Like the 31 other NFL head coaches, Packers GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman is eager to see his team come together in training camp. He is especially anxious to see the defensive unit, which will be under the direction of coordinator Bob Slowik, who was promoted from his former post as defensive backs coach.
Sherman's squad returns nearly in tact, with 10 of the 11 starters from last season's playoff run in camp. The front seven are all back, with the only real question marks as to who will be the opening day starters coming in the secondary. Position battles at left cornerback and strong safety look to be the summer's hottest contests.
Freshly signed draft picks Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas will headline the competition along with fifth-year man Michael Hawthorne for the corner spot opposite Al Harris. Marques Anderson will be fighting to hold on to his starting strong safety spot with off-season acquisition Mark Roman and holdover Bhawoh Jue. Darren Sharper returns for his eighth season as a Packer, and his seventh in the starting lineup.
Sherman is pleased with his group of DBs and wants to see them in action. He liked what he saw with the position's depth in the spring mini-camps, even working without holdout Mike McKenzie, and will be comfortable if a rookie emerges as the starter.
"It's probably as deep a corner group as we've had since I've been here, so I feel like we have some ability to work with," Sherman said. "Obviously, the experience level isn't the same as what Mike had, but there was a time when Mike McKenzie was a rookie who did start in Green Bay. Somebody else is going to be able to do that as well."
The coach is confident that Sharper will continue his stellar play. The man from William & Mary has led the team in interceptions for the past four seasons, and leads the NFL in picks since 1999 with 30.
"I think Sharper is going to have one of his best years this year," Sherman said. "I have a good feeling about him, and I'll put the pressure on him."
All three starting linebackers return and have to be more comfortable in their second year together as a unit. Last season, each one was making adjustments as Nick Barnett made the jump from college right into the starting role in the middle, Hannibal Navies came in as a free agent and Na'il Diggs moved from the strong side to the weak side.
The group impressed Sherman with their 2003 performance and he's looking for even better things from them in 2004.
"I'm really excited about our linebacking corps," Sherman said. "I think Diggs is going to have a spectacular year. Nick Barnett, with a year under his belt, is only going to get better and I think Hannibal Navies was one of our most underrated players last year. I thought he had an outstanding year for a guy that came from free agency, started from day one and never let up."
One concern for many following the Packers last year was the drop-off in the team's sack total. The front four of ends Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Aaron Kampman, along with tackles Cletidus Hunt and Grady Jackson will look to build from the nine-sack performance the team turned in at Philadelphia in January, all the while keeping up their top 10 rushing defense standing.
Sherman sees sacks as a team effort, though, not a job solely for the men on the line. He thinks if everyone does their part, the team could once again post the impressive totals from past seasons.
"I think we can get some things done with our front with relationship to sacks, but I also think our linebackers can help," Sherman said. "I think our linebackers have to do a better job of rushing and get more sacks. We're going to incorporate them in more of our packages, whether they have their hand down or not. Diggs was very good at that in college. He's at a point in his career where he can do more. We're going to take a look at a couple of different options, our linebackers being one of them."
The secondary will definitely play a role in how comfortable opposing passers can be, Sherman added.
"I'm not sold so much on the sacks part as much as harassing quarterbacks. That also comes from the defensive backs. If the DBs do a great job of collisioning receivers and affecting the timing of a route, that gives the lineman one more second to get that sack. Sacks are not just from defensive linemen. We do need to get more as a group, but it's a team thing where if you have great coverage, you have a better chance of getting sacks."
Sherman and his staff know they have talent on the defensive side of the ball. As they hit the field this week, the picture will become clearer how this team will come together to bring out their best.