Packers’ youth has LaFleur feeling as if he’s a first-year coach again heading into training camp

Published 5:33 pm Tuesday, July 25, 2023

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Matt LaFleur enters his fifth season as the Green Bay Packers head coach feeling as though he’s just getting started.

The trade of a four-time MVP quarterback has a way of doing that.

“It feels like Year 1, quite frankly,” LaFleur said Tuesday, the day before the Packers begin their first training camp since the trade of Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets. “It feels like we’re right back where we started when I first got hired here.”

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The exit of Rodgers and several other veterans make this one of Green Bay’s most intriguing camps in recent memory.

New first-team quarterback Jordan Love has started only one game since the Packers selected him out of Utah State with the 26th overall pick in the 2020 draft. Many of his receivers are also young and inexperienced.

LaFleur said the biggest obstacle heading into camp is all the unknowns now that Rodgers has moved on.

“Every year has its own unique set of challenges,” said LaFleur, who led the Packers to three straight 13-win seasons before they slipped to 8-9 last season. “But I think it’s going to be how quickly we can acclimate these young players and get them ready to roll and how we come together as a team. So there’s a lot of excitement today.”

There’s a lot of youth, as well.

Green Bay’s top two returning wideouts are Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs, who were rookies last season. The Packers gave Love a few more options by drafting Oregon State tight end Luke Musgrave and Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed in the second round as well as South Dakota State tight end Tucker Kraft in the third.

The Packers passed up on adding a veteran receiver after the departure of Allen Lazard, whose 60 catches for 788 yards led Green Bay in both categories last season. Lazard and Rodgers are now teammates with the Jets.

“If the right player and the right price and all that kind of stuff comes around, we’ll certainly contemplate it and see if that makes some sense,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “But the players we have right now in that group need to play. They need the reps.”

That could lead to an adjustment in how the Packers handle their preseason games.

The past two years, the Packers didn’t play most of their starters in any exhibition games. They already essentially knew what they had and figured the reps the first-team players got in joint practices during training camp would suffice.

Now that this team is less experienced in key areas, LaFleur said he hasn’t decided on how he might use his starters in the preaseason games.

“I think it’s going to be fluid in regard to that approach,” LaFleur said. “We’ll kind of take it one day at a time and really want to feel where we’re at. And if it’s something that we feel that they need to play a little more in the preseason, then we’ll do that.”

Gutekunst said he has mixed emotions about using Love in preseason games, and he said that applied to all the young players on Green Bay’s roster.

“It’s a little bit of that double-edged thing,” Gutekunst said. “You’d like to see him play a lot if you could promise me we could protect him and keep him healthy, you know. I think that will probably be something Matt, as he goes through it, it’s a feel thing for what he feels he needs. I go back and forth.”

Love and his receivers already will get chances to test themselves before the season when the Packers have joint practices against two different teams. They’ve scheduled a joint practice with the Bengals in Cincinnati on Aug. 9 and two practice sessions with the New England Patriots from Aug. 16-17 in Green Bay.

That should give LaFleur’s staff a little better idea about what they can expect from their young offense heading into the Sept. 10 season opener at Chicago.

“I think we’ve got a lot of talented players,” LaFleur said. “And it’s everybody’s responsibility to get them to become the best version of themselves sooner than later.”