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The best set of defensive ends in the NFL might reside in Green Bay this season. Joe Johnson, Vonnie Holliday and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila make a formidable trio even if Jamal Reynolds turns into a bust.
An elite performer for the Saints since 1994, Johnson has long been recognized as a complete player, not unlike Reggie White in that regard. It's almost a given that no two ends handle the run better than Johnson and Holliday.
The Packers' pass rush, which improved from 19th to fourth last year, could be even better now that Johnson has joined "KGB" and Holliday in a three-pronged assault.
It stands to reason that opponents will want to exercise ball control to keep "KGB" on the sidelines, but it could take some doing to run the ball wide against Johnson or Holliday.
That leaves the middle, an area where the Packers really weren't very good last year and figures to be a target again in 2002. A run defense that allowed an awful 4.4 yards per rush last year and slipped from eighth to 16th overall will be severely tested.
"I think they will be vulnerable to the inside run," said a personnel director for one of the Packers' opponent last year. "You don't know what the heck Cletidus (Hunt) will be, and I'd certainly bet against Gilbert Brown being there every week. Same with Hardy Nickerson."
Hunt was in line to replace Santana Dotson a year ago but ran afoul of the NFL's substance abuse policy and couldn't play until mid-October. With Dotson in Washington and key reserve Jim Flanigan in San Francisco, the job is all Hunt's now.
"Well, we're going to see," defensive line coach Jethro Franklin said. "He's got to get it done. He knows it. I know it."
Hunt is big, explosive into gaps and, at times, physically dominant. Too often, however, he has taken himself out of plays, gets wired to blocks and runs out of gas. With a contract expiring in March, he has millions of dollars at stake.
Nobody knows what to expect from Brown. Last year, he salvaged his career by making a monumental commitment in the off-season. This year, the Packers didn't see much of him after he became enmeshed in a custody fight.
"When things affect your family it will affect you," Franklin said. "Hopefully, he's got some things resolved and we can concentrate on something else now. If not, we've got to fight through it."
If Brown isn't in tip-top shape, he's likely to break down in training camp and his career could end in a hurry. The Packers have some other options in Rod Walker and Steve Warren, but that's mainly guesswork at this point.
Walker is a 319-pounder with surprising movement ability. It remains to be seen if Warren's post-surgical thigh can hold up.
"I want to be able to stop the running game, first and foremost," coach Mike Sherman said. "Attitudinally, if you do that, you defeat them. They don't feel quite as tough when you shove their ball carrier back."
The Packers debated where to play rookie Aaron Kampman and determined holdover Billy Lyon. Kampman will start out at "power" end behind Holliday after playing tackle in minicamps, whereas Lyon will work at "eagle" tackle, his position from 1998-'00 before spending '01 mostly at end.
Not since the Packers signed White in April 1993 have they added an unrestricted free agent as important as Johnson. It took a $4.75 million signing bonus and a six-year deal averaging $5.5 million to persuade him to leave New Orleans.
Johnson is 30 and with a fairly long injury history, so the Packers have their fingers crossed he'll have impact for at least two years. He replaces broken-down John Thierry in the lineup.
"His strength is just his physical toughness, tenacity and game savvy," Sherman said.
On passing downs Johnson has played extensively at tackle and said he would feel comfortable moving inside. Holliday has rushed from tackle in the past as well, which would open up two rush ends spots for Gbaja-Biamila and Reynolds.
Holliday has been the Packers' best defensive lineman for the last three years and won't be 27 until December. He had 31 more solo tackles than any other defensive lineman in 2001 and played 79.5% of the downs.
"He's got really good strength at the point of attack, he can slip blocks, he's got really good initial quickness and he doesn't get tired," one scout said. "He's getting up in there for the Pro Bowl."
Gbaja-Biamila proved unstoppable last September before tackles adjusted to his rhythm and speed. He has sensational strength for his size plus a big heart.
"That's second to none," Franklin said, referring to Gbaja-Biamila's desire. "That's 90% of rushing the passer. People devised ways of trying to block him. This year, he has to identify those ways and be able to defeat them."
Reynolds underwent arthroscopic surgery Jan. 28 to repair a cartilage problem in his left knee. Unbeknownst to the Packers before the 2001 draft, a similar injury bothered him in '98.
Reynolds was cleared to run full speed in June but has been no better than pedestrian in the first five practices of training camp.
Last year, he wasn't fast enough to win outside, strong enough to even challenge inside and not all that intense. Given a $4 million signing bonus as the 10th pick, he was an enormous disappointment.
"When he did play the last few games he wasn't healthy and still was able to do some good things," Franklin said. "That seems to be overshadowed a lot of times when people talk about him."
CAMP CALENDAR: The first full-squad practice was Saturday, July 27. Once again, there are no practices scheduled against other teams. The Packers' annual Family Night intra-squad scrimmage, which would have been held Aug. 3, has been canceled this year because of ongoing construction at Lambeau Field. The Packers leave their dorm at nearby St. Norbert College in late August.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--Coach Mike Sherman presided over a busy off-season in which the Packers rolled the dice on Joe Johnson, Terry Glenn, Hardy Nickerson and Javon Walker and cut a slew of veterans.
In a recent question and answer, Sherman discussed the season ahead and the reasons for some of the moves.
Q: Given an average amount of injuries and luck, is this team good enough to win the Super Bowl?
A: I think we have a team that has talent. I think that question will be better answered once we get all the talent together, we practice, we play and see how that talent works as one unit. I do think we have the right pieces to the puzzle. If we can get them to fit, I think we'll have a very good football team that will compete for a chance to win a championship.
Q: Has the runaway optimism within and around this team created a situation where anything less than a Super Bowl would constitute a disappointing season?
A: No, I don't think so. In Green Bay, you're going to have optimism, and if you don't have optimism you're going to have a new staff at 1265 Lombardi. The fans expect their team to be in the championship run every single year.
Q: Are you so single-minded in your approach that you might personally regard this season as a failure if the Packers do not reach the Super Bowl?
A: I look at the Super Bowl a little bit different than other people. My goal as the general manager is to get the talent in that locker room. My goal as the coach is to create great chemistry so they will play up to their capability. That they will actually love one another and want to be with one another. My whole goal as a coach is to have a great locker room. If you're able to do that, wins will come and the reward is the Super Bowl. If I achieve my goal, we will win football games and hopefully it will be rewarded by playing in the Super Bowl.
Q: You were an unknown and you've done as well as anyone could have hoped. Can you lead this team to the next level?
A: I believe I can because I feel myself growing every single year. I think I'm much better this year. I see a bigger picture now than I did my first year because I'm willing to change and adjust. I allow myself to grow and improve, admit mistakes and move forward. I am able to lead this team.
Q: In your idle moments, what worries you most about the team that you've assembled?
A: We lost some high-quality leadership guys, guys that have been here in the battles. Particularly guys who were in the '96, '97 Super Bowls. LeRoy Butler. Santana Dotson. Bernardo Harris. Antonio Freeman. My concern is that these new players are received by our team and they understand they have to do things our way. As I told the team, these guys were selected to come in here not to bring us to the Super Bowl but to help you bring them to the Super Bowl. Hopefully, that will happen.
Q: On paper, what do the '02 Packers seem ready to do that might put the fear of God into people, as Ron Wolf was fond of saying?
A: I sure hope that one thing we're ready to do is rush the football more effectively. I'm encouraged that our offensive line, our running backs, the tight end are all back. We ranked 20th (actually 21st) in rushing last year and we're more than capable of being better than that. We will be better than that this year. I would like us to rush the football in a league that works real hard to stop the run. On defense, I'd like to have a team that stops the run, one that is able to take that away with eight defenders but sometimes with seven.
Q: Wolf was never afraid to take chances. Based on your personality, no one really expected you to do that. Where does the gambling nature that you've exhibited this off-season come from?
A: I think it's just an intense desire for this team to succeed. I never want to stand still. I feel every year in Green Bay you have to give your players, your coaches, the organization and our fans reason to feel like this is the year. We're going to always do things to be aggressive to make our team better without mortgaging the future. In Green Bay, we will never be in a rebuilding phase. It will always be trying to win a championship every year. We tried to win one the first year and it didn't work, but if we had gotten in the playoffs maybe we would have had a shot. Our goals this year aren't any different than they've been.
Q: Eight of the 15 players on the 60-man roster at the end of '01 were 30 or older. Now seven of those 15 are gone. It would have been easy to maintain the status quo. Why didn't you?
A: I just feel there comes a point where changes needed to be made, particularly in this day and age. This game requires certain things, and speed is one of them. I felt like I'd much rather make changes when you're winning than when you're losing. I think the error that people make is they don't make changes until they have to. To have the forethought of what could occur is part of my job. To be able to see your team on the field a year ahead of time and see what you're going to need to do. The decisions were reflected in that.
Q: After all the moves and acquisitions, where do you fear that you might have left yourself open?
A: I'm concerned about experienced depth in the offensive line. We lost Barry Stokes, who was a real good filler for us. When a backup player can step in, that's critical to be successful. I'm curious to see if we have that in the offensive line. We're fairly young. We'll continue to look for veterans. Backup running back is a concern for me as well. We're wide open there. We need somebody who can carry us if Ahman Green can't do that. We'll have to see if our return game will be what it had the potential to be last year with Allen Rossum. On defense, when you lose someone like LeRoy Butler, even though he was declining in speed, he certainly had tremendous knowledge and game savvy. I'm trying to find a leader back there. I'm confident it can be Darren Sharper. We also need someone at the position where Antuan Edwards and Marques Anderson are (competing). Last year it was a struggle for us when LeRoy went down.
Q: Since Wolf retired after the 2001 draft you have been in charge and matching wits with people like Al Davis, Jerry Jones, Dan Rooney, Mike Shanahan, Bill Polian and Bill Belichick, among others. Initially, did you doubt your ability? Have you surprised yourself, or was your confidence always high?
A: My confidence has always been high. I never had a problem with that because I have extreme confidence in my ability to learn. I never doubted myself even though I knew that at the beginning I wasn't at my all-time high. I'm still not. Every day I get up and come to work, I learn something. That's understanding where you are. I knew where I was and where I had to get at a certain time, and I got here.
Q: If everything goes according to plan, can you foresee this offense being as explosive as the ones in 1996 and '97?
A: Yes, I can. It all starts with our quarterback. Our quarterback has no diminishing skills from where he was in '96, '97. He may not be as fast as he was then but he's just as elusive, his arm strength is just as good and I actually think he makes better decisions now than he did then. What has to improve for us to be explosive is our running game. It has to be more dominant and like it was in '96. This offense really grew when it became a great run team and a great screen team.
--Retired safety LeRoy Butler will interview and audition with ESPN at mid-week in Bristol, Conn. The cable network is considering Butler for its NFL pre-game show.
"They've got a slot open," Butler said. "They just want me to be myself."
CBS has also contacted Butler about an opening as an analyst for one of their play-by-play teams. Also, ABC is talking to him about being a sideline reporter.
Half a dozen NFL coaches have called Butler since his retirement July 17 but he wouldn't identify them. Most of the clubs would like to hire Butler immediately as a defensive consultant or quality-control/defensive assitant.
"I'm going to throw coaching out for a year," Butler said, who is leaning toward TV. "I want to be with my (four) kids this year."
Packers coach Mike Sherman has interest in retaining Butler as well but told him to take several weeks to think about his future.
"The Packers have first rights to anything," Butler said. "I'm a Packer for life."
--Mike Sherman had the chutzpah to close his 50-minute "State of the Packers" address to club stockholders July 23 with a slide showing the Lombardi Trophy, which goes to the Super Bowl winner.
"I left San Diego a few months ago with a bad taste in my mouth," Sherman said, referring to the Packers' loss to Denver in Super Bowl XXXII when he was coaching their tight ends. "I'd sure like to go back there. That's our goal."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Fifty years from now, I hope people look back and say, 'They did it. They were able to stay elite, stay competitive for the Super Bowl and not have to be banished with lock and key into the cap jail that so many teams have fallen into. No one's done it. It's a monstrous challenge and we're trying to do it. I think we're going to be successful." -- Packers vice president Andrew Brandt, speaking to stockholders at the team's annual meeting.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Defensive end Vonnie Holliday ended his one-day holdout and was on the field for the first full-squad practice of training camp.
Holliday has one year left on his original five-year contract but is seeking a multi-year extension that would pay him at least as much as teammate Joe Johnson, who signed a $5.5 million a year deal in free agency. Holliday has a base salary of $696,000 this year.
The Packers gave Holliday an offer that he considered unacceptable. The team pledges to continue negotiations.
"I don't consider it a holdout," Holliday said. "It was probably the shortest holdout in history.
"It was something very difficult for me to deal with. I'm not that kind of guy. This situation came up and I didn't know exactly what to do."
Asked if he thought his brief holdout sent a message to the Packers that he was serious about wanting an extension, Holliday said he hoped so.
"It is an important matter for me," he said. "I want to get it all cleared up because it's a big part of my life. A lot of people can't understand it. I don't expect Joe at home to understand my concerns or my complaint about what I'm making because it's all relative. The Packers understand that, my teammates understand that, and that's all that's important."
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Hardy Nickerson vs. Torrance Marshall for starting MLB -- Nickerson, who will be 37 in September was signed June 14 when the Packers weren't sure about Marshall's development. After five practices Nickerson has shown the intensity and leadership that has been such a part of him for so long. Meanwhile, Marshall has failed to distinguish himself early.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Robert Ferguson has started out as the No. 1 split end. But he will need to pick it up in order to stay ahead of Javon Walker and Donald Driver ... Antuan Edwards still isn't 100 percent because of his post-operative knee, giving rookie Marques Anderson a lot of reps at strong safety ... Rondell Mealey remains the No. 2 halfback almost by default. Ki-Jana Carter reported a little out of shape.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: CB Mike McKenzie -- Last year, McKenzie probably ranked among the top five or six corners in the NFC. This summer, he has started off extremely. At this point, it's tough to complete a pass on him. He is a great competitor.
ROOKIE REPORT: WR Javon Walker is doing fine ... S Marques Anderson has been solid so far as the No. 2 strong safety ... RB Najeh Davenport has played both fullback and halfback. He also is a legitimate contender to return kickoffs. So far, so good on his post-operative foot ... DE Aaron Kampman is a strong, relentless pass rusher who has been a pleasant surprise ... T-G Michael Houghton started poorly but has a chance based on the last 1 1/2 days ... Free agent C Andy Eby has a chance to unseat Frank Winters as the backup to Mike Flanagan.
INJURY REPORT: T-G Kevin Barry (hamstring) hasn't practiced yet ... T Earl Dotson (knee) had a scope June 7 and isn't expected to practice for 2-3 weeks ... LB Nate Wayne, who had a scope for a patellar problem Feb. 15, has been in and out of practice in the early going ... S Antuan Edwards, had anterior cruciate knee ligament surgery in October, still isn't 100% and has been in and out ... CB Bhawoh Jue pulled a groin muscle late last season and still isn't right. He can't practice and probably won't even try for another week.