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Key Defenders Make Camp Debut

The Green Bay Packers feel like they got a whole lot healthier on Monday.

Three players who had yet to take the practice field in training camp - linebackers Nick Barnett and Brad Jones, plus defensive lineman B.J. Raji - were in full uniform for Monday afternoon's practice, albeit with some limitations to their availability as the week progresses.

Barnett and Jones had been placed on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list at the start of camp with knee and back injuries, respectively, while Raji, a first-round draft pick, just signed his rookie contract last Friday.

Barnett had torn the ACL in his knee in Week 10 last season at Minnesota and had sat out all of the formal spring workouts while doing rehab, so he by far had been the most anxious to return to the field.

He was limited to just the opening jog-through portion of practice, plus individual drills and 7-on-7 work. He was held out of the full-contact team (11-on-11) periods to avoid any "potential pile-ups," according to Head Coach Mike McCarthy, and that will remain in effect for this week as he works his way back.

After practice, McCarthy said that all three returnees would be put on a one-a-day schedule, meaning on Tuesday and Thursday this week, they will sit out the morning workout and practice in the evening.

"It felt great," Barnett said. "I was able to run around. I don't think I was babying it (the knee), but I'll have to see on the film. I had some great breaks, it felt good hitting the bags, throwing the pads on with the helmet. The next step is starting to hit people. But we'll take it slow. One step at a time."

In the jog-through, Barnett worked with the No. 1 defense at the 'Mack' inside linebacker spot alongside A.J. Hawk at the 'Buck' in coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. During team drills, he was replaced by Brandon Chillar, who has been one of the standouts of camp.

Barnett is not expected to be able to play in this Saturday's preseason game against Buffalo, but he did say it's a possibility he'll be ready for the third contest at Arizona on Aug. 28. As anxious as he's been to practice, Barnett said the knee made "drastic" improvements during the first two weeks of camp when he sat out, and those strides have helped him with the mental hurdles faced by anyone who recovers from an ACL tear.

"When I'm running and I'm playing football, I really don't think about the knee," he said. "The worst I can feel the knee is when I wake up in the morning. That's the only time it gets a little stuff. Other than that, once I start walking around, all the thoughts are off the knee. I'm exploding on it without thought. It's my dominant leg, so it's a lot of explosion right off of it. I don't even think about it, honestly."

Meanwhile, Jones, a rookie seventh-round draft choice who injured his back during the conditioning test the day players reported for camp, and Raji did participate in the full-contact work Monday but on a limited basis and almost exclusively with the No. 2 defense. Jones worked at outside linebacker, while Raji was at defensive end and one of two down linemen in the nickel package.

Raji worked as the starting left end throughout OTAs and mini-camp in June, and in all likelihood he'll progress to reps with the 1's before too long. With Johnny Jolly (ankle) out again, Michael Montgomery has taken that spot for now with the first unit alongside nose tackle Ryan Pickett and opposite right end Cullen Jenkins.

McCarthy said that Raji's team snaps will be limited to three or four over a 10-play stretch. He did say it's possible Raji could play on Saturday against Buffalo, but a final determination won't be made until later in the week.

It didn't take long for Raji to show what he brings to the table Monday. During the one-on-one pass rush/pass blocking drill, the 337-pound Raji exploded through fellow rookie Evan Dietrich-Smith and pushed his counterpart well into the backfield, drawing applause from the sizable crowd in the Ray Nitschke Field stands.

"The strength and conditioning staff feel he is in good shape," McCarthy said. "But we've just got to be smart with his reps in this first week."

When he's not on the field, Raji will be working closely with defensive line coach Mike Trgovac to get up to speed with where the defense is. Raji missed the installations of the defense during camp, though he had participated in all of them without pads during OTAs in June.

{sportsad300}"The more I know the defense the better I'll play, so in that sense it is a big deal," Raji said. "But at the same time, the majority of this defense, I've run through it before, so it's not like it's completely new to me. It's a lot of calls and a lot of defense, so it's just refreshing myself."

Getting closer to full strength overall will certainly benefit the Packers as the preseason progresses, but there have been some positives to come from the absences.

At defensive end, with Jolly, Raji and Justin Harrell (back) out, rookie sixth-round draft choice Jarius Wynn has started to flash some potential, and he intercepted a deflected pass on Monday.

At inside linebacker, in addition to Chillar, third-year pro Desmond Bishop also has stood out, giving that group four potential contributors once Barnett is back to full strength.

"There's been some great competition in this camp, great guys been stepping up, growing and making great plays," Barnett said. "I'm proud of them. It's made me want to step my level up. So I'm just excited to have a great linebacking corps like this, and I'm ready to get out there and have fun with it."

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