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Pack issues: Green Bay seeks answer at TE

GREEN BAY, Wisc. (TSX) — With a defense streamlined by coordinator Dom Capers and an offense looking for help to support star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, head coach Mike McCarthy has plenty of issues to address when the Green Bay Packers begin training camp practice July 26 at St. Norbert College.

Wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are trolling for contract extensions, a situation made even more dramatic by the team’s decision — thus far — not to re-sign tight end Jermichael Finley despite medical clearance from doctors.

His absence would leave tight end as arguably the Packers’ weakest position. Still some optimists say Green Bay hasn’t completely shut the door on him, evidenced by keeping the nameplate above the free agent’s locker this offseason. However, the chances of Finley playing football again — and doing so with the Packers — after he sustained a career-threatening bruised spinal cord on a helmet-to-helmet hit last fall dwindle by the day.

Minus Finley, the Packers don’t have a formidable over-the-middle tight end on the roster. A serviceable Andrew Quarless is penciled in as the starter, but he was relegated to bystander wearing a cap during the open spring workouts. That merely increases the urgency for Green Bay to get second-year prospect Brandon Bostick and athletic rookie Richard Rodgers, a third-round draft pick out of Cal, ready as Finley’s potential successors.

One key training camp battle will be at free safety. General manager Ted Thompson addressed the team’s biggest need this offseason by taking former Alabama playmaker Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of the draft with the No. 21 pick. However, Clinton-Dix hasn’t been anointed the savior of the back end of Green Bay’s defense, which didn’t have one interception or a forced fumble by a safety all last season.

During minicamp, Clinton-Dix played second fiddle to Micah Hyde in the pecking order beside returning strong safety Morgan Burnett. Hyde, a natural cornerback who played considerably and contributed in the nickel role as a rookie last season, is cut in the versatile mold of former Packers standout Charles Woodson. With impressive 2012 rookie nickel back Casey Hayward back in the fold after missing most of last season because of injury, a compelling summer showdown between Hyde and Clinton-Dix at safety is brewing.

Outside linebacker Clay Matthews was hopeful during his spring without football that he would be ready for the start of training camp after he was held out to give himself further recovery time from his twice-broken thumb sustained last season. Whenever Matthews is back on the field, it will provide the first glimpse of the team’s new pass-rushing tandem.

The Packers pounced on signing 13th-year standout Julius Peppers after he was released by Chicago in March. Peppers has made his living ambushing quarterbacks as a defensive end, but he hung out primarily with Green Bay’s linebackers during the offseason program. Capers, though, will utilize the 34 year old in a hybrid “elephant” role. Ditto for Mike Neal, a natural defensive end who worked with Peppers as the starting linebackers with Matthews and Nick Perry sidelined the last two months.

The arrival of Peppers and the return of Neal (career-high five sacks in 2013) as a re-signed free agent in his fifth pro season don’t bode well for Perry, who has been dogged by injuries and inconsistency since being taken in the first round of the 2012 draft.

Green Bay has a logjam at outside linebacker with returnees Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer and rookies Carl Bradford (fourth-round pick) and Adrian Hubbard also in the mix for spots. The coaches plan to stick with the incumbent starting duo of ninth-year player A.J. Hawk and sixth-year man Brad Jones inside in their four-linebacker alignment. Yet, Jamari Lattimore, who produced in four starts last season, should warrant more playing time in some of Capers’ schemes. Just like Hubbard on the outside, Green Bay has a couple undrafted prospects inside with Joe Thomas and Jake Doughty.

The Packers have been impressed by Hubbard, who played at Alabama and went undrafted. Hubbard stands 6-foot-6, weighs 257 pounds and had the longest arm length (34 inches) among outside linebackers at the combine.

Some teams may have backed off on Hubbard because a minor heart abnormality turned up in his testing at the combine. He had 16 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in two years as a starter with Alabama.

On offense, Bryan Bulaga must show that he is all the way back to top form at right tackle. He was welcomed back on the field this spring and without restrictions after missing the entire 2013 season because of a torn ACL sustained in training camp. He was the team’s first-round draft pick in 2010 and isn’t a shoo-in to jump back into the starting lineup.

McCarthy said that Bulaga and Don Barclay are competing for the job at right tackle. That position was Bulaga’s since early in his rookie season before he was moved to left tackle last offseason, only to get injured.

With David Bakhtiari entrenched at left tackle after a solid rookie season, Barclay held his own on the opposite side last season and could be more than just an insurance policy for Bulaga, who has been hampered by significant injuries the last two years.

“Donnie has the ability to play potentially five positions on the offensive line. I don’t know how many guys you can say that about,” McCarthy said.

Here is a snapshot of the Packers lineup heading into training camp:

—QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Aaron Rodgers. Backups — Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien, Chase Rettig.

—RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Eddie Lacy, FB John Kuhn. Backups — James Starks, DuJuan Harris, Michael Hill, Rajion Neal, LaDarius Perkins, FB Ina Liaina.

—TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Andrew Quarless. Backups — Ryan Taylor, Brandon Bostick, Richard Rodgers, Jake Stoneburner, Colt Lyerla, Justin Perillo.

—WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb. Backups — Jarrett Boykin, Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Janis, Myles White, Chris Harper, Kevin Dorsey, Alex Gillett.

—OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT David Bakhtiari, LG Josh Sitton, C JC Tretter, RG T.J. Lang, RT Bryan Bulaga. Backups — T/G Don Barclay, T Derek Sherrod, C Garth Gerhart, C Corey Linsley, G Lane Taylor, T Aaron Adams, G Andrew Tiller, G Jordan McCray, T John Fullington, T Jeremy Vujnovich.

—DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LDE Datone Jones, RDE Mike Daniels, NT B.J. Raji. Backups — T Letroy Guion, E Jerel Worthy, E Josh Boyd, E Khyri Thornton, E Luther Robinson, E Carlos Gray, T Mike Pennel.

—LINEBACKERS: Starters — OLB Clay Matthews, ILB A.J. Hawk, ILB Brad Jones, OLB Julius Peppers. Backups — OLB Nick Perry, OLB Mike Neal, ILB Jamari Lattimore, ILB Sam Barrington, OLB Andy Mulumba, OLB Nate Palmer, OLB Carl Bradford, OLB Adrian Hubbard, ILB Joe Thomas, ILB Jake Doughty, ILB Shaun Lewis, OLB Jayrone Elliott.

—DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Tramon Williams, RCB Sam Shields, FS Morgan Burnett, SS Micah Hyde. Backups — S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, CB Casey Hayward, CB Davon House, CB Jarrett Bush, S Sean Richardson, S Chris Banjo, CB Demetri Goodson, CB Jumal Rolle, CB Ryan White, CB Antonio Dennard, S Charles Clay, S Tanner Miller.

—SPECIAL TEAMS: K Mason Crosby, P Tim Masthay, LS Brett Goode