Offseason review: Stars and surprises

Publisher Bill Huber weighs in on the players who stood out — and those who didn't — during OTAs and minicamp.

Offseason practices wrapped up on Wednesday. Who were the MVPs? The big surprises? The disappointments?

Offensive MVP

Jermichael Finley: Finley was the biggest disappointment among last year's rookies but appears to have made the biggest strides during the offseason.

As the saying goes, children should be seen but not heard, but the 21-year-old rookie was heard more than seen for most of last season. He says he's learned his lessons, and that was apparent this spring with his ability to get open and his willingness to keep working when the quarterback scrambled from the pocket.

"He's got all the tools you could want: speed, athleticism, hands," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "Mentally, he's just got to understand what we're trying to do on offense and be in the right place and not make any mental mistakes. If he does that, you can't help but want to get him the ball."

Defensive MVP

Tramon Williams: Barely a day went by when the Packers' nickel cornerback wasn't a standout performer. Williams, who intercepted five passes last season and played well when thrust into the starting lineup for an injured Al Harris last season, doesn't look like a one-year wonder.

"We have this thing called the ‘play of the day' in my room, and he has way more than anybody else," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said at the end of minicamp. "He's been making plays, he's been playing at a high level. He's detailed at his position. His notes are outstanding. His understanding of the defense, he's taken it from the meeting room to the practice field and playing at a very high level. I just hope he can continue to grow and continue to play at this level."

Offensive surprises

Allen Barbre: Plenty has been written about Barbre over the last month. Barbre, who failed to mount a challenge to left guard Daryn Colledge last summer, was moved to right tackle this offseason in a bit of desperation. The Packers need bodies to compete to replace Mark Tauscher, and it was clear Barbre — a collegiate left tackle — was ill-equipped to play guard. At this point, it would be a huge surprise if he's not the Week 1 starter.

Kole Heckendorf and Brett Swain: In a crowded pool of receivers, Heckendorf and Swain have emerged as the top challengers to Ruvell Martin for the final roster spot at wide receiver. Both have caught everything thrown their way. Heckendorf, an undrafted rookie, has picked up the offense quickly. Swain barely looks like the same guy who struggled through training camp last summer.

Defensive surprises

Justin Harrell: Perhaps this is a back-handed compliment, but the only practices Harrell missed this offseason were because of illness. Who knows how his surgically repaired back will handle the rigors and violence of training camp, but at least there's a glimmer of hope for the first-round disappointment.

"Big kid. He's really smart," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "When it's a situation where there's more power blocking type stuff, I think he's going to be a load to move out of there. He's been able to stay relatively healthy in this deal. Hopefully, all the things that have happened to him in the past, he's over that."

B.J. Raji: A lot has been thrown at the No. 9 overall pick, who's expected to start at left end, provide depth at nose tackle and play defensive tackle when the Packers go to a four-man front on passing downs. He's digested everything with few hiccups.

"He's an exceptional athlete for a guy his size — quickness, hands," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "I've been impressed by how fast he picks things up. There's obviously a lot to learn, but he normally doesn't repeat errors twice. He's a bright guy, which to me is encouraging."

Offensive disappointment

Backup tight ends: The Packers are set with Donald Lee and Finley, but who will be the third tight end? Tory Humphrey handled the role last season and caught 11 passes, but of all the returning veterans on the roster, his job appeared the least secure. During offseason practices, neither Humphrey nor the other candidates — Evan Moore, Carson Butler, Devin Frischknecht and Spencer Havner — did much of anything to catch your attention. Considering these were noncontact drills and the quarterback never gets "sacked," someone should have taken advantage. It didn't help that the undrafted Butler missed some of OTAs and all of the minicamp with a leg injury. At this rate, the Packers' third tight end isn't on the roster.

Defensive disappointment

Former first-round picks: There's no reason to be digging under your couch cushions to find the panic button, much less push the thing, but A.J. Hawk and the aforementioned Harrell weren't exactly superstars on the practice field. Hawk, the fifth overall pick of the 2006 draft, recorded a team-high 121 tackles last season, but far too many were made 4 or 5 yards down the field. He made practically no impact plays, aside from two sacks in Week 2 against Detroit. And while it's good to see Harrell on the field, it would be nice to see higher hopes. Going back to Trgovac's quote earlier, it appears the Packers see Harrell as someone who will have a role against teams that like to run the ball. When the Packers worked on their nickel and dime defenses, Harrell was with the third team. You'd certainly expect more from the 16th pick of the 2007 draft.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and 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 twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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