feeling.”

Added Ringo: “It’s definitely important. They need us rookies to play. We have a lot of grit, we have a lot of energy. We should be ready to pick up the load just fine.”

Like the Packers, the Jaguars have an excellent one-two punch. As a rookie, T.J. Yeldon rushed for 740 yards and added 36 receptions in 12 games. In free agency, they added Chris Ivory. He ranked fifth in the NFL with 1,070 rushing yards last season. They are a pair of 225-pound thumpers who will test not only the Packers’ defensive line but the young starting inside linebacker tandem of Jake Ryan and rookie Blake Martinez.

“Those two, it’s our hope that they become a good one-two punch,” Bradley said. “ Chris Ivory brings that mentality, that toughness. Very physical runner, very violent runner. He’s brought that with him, just like we anticipated when we signed him as a free agent.”

— Once upon a time, the NFL played the role of Robin Hood. You know, steal from the rich and give to the poor. That was the thinking behind the salary cap. Good teams would be torn apart and bad teams would rise. So, just look at how these teams handled free agency.
The Jaguars spent a league-high $220.8 million on free agents, led by Jackson’s six-year, $85.5 million contract. Jackson, Beachum, Gipson and Ivory all signed contracts worth at least $32 million. The Packers, on the other hand, ranked 29th with $15.3 million in free-agent spending.

“The only conversation that I’ve ever had in regards to how you build a roster with Ted is his philosophy about mortgaging the future for one (run at a championship),” McCarthy said. “That’s not in his DNA. Frankly, there’s no guarantee, either, if you go out and sign a bunch of high-priced free agents. I think history would tell you that that process has failed a lot more than it’s worked.”

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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