GREEN BAY—Heading into the final practice of the spring, the Packers defense is making good on Head Coach Mike McCarthy's "big letters" promise the unit will be improved in 2014.
"I feel very good about our defense. We've never been this far with the mental consistency," McCarthy said following Tuesday's opening day of a three-day mini-camp.
Wednesday is likely to be a team-building day, which often means a trip to the bowling alley, and that would make Thursday's practice the last before training camp.
"We expect to be improved," Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers said. "That's our goal. We expect to be improved over where we were a year ago."
The Packers were in the bottom third of the league's defensive rankings last season. A move into the top third would be a dramatic but not unrealistic expectation for a team that has invested a lot of high draft picks and a big free-agent contract on the defensive side of the ball.
"You hope this gives you a good basis and things happen fast in training camp," Capers said. "I understand what my job is, to get the defense to play the best it can."
The good news on defense this spring is that Julius Peppers, signed to a big free-agent deal in March, has made an encouraging transition from defensive end to linebacker. Good news also includes the return to health of cornerback Casey Hayward, the Packers' 2012 interceptions leader, who intercepted a pass in Tuesday's practice. Hayward missed nearly all of last season with a hamstring injury.
"He'll be one of those hybrid types," Capers said of Peppers. "He'll rush, he'll drop."
Peppers will be used at the Packers' "elephant" position. Asked to describe the duties of an "elephant," Capers said: "An elephant, for us in some schemes, could be an outside linebacker, a defensive end in other schemes."
Packers began the three-day mandatory minicamp at Ray Nitschke Field on Tuesday. See photos from the practice. Photos by Matt Becker, Packers.com.
Of concern are recoveries from injury that have forced pass-rushing linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry to be sidelined for all of the practices. Matthews is recovering from two surgeries on the same thumb. Perry was hobbled by a foot injury last season, but the Packers don't provide injury information during the spring.
"I don't think it helps any player to miss a whole offseason. It's not a good situation to be in. It's definitely something they'll have to work on to catch up. He's injured," McCarthy said of Perry.
Capers spoke of the hope that defensive lineman Josh Boyd would make the same kind of second-year improvement Mike Daniels made in 2013.
"Mike Daniels was our most productive guy on the defensive line. I think he'll continue to improve. We're hoping Josh Boyd can make the same type of improvement Mike Daniels made. We anticipate Josh is going to take a step," Capers said.
What if the defense stayed as healthy during the season as it is now? It's a question that brought a smile to Capers' face.
"That would make our planning much easier. Those things go in cycles. Maybe this is one of those good cycles," Capers said. Additional coverage - June 17 minicamp