Competition Lies At Heart Of Improvement

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INDIANAPOLIS - Much like last year, Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy believe the crux of the Packers' offseason improvement will come via competition in mini-camps and training camp that will develop in two ways - by acquiring players through free agency and the draft to compete for roster spots, and by the current players improving their own games.

"Every position is going to be a competitive spot," Thompson said. "That's one thing about having all the young guys we've got, there's going to be a lot of different combinations that are going to be available to us and the most competitive guys are going to be the ones filling those spots."

However the competition is fostered, it's going to be evident at a minimum of three key position groups that Green Bay's General Manager and Head Coach addressed during their media sessions at the NFL Scouting Combine this week.

Here's a breakdown of those areas:

Safety

Third-year safety Marviel Underwood is on schedule to fully recover from the torn ACL in his knee sustained last August in the preseason opener. McCarthy called him an "ascending player" from last year's training camp, and he's been dedicated to the weight room and his rehabilitation.

Other young players like Tyrone Culver, Atari Bigby and Charlie Peprah could all be in the mix as well, while returning starter Marquand Manuel likely will enter 2007 with something to prove.

"After going back through the (film) cut-ups, the one thing that we need to fix is the defense's explosive gains, and he had his participation in that," McCarthy said of Manuel, who was signed as a free agent last offseason. "But once again, as far as the communication, running the defense, all the other positives, he's exactly what we thought we were getting when we got him out of Seattle. So I think his second year will be much better."

Thompson believes, and hopes, Manuel can stay healthy and take advantage of a full offseason on the field. Manuel came to Green Bay still recovering from a groin injury sustained in Super Bowl XL and then missed a good portion of training camp with a calf injury.

"I think what he needs is a comfort level going through a training camp and being with his guys," Thompson said. "That's a difficult spot, signing as a free agent, coming to a team and all of a sudden you're injured and you can't practice, and you don't practice the entire training camp and all of a sudden you're thrown into it and now you're supposed to be the leader and the guy running the show back there.

"The intelligence part is fine, the want-to is fine, but there has to be a bonding time with your teammates, and they weren't able to do that. I'm hoping this year it's going to be a more smooth thing."

Tight end

The position is somewhat unsettled with Bubba Franks coming off a frustrating season, David Martin a pending free agent, and Donald Lee having just re-signed for one year. Prospect Zac Alcorn and potential offseason acquisitions could work their way into the mix as well.

{sportsad300}Both McCarthy and Thompson indicated they expect to have Franks in 2007 despite his struggles last year, but no one's job is secure and McCarthy believes tight end could become the most competitive position come summer.

"When we went through the film evaluation, the run blocking we felt was solid, the pass protection as a group we thought they did a really good job, especially being asked to do things they hadn't done before," McCarthy said. "But the pass perimeter, the pass receiving, is obviously not what it needs to be."

Packers tight ends combined for 56 receptions for 580 yards and two touchdowns in 2006, numbers that should increase as the players are freed up from extra blocking assignments but that need to take a significant jump to improve the passing game as a whole.

"I would like to see our tight ends, not only Bubba, but our entire group of tight ends, who I think have a lot of talent, be more productive, be more consistent, be more healthy, and make more plays, and I think they would echo the same thoughts," Thompson said. "I think we can play better at that position."

Wide receiver

Robert Ferguson should be back from a foot injury to compete for a spot, and McCarthy added he'd like to see Ferguson also return to being a contributor on special teams. Young players like Ruvell Martin, Shaun Bodiford and Carlyle Holiday all have significant upside as well.

"The improvement from within is very important, and certainly having Robert Ferguson back and healthy should aid that group and create some competition in training camp," Thompson said. "But this is a position you can come in and play at a relatively young age, so we're not opposed to doing it with young people."

Much has been made of the Packers needing to add a big-time offensive playmaker at receiver for the 2007 season, especially with quarterback Brett Favre coming back. That may happen through the draft or free agency, but McCarthy also cautioned not to ignore the possibility of another playmaker emerging from the current roster. A fully healthy Greg Jennings, for example, could come back for his second season ready for a breakout year.

"If there's playmakers out there, whether it's through the draft or through free agency that fit what we're doing in Green Bay, I'm all for it," McCarthy said. "But I also am clearly focused on the young players we do have there. Because I do think we have some playmakers right now in Green Bay, and they're going to hear the same speech I talked about today, we have some guys standing in the back row. We need to get them to compete and get in the front row.

"That's kind of where we are as a football team. So whether those playmakers are in-house or coming from out-of-house, I'm all for it."

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