GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- The Packers are waiting for a tight end to emerge from a three-man competition with no guarantee anyone will in the club's effort to replace Jermichael Finley.
For the second straight offseason, Aaron Rodgers lost a primary target at wide receiver as James Jones departed via free agency for the Raiders.
But the Packers have Rodgers back, healthy and rested, and that alone makes them the favorite in the NFC North. They managed to win the division with an 8-7-1 record in 2013 despite Rodgers missing seven entire games and all but 2 minutes, 22 seconds of the first meeting with the Bears after a Shea McClellin sack resulted in a broken collarbone.
The Packers also have to sort out what they are going to do at center. J.C. Tretter, a fourth-round pick last year, hasn't played the position previously and is the likely candidate to be Rodgers' fourth center in four seasons. Andrew Quarless, Richard Rodgers and Brandon Bostick are in the mix at tight end. Maybe one of them mitigates the loss of the talented Finley to a serious neck injury. Jarrett Boykin, after catching 49 passes for 681 yards last season, is primed for more work with Jones gone.
Oh, by the way, Eddie Lacy was the NFL's offensive rookie of the year last season rushing for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns, giving coach Mike McCarthy's offense balance in previously lacked. The Packers were one of only three clubs to rank in the top 10 in passing (sixth) and rushing (seventh) joining the Eagles and Patriots.
Occasionally chided for eschewing the ground game, McCarthy said of the running game before 2013: "We'll be better, I promise you that. Big letters."
Lacy was actually more productive after Rodgers was injured when defenses were able to pay more attention to the second-round pick as the club shuffled between backup quarterbacks Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn.
An offense that in McCarthy's previous seven seasons had ranked no higher than 15th in rushing (averaged 21st) has dual threats and Lacy is joined by James Starks and DuJuan Harris, who was productive in late 2012 but suffered a torn ACL last August. The Packers ran the ball 44.6 percent of the time last season, 14th in the NFL. It was the first time they had ranked in the top half of the league under McCarthy, averaging 22nd before 2013.
Maybe it's not a surprise McCarthy has evolved with arguably the best quarterback in the NFL. Just look at his coaching tree. He spent his first six seasons in the league as an assistant under Marty Schottenheimer with the Chiefs. His earliest exposure to the pro game was growing up in the Greenfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh following Chuck Noll's Steelers. That's old school and what he has adapted from it is a sure way to take advantage of defenses showing the Packers a consistent look of two shell defenses with seven- and even six-man fronts intent on stopping the passing game.
"Trust me," McCarthy said reclining in a black leather chair inside Lambeau Field after Thursday's practice, "I am always aware of running the football. We start every game plan since I have been in coaching with the run game. Everything is built off the run game. Then, the protections, then the pass game.
"Just based on what is called in the game, particularly the way we play now with Aaron and our other quarterbacks, there are a lot of two-way plays or run/pass things. I may call 20 runs but we may end up 10 and 10 or vice versa. That is the way the game has evolved when you have smart players who are able to do things at the line of scrimmage to try to take advantage of what they see on defense."
One goal this summer is to get Lacy, who excelled against nickel defenses with zone and one-back power, prepared for a role on third down. The Packers have used fullback John Kuhn in that capacity. He was the one who cut defensive end Julius Peppers on Rodgers' game-winning touchdown pass to Randall Cobb in the Week 17 meeting at Soldier Field to end last season. If Lacy masters pass protection assignments, he allows the offense to be more up-tempo.
"We have done a lot of subbing over the years, tried to get personnel exactly right," Rodgers said. "Have a first down and second down back and then a third down back comes in. We've tried a lot of guys over the years.
"We'd like guys to be able to go three plays in a row before subbing so we have been trying to get Eddie and James more touches in the third down package."
Then there is the line that Rodgers believes can be the best in the 10 years he has been there. That's saying something because even as their careers advanced, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher provided the Packers with solid book-end tackles.
We might have the best guard in the league in Josh (Sitton) and (guard T.J. Lang) is a really talented guy as well. We have a stud at left tackle (David Bakhtiari) and we have two guys who can play right tackle.
"I think the running game evolves even more. It can really be an asset."
Lacy has referred jokingly to himself as "Moss," as in Randy, touting his ability to catch the football but there is no shortage of targets in the passing game.
"Ultimately, running again this season will make it hard for the defense to stop A-Rod," Lacy said. "It is going to be tough for defenders but I don't know too many defenses that will give our quarterback eight-man fronts."
Questions exist for the Packers, like everyone else, but they came up with a new answer last season.
(c)2014 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services