NFC North: Dom Capers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Since 2010, when Julius Peppers arrived in Chicago, only two NFC North players have more sacks than him.

Peppers
Matthews
One of them is now his teammate.

That means the Green Bay Packers -- with the addition of Peppers -- have two of the top-three pass rushers in the division. Since Peppers' first season in the division, only Jared Allen, who left the Minnesota Vikings to sign with the Chicago Bears in free agency this offseason, has more sacks among NFC North players than Clay Matthews and his new teammate, Peppers (see accompanying chart).

The partnership between Matthews and Peppers should be mutually beneficial.

From Matthews' standpoint, he believes it will mean fewer double teams.

"This guy's (6-foot-7), 290 (pounds); I'm 6-4 on a good day and 255," Matthews said during a recent interview with USA Today. "They're going to double the big guy, and that leaves plenty of opportunities for me. I haven't had too many one-on-one opportunities, and when you do, you're expected to win -- at least in our locker room -- the majority of the time, because that's supposed to be a mismatch."

Matthews expects to be fully recovered from his second thumb injury -- the two of which kept him out of six games last season (including the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers).

With Peppers and Matthews, the possibilities for defensive coordinator Dom Capers are many. He could line them up on the same side of the formation, forcing a guard or tight end to block one of them. He could separate them, leaving a dominant pass-rusher on each side. Or he could rush one or both of them from the inside.

"I'm excited about it," Matthews said. "Most people are curious as to how they're going to use him in a 3-4 scheme, but I don't think it matters. I think you line him up on the field in a zero-, one-, three-, five-, seven-, nine-technique -- he's going to get attention, and he's going to get double teams. It's going to create opportunities for one of us on the field to have our one-on-one matchups, and that's where that person needs to win."

Even if Peppers can only repeat his performance from last season, when he posted seven sacks, that would be more than any Packers' defensive lineman posted last season. Mike Daniels was tops with 6.5 sacks.

The Packers want to expand Daniels’ role this season and also hope to get more production from B.J. Raji, who will move back to nose tackle. They also plan to use Nick Perry and Mike Neal the same way they will use Peppers -- as a multi-position player they are calling the elephant spot.

"I think he's going to give teams a lot of trouble, especially with Clay, Nick Perry, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels," Packers cornerback Jarrett Bush said this week. "Within also the D-line, they can't just double Clay anymore, so he's going to wreak havoc over there. I played with him in Carolina before I came here to the Packers, so I got to see his ability over there in Carolina. He's definitely a force to be reckoned with. I think with Clay and the whole gang, I think we'll be a championship caliber team."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Pick after pick crawled across the bottom of television screens last April 25, 26 and 27 and those wondering when the Green Bay Packers would draft a safety got their answer when the 254th -- and final -- pick in the 2013 NFL draft was announced.

Three safeties went in the first round, but none to the Packers.

Two more came off the board in Round 2, but neither was a Packers pick.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisHa Ha Clinton-Dix may be available to the Packers when they draft in the first round.
Seventeen more were drafted on the third and final day, yet the Packers still had not filled one of their biggest needs.

That's not to say they went into last year's draft wholly convinced that they didn't need help at the position. But when it came time to exercise each of his selections, there wasn't a safety sitting there that intrigued general manager Ted Thompson enough to make that call.

Thompson liked a few of the safeties in the draft, but the ones he was sold on were either already off the board or would have been a reach at the time of his pick.

So here are the Packers, nearly a year later, and Thompson still has not put pen to paper on a contract for a new safety of any consequence. (And no, street free agent Chris Banjo does not count.)

That has to change next month, when Thompson will take nine selections into the May 8-10 NFL draft, doesn't it?

If Thompson fails to land one of the top, say, five or six safeties in this draft -- be it Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama or Calvin Pryor of Louisville, both of who are locks to go in the first round; or possible second- and third-round picks like Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois, Deone Bucannon of Washington State or Terrence Brooks of Florida State -- then he will be handcuffing defensive coordinator Dom Capers in much the same fashion he did last season.

Last summer, Capers and coach Mike McCarthy opened the competition at free safety to a pair of second-year players, Jerron McMillian (a 2012 fourth-round round pick) and M.D. Jennings (an undrafted free agent the same year). It was a close competition, more so because neither one stood out, and when strong safety Morgan Burnett was unavailable for the season opener because of a hamstring injury, that duo started Week 1 at the two safety spots.

The Packers thought so little of their performances that they cut McMillian late last season and did not even bother this offseason to offer Jennings a restricted free agent tender, which would not have cost them any guaranteed money.

"Obviously we didn't get the production that we wanted from that [free safety] position," safeties coach Darren Perry said this offseason.

To be sure, the Packers need Burnett to show that Thompson wasn't misguided when he signed him to a four-year, $24.75 million contract last summer.

"I think he's fully capable of doing it," McCarthy said this offseason. "Morgan's going to do everything he can. He needs to be more assertive in play-making opportunities."

In order for Burnett to flourish, he can't be worried about the player lined up next to him. That player was supposed to be Nick Collins, the three-time Pro Bowl safety whose career was cut short in 2011 by a neck injury. At age 30, he still would have been in the prime of his career last season.

If the Packers don't find another Collins, they must at least come close.

Since the team's resurgence in the early 1990s, they have enjoyed a strong group of safeties -- from LeRoy Butler to Darren Sharper to Collins; all were Pro Bowl selections during their time in Green Bay.

The dynamic of the position has changed in recent years. Whereas Butler was a fierce hitter, today's safeties are judged just as much on speed and ball skills as anything else. What NFL teams need now are safeties than can cover chunks of yardage in milliseconds and knock passes away or, better yet, intercept them. The Packers were the only team in the NFL last season that didn't get a single interception from a safety.

"The intimidator isn't necessarily needed anymore," ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said. "The big hitters, you don't need that."

Kiper doesn't believe Clinton-Dix will be around when the Packers come up at No. 21 in the first round, but Pryor very well could be available.

Even if Pryor is gone or Thompson passes on him, he will have other options, says Kiper.

"Jimmy Ward from Northern Illinois you could make an argument is the best cover safety in the draft," Kiper said. "He's coming off the [foot] injury but he had a very good career, has great ball skills, real good hands for the interception. And Ward is a decent tackler, but he doesn't have tremendous size [5-foot-11, 193 pounds].

"The days of that big, intimidating safety are just about over. Terrence Brooks from Florida State would fill that void at that point as a safety that could come in and help you right away."

No matter what Thompson does in the draft, Capers and McCarthy plan to work cornerback Micah Hyde at safety this offseason. Perhaps the fifth-round pick out of Iowa last year will be the full-time answer; he certainly showed enough as a rookie to warrant more than the 39.4 percent playing time he got last year. But if the Packers think Hyde can allow them to concentrate on other areas of need in the draft, they'd better be right.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Micah Hyde played only a part-time role last season. Casey Hayward played virtually no role at all.

Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy expects that to be different this season.

Hayward
Hyde
That could be the next step toward fixing the problems that hampered the secondary last season.

As a rookie, Hyde played 39.4 percent of the defensive snaps, and almost all of it came as either the nickel or dime defensive back covering or blitzing from the slot.

He rarely stepped foot on the field when defensive coordinator Dom Capers employed his base 3-4 scheme.

That, apparently, will change.

"Micah Hyde deserves the opportunity to be an every-down player on our defense," McCarthy told reporters this week at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla. "And as we go into 2014, that's our responsibility as a coaching staff to create those competitive opportunities for him to get that done. I got to a point in the season where Micah was standing on the sidelines too much."

Hyde has shown a penchant for finding the football even though he dropped what could have been a game-changing interception in the final moments of the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. That's something the Packers lacked, especially from their safeties last season. The Packers were the only team in the NFL last season that did not get an interception from a safety.

They already are assured of fielding a new starting free safety this season. They let 16-game starter M.D. Jennings walk in free agency, opening the door for Hyde to play that spot at least some of the time. He could assume a role similar to the one Charles Woodson played in his final season with the Packers in 2012, when he played safety in the base defense and as a slot corner in the sub packages.

"We're going to give Micah the opportunity to play on all three downs -- whether that's corner, nickel, dime, safety," McCarthy said. "That's the versatility I think he brings to our football team."

Like Hyde, Hayward played almost exclusively in the slot as a rookie in 2012. After leading all rookies with six interceptions in 2012, his second season was a washout. He played only three games because of a recurring hamstring injury that he first pulled on the eve of training camp and which finally ended his season on Nov. 23.

In an interview just days after this past season, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said he had no doubt that Hayward also could line up on the outside as a true cover corner in addition to playing in the slot.

"And he will be given the opportunity to do that," Whitt said.

That plan remains intact.

"I look for Casey to come in and try to compete to be on the field for three downs," McCarthy said this week. "He had a heck of a rookie year. He missed all of last year with an injury. My understanding is he'll be full go once he comes back. But I won't know until we put those guys through physicals when they come back the 22nd [of April for the offseason program]. I would think he'd be ready to go."
Mike McCarthy thinks Dom Capers has the hardest job on his coaching staff.

Not because a segment -- even if it's a small but vocal one -- of Green Bay Packers' fans love to gripe about the veteran defensive coordinator's scheme and play calling.

[+] EnlargeMike McCarthy, Dom Capers
AP Photo/Mike RoemerPackers head coach Mike McCarthy insists defensive coordinator Dom Capers has the hardest job on the staff.
"Well, I'm really not aware [of that] at the level obviously that you are," McCarthy told reporters Wednesday during the NFC coaches breakfast at the NFL annual meetings in Orlando, Fla.

No, the Packers coach thinks Capers' job is difficult for other reasons.

"Dom Capers has the toughest job on our staff; I can tell you that from experience," McCarthy said. "Anytime you're a coordinator for a head coach that is predominantly on the other side of the ball, there's a lot of responsibility there. His responsibility with his assistant coaches is a lot higher than with the offensive coordinator, and obviously his background of being a head coach was a big part of why we went that direction. You know, he has a lot of responsibility, and I'm very in tune with the way he goes about it."

Questioning Capers' future in Green Bay has become something of an annual rite ever since his defense finished last in the NFL in 2011, the season after the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. But McCarthy's support of the 63-year-old Capers, who is believed to be one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in the NFL with an annual salary of around $2 million, has never wavered.

"He's definitely the right man for the job," McCarthy said.

Capers' defense rebounded to finish 11th in 2012 before plummeting to the bottom third of the league last season. In his first two seasons with the Packers (2009 and 2010), his defenses ranked second and fifth, respectively.

Capers said during an interview last month at the NFL scouting combine that the Packers' defense can get back to that level.

"Yeah, I always believe that," Capers said. "If you've been doing this as long as I have, you believe it. What we did the first year when we came in, I think it's just a matter of getting a group and figuring out what they can do the best and adapting what they do to what we do best."

That's what McCarthy and Capers have spent the better part of their offseason meeting time doing. McCarthy, who has admitted to taking on a larger role in the defense this offseason, characterized those initial meetings after the season as difficult.

"Our conversation was harder than other years, a lot of hard topics that we had to talk about," McCarthy said. "But as far as approach and belief and how we go about it, I never questioned the direction we were moving forward. So we spent the time, diligently, going over all the things we need to improve on, and I think we've made excellent steps so far with building our 2014 defense -- schematically and now with some player addition -- and I'm sure now the draft will bring even more pieces to the puzzle. I'm excited about a number of things that will change, and I know the players will be excited about it when they get back."
Don't put a label on new Green Bay Packers defensive end Julius Peppers.

In fact, he probably shouldn't even be called a defensive end.

The way Packers coach Mike McCarthy explained it to reporters on Tuesday at the NFL annual meetings in Orlando, Fla., the newest addition to the Packers' defense will play a hybrid position -- a combination of an outside linebacker and defensive lineman the Packers will call an "elephant."

[+] EnlargePeppers
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Packers plan to use Julius Peppers in a variety of ways along their defensive front.
It's a spot that McCarthy first revealed during an interview at the NFL scouting combine last month that was in his plans, well before he knew he would have Peppers on his roster.

In preparing for that role, Peppers will spend most of his individual practice time and meeting sessions with the linebackers, who were merged into one group under assistant head coach Winston Moss and position assistant Scott McCurley following the resignation of outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene shortly after last season ended. It also means Peppers will not work directly under defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, who was Peppers' defensive line coach and defensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-08.

"Elephant is a term used for a multiple-position player along the defensive front," McCarthy told reporters at the league meetings. "Julius will be part of that group.

"The specifics I'd rather get into once the players find out, once we go through it with the players, but that's the big-picture outlook for the way we'll use Julius defensively."

In his only public comments since he signed with the Packers, Peppers, who was released this month by the Chicago Bears, told the Packers' web site he expected his role to be "something different" than it was during his stint with the Bears.

This would qualify as such.

Even before the Packers signed Peppers to a three-year, $26 million contract on March 15, they had planned to use the elephant position for Mike Neal and Nick Perry. In some defenses, the elephant position is used to describe an end who lines up between the offensive tackle and the tight end (in what is called the 7 technique) but based on McCarthy's comments on Tuesday, it appears he has multiple positions in mind for his elephants.

Perry, a former first-round draft pick, was a defensive end in college but switched to outside linebacker with only moderate success the past two years. Neal played his first three NFL seasons at defensive end before he switched to outside linebacker last season.

The trio of Neal, Peppers and Perry could be interchangeable this season.

"It's not only your position, your alignment, it's your assignment," McCarthy said. "So he has more to offer in his opinion, and I agree with him, from an assignment standpoint. So where he aligns, competing against Julius, he's lined up on both sides at defensive end. He has been an inside rusher, so those experiences he already has and will continue to do so."

The addition of Peppers and the redefinition of some positions could make coordinator Dom Capers’ defense look a lot less like the traditional 3-4 he has run throughout his 28-year NFL coaching career. But McCarthy said Capers' defense has evolved into a two-linemen look more than ever to combat the spread offenses used so prolifically around the league.

"How much 3-4 defense do we play?" McCarthy said. "We've been averaging 24-25 percent over the past five years. So we're playing so much sub."

When the Packers do use their base defense, McCarthy confirmed that recently re-signed lineman B.J. Raji will return to his old position, nose tackle. Raji played more at defensive end the past three seasons, when his productivity waned. McCarthy said the plan for Raji will be to "cut him loose."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers signed Julius Peppers to do one thing: rush the quarterback.

How they plan to use the 34-year-old defensive end in their scheme, however, is not yet clear.

Peppers has not been available to reporters since he signed a three-year, $30 million contract on Saturday, but he did speak briefly to the team's website and revealed a little bit about what coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have discussed for him.

[+] EnlargeJulius Peppers
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsJulius Peppers may line up in the 'elephant' position for the Packers.
"I'm going to let Coach McCarthy deal with questions about the position and the scheme," Peppers told Packers.com. "I'm not really sure. We haven't talked in detail about what the plan is going to be for me, but I can say it's going to be something different.”

McCarthy's next media appearance likely will come at the NFL annual meetings next week in Orlando, Fla.

Early this offseason, well before the Packers even knew Peppers would be available, McCarthy said he and Capers remained committed to the 3-4 defense as their base scheme but planned several tweaks in order to better utilize their personnel and remain multiple in their looks even if injuries hit like they did last season.

"We were not as multiple maybe this year as we've been in prior years really because of the stress of injuries on that unit so we want to get back to some of the things that we did very well in the past and make sure we're carrying enough packages to utilize all of our players," McCarthy said at the time.

Peppers played in a 4-3 during his four seasons with the Chicago Bears and at 6-foot-7 and 287 pounds, he was an ideal defensive end in that scheme. However, in a 3-4 base defense the ends don't line up as wide as they do in a 4-3. And in nickel and dime situations, they move inside even more. Early in Peppers' career, in an ESPN.com story about the differences between ends in the two schemes, he was quoted as saying he preferred to play outside rather inside like 3-4 ends do.

"I really don't like being down inside," Peppers said at the time. "I feel like when I'm down in that area like a tackle, I don't feel like I'm being used properly. It's hard, because you have to be a lot more run conscious and a lot more physical, which, being physical, that's no problem for me. But I'd rather get on the edge and rush the passer."

What Peppers described as being ideal is essentially the 7-technique position in which a pass-rusher lines up on the inside shoulder of a tight end. McCarthy calls that the elephant position, and it's a spot he talked last month about using this season.

Peppers could be perfect for that role and could be used in a rotation with Mike Neal and Nick Perry.

Regardless of how the Packers use him, they expect more pressure from their defensive front this season. Although last season Peppers registered only seven sacks (tied for the second-lowest total of his 12-year career) despite playing in every game, that total would have ranked second on the Packers behind Clay Matthews (7.5) and first among the team's defensive linemen.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Who says Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson doesn't sign any free agents?

Yes, you've heard that line before, but almost every time it should have been hashtagged with this: #sarcasm. How else can you explain a signing such as Raymond Webber?

Who?

Exactly.

No hashtag needed this time.

Not for Julius Peppers, who signed a three-year, $30 million contract Saturday to continue his career in Green Bay.

This is more than a little splash. It's cannonball-sized, especially for Thompson, who specializes in no-name signings such as Webber, a street free-agent tight end whose signing last month barely made a ripple.

Not since 2006, when Thompson signed cornerback Charles Woodson, has he made a move like this. This won't count as a true unrestricted-free-agent signing, at least not under the terms of the NFL's formula for awarding compensatory draft picks, because Peppers was released last week by the Chicago Bears.

Forget technicalities. This was a significant -- and much-needed -- move for a defense that sank to 25th in the NFL last season and needs an infusion of playmakers.

There's plenty still to be learned about Peppers, including how much the eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end still has left at age 34 and where exactly he will play in Dom Capers' 3-4 defensive scheme.

He's coming off his lowest sack total (7.0) since 2007, but, in his past three seasons combined with the Bears, he has 29.5 sacks. In his 12 NFL seasons, he has had fewer than 10 sacks only three times (2003, 2007 and last year), and he hasn't missed a game since 2007.

At 6-foot-7 and 287 pounds, Peppers has been an ideal 4-3 pass-rushing defensive end. But defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme don't typically command $10 million average salaries because they're not asked to jet up the field and pile up sacks like 4-3 ends.

Perhaps Capers will use Peppers in the elephant end position coach Mike McCarthy recently discussed as a possibility for Nick Perry and Mike Neal, both of whom can be considered hybrid defensive end/outside linebackers.

The possibilities could be endless.

Regardless of how Capers uses Peppers, it should help outside linebacker Clay Matthews. Not that teams won't still double-team Matthews, but say Capers lines up Peppers and Matthews on the same side of the formation. What's an offensive coordinator to do?

Peppers nearly ruined the Packers' 2013 season. Had fullback John Kuhn not gotten the slightest of chip blocks on Peppers in the final minute of the regular-season finale at Soldier Field, Peppers would have drilled quarterback Aaron Rodgers before he could have released the 48-yard bomb to Randall Cobb for the game-winning and NFC North-winning touchdown pass.

He could be just what the Packers need in 2014.

Thompson might be done in free agency for this season. For that matter, he might be done in free agency for next season and the one after that. But don't say he doesn't sign free agents. Hashtag: #serious
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The one-year deal that B.J. Raji agreed to on Friday to return to the Green Bay Packers does a couple of things:
  • It gives Raji the chance to test the free-agent market again next season with the hope that he shows more productivity than he did in his disappointing 2013 season.
  • It allows the Packers to move Raji back to his natural position, nose tackle.
Raji
The two things could go hand in hand. Back at the spot where he had his most productive seasons in 2009 and 2010, Raji should be motivated to become a playmaker again. While Raji was solid last season in his role as a defensive lineman who occupied blocks, he rarely stood out as he did in his first two seasons, when he combined for 8.5 sacks (including the playoffs).

The Packers’ decision to move Raji back to the nose tackle likely was one of the reasons he was willing to return to Green Bay. Of course, the lack of interest on the free-agent market was clearly another.

However, it also represents a philosophical shift by defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who was asked shortly after the season why Ryan Pickett played more at nose tackle last season while Raji played more at end.

"They do different things better," Capers said at the time. "We play Raji at nose when he's head-up [over the center] in what we call zero-technique. He's a little bit better at that. Pickett has played a lot more of the tilted nose. We just felt the best combination when we were in the tilted nose [was] to play [Pickett at] the tilted nose and Raji in the 3-technique on the guard.

"When we went playing a balanced front, [we would] play Raji in the middle and Pickett out at the end. Tilted nose is a little to one side or the other [of the center]. That's a technique you have to work on to be able to deal with both the guard's and the center's blocks."

Like Raji, Pickett was in the final year of his contract last season. At age 34, Pickett's return remains uncertain, although he showed remarkable durability by playing in every game each of the past two seasons.

While Raji's productivity wasn't there last season, what helped him to return was the fact that he never publicly complained about his role.

"I'm a firm believer of your resume speaking for you," Raji said late last season. "And whatever's going to happen is going to happen."

What's going to happen now is that Raji gets to prove himself all over again.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Out of necessity last season, Mike Neal played the majority of his 735 defensive snaps at outside linebacker.

And it went perhaps better than could have been expected.

The former defensive end tied for the third on the team with five sacks, including four in the final seven games.

Neal
That's what made it surprising last month at the NFL scouting combine to hear coach Mike McCarthy say he felt Neal's best position still was an inside pass rusher.

"I still think the best thing, in my opinion, that Mike Neal does is rush from a '3' technique, particular in third down in the sub package," McCarthy said. "I think he's a real force in there."

So where does that leave Neal for 2014 now that he has re-signed with the Packers?

The best answer might be that he plays some of both, which was actually the intention last season. Both McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have said their plan for 2014 is to get more versatile and be more multiple in their defensive packages.

That could mean Neal lines up as an outside linebacker in some early down packages and then moves inside to rush from a three-point stance on third downs and obvious passing situations.

Such a role could bring out the best in Neal.

Neal also could be in line to play an elephant end, a position McCarthy said he and Capers planned to explore this season.

Regardless of which position he plays, perhaps the most critical thing he must do is repeat his durability from 2013. After playing in just 20 of a possible 48 games combined in his first three seasons, Neal played all 16 regular-season games last season for the first time in his career, although he dropped out of the playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers because of a knee injury.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The official three-day negotiating period before free agents can sign contracts with new teams doesn't begin until Saturday, but the agent for B.J. Raji no doubt has spent the last several weeks gauging his client’s value on the open market.

The information gathered by David Dunn likely wasn't overly positive.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Raji
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceB.J. Raji is close to returning to the Packers for the 2014 season.
Why else would Raji return to the Green Bay Packers for just a one-year deal, as ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported on Thursday was on the verge of being completed?

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the one-year deal would pay Raji about $4 million.

By most accounts, Raji did not play well enough in 2013 to warrant a sizeable contract. He went without a sack for a second straight season, although during that stretch his playing time on third down decreased significantly from early in his career.

Two years after playing 79.1 percent of the defensive snaps, Raji's playing time was reduced to 58.7 percent despite not missing a game.

"I don't label myself as a two-down defensive lineman," Raji said late last season. "I'm just a two-down defensive lineman for us this year."

Raji, 27, never complained about his diminished playing time or how he was used in coordinator Dom Capers' defense, but it was worth wondering if he would have preferred to test his skills in a defense that gives its front players more freedom to rush the passers rather than just eating up blocks, which is what Capers asks his defensive linemen to do the majority of the time.

"He's been a very good leader for us this year," Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said late in the season. "I think he understands the value that he has to us. Now, at the end of the year, who knows?"

While it's a risk for Raji to do just a one-year deal, if he returns to his 2010 form, when he had 7.5 sacks (including the playoffs) then he could be in line for the kind of contract he was hoping for this time around.

Raji's best seasons -- 2009 and 2010 -- came with him playing primarily at nose tackle, a role that Ryan Pickett (who also is scheduled to become a free agent) has taken over the last three seasons.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy suggested several times this offseason that there are tweaks coming to Capers' defense. With smaller but athletic defensive linemen like Mike Daniels and last year's first-round pick, Datone Jones, expected to take on greater roles, perhaps moving the 6-foot-2, 337-pound Raji back to the nose might be in the works.

McCarthy also said at last month's scouting combine that he preferred Mike Neal as an inside rusher rather than an outside linebacker, where he played almost exclusively last season. If the plan is to re-sign Neal, who also was in the final year of his contract last season, then it could be another reason to move Raji back inside. However, there was no indication on Thursday that the Packers had even initiated serious talks with Neal.

Monthly review: Green Bay Packers

February, 28, 2014
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- We've come to the end of the first month without football in 2014 for the Green Bay Packers.

Free agency is still more than a week away. The NFL draft is more than two months away. Yet as usual in the NFL, plenty of business was conducted in February. On the final day of the month, it's a good time to review what we learned about the Packers over the last four weeks.

Finley not done yet?: Thoughts of tight end Jermichael Finley's demise in Green Bay may have been premature. For those who thought Finley would be cast aside just like safety Nick Collins was following his neck injury in 2011, coach Mike McCarthy said that although Finley had the same fusion surgery that Collins had, there were some differences that have left the Packers' medical staff feeling more optimistic about a return.

Cap space galore: With the salary cap likely to be at least $132 million this season, the Packers will have the sixth-most cap space to use, as of figures compiled this week.

Position changes: Every year, McCarthy and his staff seem to tweak a position or two, and this year appears to be no different. McCarthy said recently that in an effort to get cornerback Micah Hyde on the field more, he could play some safety this season. Also, outside linebacker Nick Perry may get the chance to play a new position that the Packers are developing in their defense, an elephant end spot.

No deals, no cuts: While talks with cornerback Sam Shields intensified last week at the combine and remain ongoing, the Packers did not sign any of their 17 unrestricted free agents to be. With free agency set to begin on March 11, the Packers still have plenty of work to do in order to retain some of their key players. The Packers also didn't make any salary-cap related cuts.

New coaches, new roles: McCarthy finalized his coaching staff changes, and perhaps the most noticeable change was how the linebackers will be coached. The resignation of outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene last month prompted McCarthy to bring both the outside and inside linebackers together under assistant head coach Winston Moss, who previously coached inside linebackers.

More involvement: McCarthy also hinted that he will be more involved in the defense, at least in the offseason, in an effort to improve it over last season, when it ranked 25th in the NFL in yards allowed. McCarthy said he would "set the vision for the defense, [and] Dom Capers and the defensive staff will carry it out."
INDIANAPOLIS -- The first hint of it came earlier this month, when Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy was discussing the changes to his staff.

He spoke of setting agenda for the defense, which he knew was in need of repair.

“Vision, I think I said,” McCarthy said during a break from the NFL scouting combine.

Either way, it has become clear that McCarthy, who runs the offense and serves as the playcaller on that side of the ball, will be more involved in the defense, at least in the short term.

[+] EnlargeMike McCarthy, Dom Capers
AP Photo/Mike RoemerDefensive coordinator Dom Capers and head coach Mike McCarthy are using the offseason to work on changes to the Packers' defense, which ranked 25th in the NFL in 2013.
“I need to do that more maybe in the offseason,” McCarthy said during an interview at his hotel adjacent Lucas Oil Stadium. “I go through this every year. You can’t do both. I've talked about it. I've researched it. I've talked to other people about it.”

For now, though, it will be a collective effort on the part of McCarthy and Capers, who said he shares the same vision as his boss does to repair a defense that slipped to 25th in the NFL last season. They want it back to the way it played in 2009 and 2010, when it ranked second and fifth in the NFL, respectively, in Capers' first two seasons as the Packers defensive coordinator.

“That’s obviously the goal,” said Capers, who is attending his 29th scouting combine. “We’ll have to see. There’s a lot that goes into it. Right now, there’s a lot of unanswered questions. We’ll have to figure out who we have, and we’ll have to do a really good job through all the phases of the offseason.

“What we did the first year when we came in, I think it’s just a matter of getting a group and figuring out what they can do the best and adapting what they do to what we do best.”

That’s part of the mission at the combine, where Capers and McCarthy not only are scouting potential draft picks but also will continue to hash out the specifics of the changes they plan to implement.

“We’re still working through it,” McCarthy said. “We sat down [after the season] and said there’s some things that I feel we need to change. We talked about a bunch of them with him, the staff, and Dom and I will get together down here, and hopefully we’ll have it sorted out here in the next month and have it ready for the players when they get back here in April.”

As McCarthy said on Friday, Capers agreed that the Packers don’t plan to get smaller on the defensive line. But at the same time, they want to be able to handle the challenges that high-speed, spread offenses present.

“You need both,” Capers said.

What McCarthy doesn't want is what happened last season, when the injury problems forced the Packers to toss out a good portion of their defensive plays that were practiced over and over in training camp.

Capers’ defense was ranked 11th overall and fifth against the run heading into Week 9 last season before its free-fall ensued.

“We've got to address the fact that we don’t have control over exactly who’s available each week,” McCarthy said. “So something has to adjust or charge or emphasize. I think it’s a very practical approach, a common-sense approach. The availability of our players, we don't have nine guys on defense that average 1,000 reps a year -- we never have -- so let's quit training our defense that way. That’s really what it comes down to.”

In short, it means trying to become more versatile regardless of who's available on a given week. McCarthy, however, cautioned not to take that to mean the Packers will overload the players with so much scheme that confusion causes miscommunications that lead to breakdowns.

Rather, he’s shooting for a more-creativity, less-volume approach.

“We weren't as multiple last year out of necessity,” Capers said. “If you look over the first four years, we were very multiple. But we weren't as much last year.”

While the coaches figure out how to use their players -- whether cornerback Micah Hyde will play more safety, if there’s a new role in store for Nick Perry, how much more they can get out of Datone Jones and so on -- and general manager Ted Thompson works on re-signing players like cornerback Sam Shields, defensive lineman B.J. Raji and outside linebacker Mike Neal and finding new ones either in free agency or the draft, McCarthy and Capers will continue to look for ways to restore the defense to what it was in Capers' first two seasons in Green Bay.

“I have great confidence in Dom and the defensive staff, but the challenges that any staff has -- and it's obviously a good staff when you’re together that long and you’re successful as we've been -- you can pull away from the foundation,” McCarthy said. “You've got a lot of ideas, too creative, and the trap you've always got to watch yourself that you can fall into -- and I’m not saying we’re there -- but there's times that we were probably close to that, is who you think you are and who you really are is not the same.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Green Bay Packers want more production from strong safety Morgan Burnett.

That’s no secret.

But during an interview at his hotel during a break from the NFL scouting combine, Packers coach Mike McCarthy offered a defense – and an honest assessment – of Burnett’s play in 2013 after he signed a four-year, $24.75 million contract last July.

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Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsThe Packers will be looking for more aggression from safety Morgan Burnett in 2014.
“You know, I don’t think it’s, ‘Oh my God, he’s a bust,’” McCarthy said. “It’s nothing like that. I think the guy needs to – and I think he will – he’ll be coached to make more impact plays. That’ll be his emphasis next year, and he’s the type of guy that will do it. The guy will go about it. He’s a pro. I wish he’d be more assertive, but that’s not really his personality, either. He’s a soft-spoken young man.”

Burnett’s play was emblematic of the entire Packers’ safety group, which for the first time in at least 50 years failed to intercept at least one pass in a season.

But McCarthy insisted that was the only aspect of Burnett’s game that was lacking.

“Really, the quarterback part of it, the communication, I thought he had a very good year,” McCarthy said. “Productivity and tackling, he had over 100 tackles. How many did he have?”

According to totals kept by the Packers’ coaches, Burnett had 104.

“So that’s a productive year,” McCarthy said. “It’s the play-making ability on the ball. Is he a product of what’s been going on back there? [Playing] Cautious? Whether to run through the ball carrier, receiver, or make a break on the ball?”

Maybe it’s confidence.

McCarthy cited a play in the wild-card playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers in which Burnett was in position to break up the 28-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis in the fourth quarter. Burnett broke on the ball but looked like he was trying to swat a fly rather than making an aggressive move toward the ball.

“I look at the San Francisco game, he’s got to make that play,” McCarthy said. “To me, it looked like he didn’t know whether to go hit him or go for the ball.

“That’s not a confident [action],” McCarthy added. “I mean, playmaking, you go get the football.”

That’s something McCarthy and safeties coach Darren Perry discussed at length during their postseason player evaluation meetings.

“I think he’s fully capable of doing it,” McCarthy said. “Morgan’s going to do everything he can. He needs to be more assertive in play-making opportunities. He did not have a good year in that particular area. There was a lot of production otherwise, too, but … what safeties do they talk about? The ones that make the big hit or the ones that make interceptions. And until he starts doing that, they’re not going to talk about him that way. They don’t talk about 100-tackle safeties anymore.”

It might help Burnett if the Packers had a more productive player next to Burnett. M.D. Jennings started every game at free safety, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers also worked in second-year pro Sean Richardson at that position late in the season.

“We need more production next to Morgan,” McCarthy said, “which I think would definitely help him.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- Two seasons into his NFL career, former first-round draft pick Nick Perry still hasn’t fully shown he can make the transition from collegiate defensive end at USC to NFL outside linebacker with the Green Bay Packers.

He might not have to this year.

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Perry
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Among the ideas the Packers have considered to tweak and improve their defense is to use an elephant defensive end position, and Perry is one of the players whom coach Mike McCarthy sees in that role, he said Friday during an interview at his hotel during a break from the NFL scouting combine.

“We’re looking at different combinations,” McCarthy said. “That’s part of the thing I was talking about [earlier in the day at the combine] utilizing personnel better.”

McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers actually toyed with the position last offseason, but never employed it. McCarthy explained the elephant end position as someone who is a “tweener.” Perry was considered that by scouts who debated whether his best position in the NFL would be defensive end or outside linebacker.

The elephant position would essentially cover both spots. McCarthy described it as a position in which a defensive player would never line up on the inside shoulder of an offensive tackle. Instead, the elephant end would play what’s called a 7-technique, which lines up on the inside shoulder of a tight end.

It was a position that Charles Haley of the San Francisco 49ers made famous in the 1980s and 1990s.

That might suit Perry, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds. In parts of two seasons in which he was slowed by injuries, Perry has played in 17 regular-season games and has six sacks. He has been most effective using his powerful bull-rush move.

A year ago, the Packers decided to try defensive end Mike Neal at outside linebacker, and it was largely successful. According to McCarthy, Neal was never supposed to play as much at outside linebacker as he did.

“We developed a position called the elephant and we never really [used it],” McCarthy said. “We trained it in training camp. Just the way the injuries went, Mike played pretty much outside linebacker most of the year. That wasn’t the plan or the vision of his job description.”

McCarthy said he believes that Neal’s best position, especially on third downs, remains the 3-technique position, which is a lineman who plays opposite the guard.

“I think he’s a real force in there,” McCarthy said.

Some of the plans could hinge on whether Neal returns. He was in the final year of his contract last season, and is scheduled to become a free agent next month.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The full scope of the changes the Green Bay Packers have planned defensively remain unclear, but coach Mike McCarthy insisted that getting smaller up front will not be part of the process.

Still, what can’t be dismissed is the distinct possibility the Packers might let go of all three of their starting defensive linemen -- Johnny Jolly, Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji, a combination that weighed 1,000 pounds.

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Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsB.J. Raji is among the defensive linemen who might not return to the Packers this coming season.
All were in the final year of their contracts last season, and there has been little or no conversation about bringing any of them back.

“I’ve never been part of a conversation that you want your D-linemen to be smaller,” McCarthy said Friday at the NFL combine. “That’s not accurate.”

McCarthy revealed last week that he has plans to make changes to a defense that ranked 25th in the NFL last season. Part of that included a minor restructuring of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ staff following the resignation of outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene.

But there will be adjustments in scheme and personnel that will play out over the next several months.

“We want to continue our process as far as evaluating our D-linemen,” McCarthy said. “We will be a little different on defense as far as how we utilize our defensive players, particularly our front players, because we do have a number of players who can play both the rush outside position and maybe make some plays from the inside position.

“But our evaluation as far as what we’re going to do, bringing defensive linemen into our program, if anything you always want to get bigger, stronger and faster and things like that. We’re definitely not going to be a smaller.”

In fact, ever since Capers was hired as the Packers defensive coordinator in 2009, he has made it no secret that one of the keys to his scheme has long been having big, run-stopping defensive linemen in his base 3-4. Through Week 9 of last season, the combination of Jolly (325 pounds), Pickett (338) and Raji (337) played a major part in the fact that the Packers ranked 5th in the league in rushing defense, a figure that plummeted to 25th by season’s end.

“I think we have a very solid defense coming back in terms of personnel,” Packers general manager Ted Thompson said Friday. “Like I said, we like to have our own guys back, and if we can find value in the free agent market to help us we’ll do that, too. We’ll do whatever, as will the 31 other teams. They’re all going to go about this the same way.”

There is reason to think the Packers might be trending smaller up front. They have added more young, quick-twitch defensive linemen like Mike Daniels (fourth-round pick in 2012) and Datone Jones (first-round pick in 2013), and McCarthy on Friday mentioned specifically getting the 285-pound Jones more involved in his second season.

“There’s a number of packages that he was a big part of, a primary part of, and frankly we really didn’t get to a lot of them just because of the way the season went with our injuries,” McCarthy said. “Getting him back in the offseason, I feel he’s one of those second-year players who take a huge jump. That will be my expectations for him.”

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