GREEN BAY, Wis. — Here are the five players who can help make the Green Bay Packers playoff contenders this season:
Aaron Rodgers, QB: Just turn on the film of Brett Hundley last season, and you’ll know why Rodgers is the most important player in the NFL. The Packers are built around the quarterback; coach Mike McCarthy has never shied away from that idea. If the quarterback can’t operate the offense the way it needs to be run, then the Packers have no chance. It’s nearly impossible to build a team with both a franchise quarterback and a dominant defense in the salary-cap era. The Packers have never had both during McCarthy’s tenure, and though efforts have been made to upgrade the other side of the ball, this is a quarterback-driven team.
Davante Adams, WR: Midway through last season, opposing defenses began to view Adams as the Packers’ No. 1 receiver. Now that Jordy Nelson is gone, there’s no doubt about that. Plus, the Packers are no longer deep at the position. Behind Adams and Randall Cobb are a slew of unproven receivers. Adams’ concussion history — he had two last season and another in 2016 — could be worrisome. But the Packers paid Adams like a top-tier receiver ($14.5 million per season), and their offense would take a huge hit without him.
David Bakhtiari, LT: Protecting Rodgers is of the utmost importance, and Bakhtiari is one of the league’s premier left tackles. A two-time, second-team All Pro, Bakhtiari’s absence was felt when he missed four straight games early last season because of a hamstring injury. With right tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) unlikely to be ready for the season opener, Bakhtiari’s presence this year could be even more important.
Clay Matthews, OLB: There’s even more pressure on Matthews — and fellow outside linebacker Nick Perry — this season, given that new GM Brian Gutekunst didn’t sign an outside pass-rusher in free agency and waited until the seventh round of the draft to pick one. Although Matthews’ sack totals have dropped — he hasn’t posted a double-digit sack season since 2014 — he’s still the player most opposing offenses have to game plan around given his versatility.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S: With the departure of Morgan Burnett, who signed with the Steelers in free agency, Clinton-Dix should become the captain of the secondary. Although his big plays dropped off last season — whose didn’t on the Packers’ scuffling defense? — he has the most big-play potential. He’s only a year removed from his five-interception, one-forced-fumble season of 2016. The former first-round pick also is in a contract year.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Tramon Williams isn’t expected to be around this week. As a 12th-year veteran, he’s more than met coach Mike McCarthy’s prerequisite to be excused from the Green Bay Packers’ mandatory minicamp.
And at age 35, Williams won’t be around the NFL forever. But his influence on the Packers’ defense and his seemingly ageless play make it seem like he will.
In his second go-around with the team that gave him his first real chance to play in 2007 as an undrafted cornerback, the measure of Williams’ impact won’t come only in the form of interceptions and pass breakups but also in the influence he’ll have over the Packers’ young cornerbacks — first- and second-round picks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, respectively, plus second-year pro Kevin King chief among them.
While Williams and other veterans with at least five years of experience are expected to be excused from minicamp as McCarthy has done in the past, the fruits of his impact on the others should be noticeable.
It was no wonder that none other than Aaron Rodgers turned a question about the Packers’ rookie corners into an answer about old No. 38.
“I said it walking off the field today, the biggest difference on the back end is 38,” Rodgers said last week of Williams. “When he showed back up here, he is as of right now, in my humble opinion, the best on that side of the ball, and you want your best players to be the best guys in the locker room, and there’s nobody better than Tramon.
“It’s great having him back. Those young guys, I would tell them and will tell them here at some point, watch the older guys because there’s a reason that guy’s been around as long as he has — undrafted, practice squad, one of the biggest players in our Super Bowl run and then he’s back here to finish it up. It’s really fun.”
So many things went wrong in the final minutes of the 2014 NFC Championship Game that it’s easy to forget how it actually ended, and who gave up the final play.
It was Williams, who was in coverage — all by himself because of a blitz call from defensive coordinator Dom Capers — against Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse on the Seahawks’ 35-yard game-winning touchdown in overtime.
It was Williams’ final play as a Packer. The Packers moved on and so did Williams, who signed with the Browns that offseason. He played two years in Cleveland and last season with the Cardinals before he returned to Green Bay this offseason on a two-year, $10 million deal.
“I feel like there’s unfinished business,” Williams said upon his return.
“To walk off the field on my last play as a Packer getting scored on to go to the Super Bowl, it was a tough way to end it. But God puts you in different situations. I ended up leaving and there was a reason why I left — for me to grow. I feel over these last three years, I’ve grown so much more than I would’ve probably ever done while I was here. Now it’s time for me to come back here and get things in order. I’m up for that challenge. I believe that we will be back in the big dance when it’s all said and done. I’m hoping that these guys are here with me, and we’re going to get it done.”
More than a mentor
Williams’ return is more than ceremonial; he wouldn’t be here if general manager Brian Gutekunst thought he was over the hill.
During OTA practices, Williams regularly manned one of the outside positions with the No. 1 defense and is a good bet to be one of the opening-day starters. If King’s recovery from shoulder surgery goes as expected, he could be the other. Alexander could be the leading candidate for the nickel spot and Jackson for the dime position.
But there’s a mentorship aspect in play, too.
Williams played in new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s system in Cleveland, making him and defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson (who played for Pettine with the Jets) expert teachers of the new scheme.
“It’s one thing me saying it, it’s another thing you have a guy in the room with you doing those things, doing the yoga, getting massages, doing the extra stretching, studying film a certain way,” Packers defensive passing-game coordinator Joe Whitt said recently in talking about Williams. “He does everything the proper way, so it’s just been great having him back. And then the three practices he’s gone, he’s been really, really good. He’s still really quick. He’s got his hands on a number of balls. I’ve been really pleased with the way he’s played.”
Williams claims he doesn’t know how much longer he will play, even though he says he gets that question “all the time.” Unlike one of his mentors, Al Harris, who’s now on the Chiefs coaching staff, Williams doesn’t think he’ll coach after his career is over. But he has no problem helping out while he plays.
“One of the things that I’ve told those guys already, when I came in here and I had the opportunity to see great guys play and learn from great guys,” Williams said. “I wasn’t really forced in. My number was called, and I was prepared because I got a chance to watch those guys. I got a chance to watch Charles [Woodson] and Nick [Collins] and those guys and build a relationship with them, even when I wasn’t playing. All of that factors in.
“We try to do a good job of team bonding all the time, whether it be going out to eat at night or whatever it may be. You have to be able to trust the next man on the field with you, and you want that to go further than just the field. That’s one thing that I always preach to the guys. There’s a reason why guys play for a long time. One thing I realize is that smart guys last in this league. Everybody is talented, but the smart guys last in this league. The faster you can get smart, the better you’ll do and the longer you’ll last.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. — When Ha Ha Clinton-Dix showed up for the start of the offseason program on April 17, there was no indication that his attendance — voluntary as it is — would be incomplete.
The former Pro Bowl safety, who like most players on the Green Bay Packers’ defense was coming off a disappointing season, sounded all-in with new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
As such, it came as something of a surprise when the offseason program turned to Phase 3 and Clinton-Dix was nowhere to be found. The first day of public and media access last month brought no questions about it. In the two days of open practices that followed in the ensuing weeks, more questions — but few answers — have emerged.
Finally on Monday, the start of the final week of OTAs, Packers coach Mike McCarthy offered this when asked about Clinton-Dix’s absence:
“There’s really no need to get into attendance,” McCarthy said. “We’re having a really good offseason. Ha Ha, just like a number of veterans, when we start the offseason program, we go through everybody’s individual schedule. Things do come up, so he’s had a personal situation that he’s attended to, so I have no concerns.”
Text messages to Clinton-Dix and messages left for his agent, Pat Dye Jr., have not been returned.
Next week could be telling as it relates to Clinton-Dix’s attendance. That’s when the Packers hold their only mandatory event of the offseason: the three-day minicamp that runs June 12-14. Even if McCarthy excuses some veterans, as he has in recent years, Clinton-Dix almost certainly won’t meet the requirements. In the past, McCarthy has let players with five years of NFL experience skip the camp. Clinton-Dix has four.
The former first-round pick is signed through the end of this season and would play this year under the fifth-year option on his rookie deal, at a salary of $5.957 million.
Still, Clinton-Dix’s absence could be, at least in part, contract-driven. He switched agents, moving to Dye, within the past year, presumably to help with a new deal once his rookie contract runs out. He no doubt would like a contract extension commensurate with those of the top safeties in the league. The sum of his rookie contract, including the option year, puts him 32nd among safeties in average salary per year, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Eric Berry of the Chiefs is the NFL’s highest-paid safety, at $13 million per season. Clinton-Dix is not among the players who have workout bonuses in their contracts, so he isn’t losing any money.
“I’m excited about the scheme and things that are going on inside of that [play]book,” Clinton-Dix said in April “It’s all smiles from me. I’m excited about it. I’m excited to work. I’m excited to be here.”
Clinton-Dix could be one of the most important players in Pettine’s plans, especially considering that the Packers let veteran safety Morgan Burnett leave in free agency to sign with the Steelers.
Clinton-Dix’s 2017 performance did not come close to the production he had in 2016, when he made his first Pro Bowl. But there were so many issues across the defense — all of which led to Dom Capers’ firing after nine seasons — that Clinton-Dix said he spent more time trying to prevent big plays than he did trying to make them.
“Last year, we had to do what was best for the team,” Clinton-Dix said in April. “I wasn’t involved in a lot, but like I said, last year was last year. I didn’t meet the standards I set for myself personally. If you ask a guy from a different team, three picks and 80 tackles with not being involved in the scheme, I think they would think they had a great year. But with a guy like me with the high expectations I set for myself, I expect more, and I expect more from myself this year. I have to work on a lot of things to get better at, and I’m excited about it.”
One current Packers player who has been in contact with Clinton-Dix expressed no concerns about his teammate’s absence. The teammate told ESPN that Clinton-Dix has been working on football and has been in regular contact with the team even though he hasn’t been at OTAs.
When asked if he is concerned about Clinton-Dix’s absence, defensive passing-game coordinator Joe Whitt said: “Not at all. It’s voluntary. So the guys that are here are the guys that we’re worried about.”