Beyond the big battles: the defense

While the battle at safety will get the most attention, here are four players or matchups to watch during training camp.

Being the astute Packers fan that you are, you know the big battles that are looming during training camp.

While the focus will be on Vernand Morency vs. Brandon Jackson, Dave Rayner vs. Mason Crosby and the battles at safety, here are some other players and matchups worthy of your attention when training camp kicks off Saturday afternoon.

I started with the offense on Wednesday. Today, it's the defense.

Defensive tackle Justin Harrell

The first-round pick was a controversial choice, and not only because of the Packers' need for offensive playmakers. Harrell ruptured a tendon in his left biceps last season at Tennessee. The injury required surgery, and Harrell hasn't gone through contact drills since.

The Packers are optimistic Harrell will be healthy and ready to play this season, but medical experts say it takes more than a year for a player to regain his strength and stamina in the muscle. Then, there's the psychological question of whether Harrell will subconsciously try to protect the injury, at least for the short term.

Harrell should be ready for contact drills immediately, or at least very early in training camp. It will be interesting to see how he fairs against the likes of Scott Wells and Daryn Colledge.

No. 3 cornerback

The Packers are set for at least another with Al Harris and Charles Woodson as the starting cornerbacks. But, they need a dependable nickel corner. The Packers played with three cornerbacks on a bit more than half of their snaps last season, so the No. 3 corner is as much of a starter as the man he often replaces on passing downs, linebacker Brady Poppinga.

Will Blackmon probably is the most talented of the bunch, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. He played in only four games as a rookie last season, and missed a significant stretch of the offseason workouts.

Newcomer Frank Walker, the Packers' only significant free-agent addition, has a rather nondescript resume. Walker, who's entering his fifth NFL season, played in only 18 games the last two seasons with the Giants, with no passes defensed. He played in only 2 percent of the snaps in 2005 and 8 percent in 2006. He's fast though, and a big hitter, so perhaps a fresh start will bring out his potential.

Incumbent Patrick Dendy took over the job when the Packers abruptly released Ahmad Carroll early last season. Dendy picked off three passes and committed only one penalty, though he's a bit limited and at times was picked on. If nothing else, he's a decent fallback plan, and perhaps he'll be markedly better with a year of experience under his belt.

If the Packers are smart, they'll have those three taking turns against Donald Driver during camp. Let the best man win.

Defensive end Cullen Jenkins

It's simplistic to attribute the Packers' late-season revival to merely the insertion of Jenkins into the starting lineup. Then again, sometimes the truth just slaps you in the face.

During the Week 13 game at San Francisco, 49ers running back Al Gore ran around left end for 6 yards on their first play and around left end for 72 yards on the next play. Those were Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila's last snaps as the starting right defensive end.

Gore gained 78 yards on those plays. With Jenkins replacing KGB, though, Gore managed only 52 yards on his next 17 carries, for an average of 3.1 yards.

Take away the field goal the 49ers got on that opening drive, and the Packers' defense allowed only 39 points the rest of the season, including just 23 in Jenkins' three starts.

The Packers rewarded Jenkins with a four-year, $16 million contract, which included $6 million in guaranteed money. Is Jenkins really a full-time starter? Will the money extinguish some of his fire? Perhaps some of those spirited one-on-one drills in camp will provide answers.

Punter Jon Ryan

Special teams coordinator Mike Stock spent the offseason turning Ryan from a three-step punter into a two-stepper.

Not only will the change improve Ryan's get-off time, Stock thinks it will help Ryan's consistency and hang time. The former CFL star ranked ninth in the NFL in punting last season but only tied for 26th in net.

Ryan says he's been a three-step punter since he was 7. Can he adapt to the change — the same approach was tried with B.J. Sander, and he failed miserably — and hold off challenger David Lonie?

Steve Lawrence is a regular contributor to Send comments to

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