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Outside LB, Punter Among Battles Worth Watching


Outside linebackers, left to right, Jeremy Thompson, Clay Matthews and Brady Poppinga

NFL training camps are always full of competition for roster spots and backup positions. It's the nature of the business.

But in 2009, for the first time in the Mike McCarthy era in Green Bay, there are more than just a couple of starting jobs and other legitimate contributing roles up for grabs. In the second of a two-part series, takes a look at the competitions on defense and special teams to keep an eye on as training camp unfolds.

Outside linebacker

Veteran Aaron Kampman is the clear-cut starter at left outside linebacker, but who will start on the right side opposite him has been an unanswered question since the hiring of Dom Capers and the switch to the 3-4 defense.

Second-year pro Jeremy Thompson, who reshaped his body a bit in the offseason to make the switch from defensive end, worked with the No. 1 defensive unit throughout OTAs and the mini-camp, and the coaching staff likes his progress thus far. But first-round draft pick Clay Matthews comes with a pass-rushing pedigree from USC, and to no one's surprise he hasn't shied away from stating his desire to be a starter.

Veteran Brady Poppinga will get a look as well. Poppinga has always been strong against the run, has come a long way in pass coverage since making the change from defensive end in college, and still has his pass-rushing days at BYU to fall back on as well.

There's a lot to be learned in training camp once the pads go on, and in the preseason games when there's live opponents. But in the end, it may not be as important who starts in the base defense as who gets called on to make plays in certain sub-packages.

In the nickel defense, which is used regularly on third downs except in short-yardage, the outside linebackers essentially line up and function as defensive ends, with the primary responsibility of pressuring the quarterback. Other sub-packages could call on the inside linebackers to rush and the outside backers to drop into coverage.

Ultimately, the starter in the base defense on first and second down probably has to be the most versatile of the candidates. From there, Capers can call on guys based on their strengths and the needs of the situation.


Provided his somewhat public contract dispute doesn't carry over into training camp, Pro Bowler Nick Collins will man one of the safety spots, but the other one is by no means set in stone.

If Atari Bigby is fully recovered from the injuries that plagued him in 2008 and has returned to his 2007 form, it stands to reason the job is his to lose. If there are any questions with Bigby, free-agent signee Anthony Smith has vast experience in the 3-4 from Pittsburgh and could make a push for the job.

And there's also third-year pro Aaron Rouse, who has shown a knack for making big plays - he has only started nine games in his career but has four interceptions - but his inconsistencies have prevented him from getting more playing time. A more consistent Rouse could be in the mix as well.

Dime cornerback

Barring injury, it appears safe to say the Packers' top three cornerbacks are starters Charles Woodson and Al Harris, and nickel back Tramon Williams. But who's the fourth corner, and sixth defensive back overall, for the dime package in the new 3-4?

It's a pretty wide-open race, with fourth-year pro Will Blackmon perhaps the early front-runner. Blackmon is looking to expand his impact beyond that of the top return man and contribute on defense as well. Blackmon's strength in coverage to this point has been in the slot, and he's looking to improve when he's on the island outside as well.

{sportsad300}Second-year man Pat Lee battled injuries as a rookie and never really got to show what he's capable of, so he'll be looking to move up the depth chart as well. Another young up-and-comer is Joe Porter, who spent time on both the practice squad and active roster last year.

Rookie sixth-round draft pick Brandon Underwood will try to state his case, too, and he might be the biggest unknown of the bunch. Forced to stay away from OTAs until Cincinnati was done with school in the spring, Underwood got a late start with the on-field work and has some ground to make up, but he has the raw talent to do so.


This competition went from three to two when Adam Graessle was released midway through OTAs, leaving Jeremy Kapinos and Durant Brooks to battle it out.

One word more than any will be the barometer here, and that's consistency. Kapinos showed his directional ability in the final four games last season, placing seven of 17 punts inside the 20. But having kicked in cold weather in three of the four contests, it remains to be seen what he can do when the conditions are in his favor and he can swing away.

Brooks was hampered by injuries in Washington last year and released after six games, so he's fighting for his NFL life as well. If he stays healthy, Brooks hopes to prove that being the only punter drafted in 2008 was no fluke.

All of their punts will be charted and watched closely during practice, but this competition will be decided with the lights on during preseason games.

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