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NFL camp preview: Packers must protect their star senior citizen

The SportsXchange

GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- Quarterback Aaron Rodgers isn't just the richest player on the Green Bay Packers' roster, he's suddenly one of the oldest, after an offseason purge of veterans claimed Charles Woodson, Greg Jennings and long-tenured wide receiver Donald Driver retired.

As the Packers report to training camp Thursday and kick off full squad workouts in the shadows of Lambeau Field on Thursday, the focus is on keeping perennial MVP candidate Rodgers, suddenly the longest-tenured Packer, in position to thrive.

At 29-years old, he is entering his ninth NFL season. But the Packers' key senior citizen took a league-high 55 sacks, including the playoffs, last season and he's not familiar with multiple receivers, starting offensive linemen and most of the Packers' depth chart at running back.

Head coach Mike McCarthy made a bold move in the offseason to shuffle his offensive line at all but one of the five positions.

Pro Bowl right guard Josh Sitton and right tackle Bryan Bulaga moved to their respective positions on the left side, and the corresponding tandem of incumbent starters T.J. Lang and Marshall Newhouse slid over to the right side. The spring workouts provided a glimpse into what's to come, but the transition will be accelerated starting with the first camp practice Friday.

McCarthy is counting on his top two linemen -- Sitton and Bulaga, who's healthy again after missing the final two months of last season with a hip injury -- to keep Rodgers safe.

"That's just not acceptable," Bulaga said of the abundance of hits on Rodgers. "You can't have that, and we need to be better."

The Packers still need to solidify a starter at right tackle. Newhouse, who's been a liability in pass protection, will be challenged by a host of young and eager prospects in camp.

McCarthy has been banging the power-running drum since the playoff loss at San Francisco, and understands moving the ball on the ground is a vital element in any equation of which the sum is playoff success.

Meanwhile, the dubious streak is at 50. That's how many games, postseason included, that have passed since Green Bay last had a player rush for 100 yards -- ex-Packer Brandon Jackson still has the distinction going back to Oct. 10, 2010.

While running the football has been passe in Green Bay's offense as long as Rodgers is flinging it to his bevy of receivers, a turning point could be occurring.

With the addition of not one, but two top backs in the draft - Eddie Lacy, a second-round selection from Alabama, and Johnathan Franklin, a fourth-round choice out of UCLA - McCarthy has the ingredients to replace mincemeat with ground beef on the play-calling menu.

"I like the young running backs," Rodgers said. "I think they're different players. Eddie is a bigger back, he can bring some power in the run game. And, Johnathan is a very shifty guy, he's got a lot of moves in the open field. He's a potential three-down back, which gives us an interesting backfield look."

McCarthy went so far as to make a declaration in June about his renewed approach for employing the run. The Packers averaged just 106.4 rushing yards per game and didn't have a back get to even 500 yards last season.

"We'll be better. I can promise you that," McCarthy said. "You can write that down - in big letters."

Still stung by the abomination of allowing young quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers offense rip off 579 total yards in a 45-31 rout in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Packers' defense is a unit in flux.

Five players with starting experience were let go or not re-signed in the offseason, most notably linebackers Desmond Bishop (cut) and Erik Walden (signed as a free agent with the Indianapolis Colts) and defensive back Charles Woodson (cut).

The departure of the 36-year-old Woodson after seven productive seasons in Green Bay has left a significant void on the field as well as off it because of his commanding presence in the locker room.

All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews, entering his fifth pro season, says he's ready to become the new leader of the Pack for a reshaped defense that is under the gun this summer to get things turned around.

"I look forward to that opportunity," Matthews said. "Obviously, I'm a lead-by-example type of guy, but now it's time for my voice to be heard. It will be this year."

-- Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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