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Keep a close eye on Packers' contract front

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Dan Arkush
Executive editor

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By Dan Arkush

Fresh off a quick two-day visit to the Packers’ training camp, what stuck out most in my mind was a strong sense that something pretty big could be brewing on the team’s contract front.

To be specific, while GM Ted Thompson has stayed true to form as far as refusing to talk openly about anything even remotely regarding the team’s contract situation, I can’t help feeling that either Aaron Rodgers, the team’s franchise player on offense, or Clay Matthews, one of two defensive centerpieces along with veteran S-CB Charles Woodson, is on the cusp of signing a new contract — perhaps quite soon.

I brought up the possibility of a major signing often while commiserating with numerous camp observers on the sidelines during the practices I observed, and the consensus seemed to be that I was probably onto something, although it hardly takes a gridiron genius to connect the appropriately colored green-and-gold dots.

For starters, few franchises are as well-heeled at the moment as the Packers. Roughly $11 million under the salary cap the last time I checked, it would appear they have the necessary resources to make something happen — even with Rodgers, who almost certainly would be entering Drew Brees’ high-rent neighborhood to the tune of at least $20 million over five years and a $40 million signing bonus.

A-Rod, who looked very sharp for the most part in the two practice sessions I witnessed along with fellow PFW editor Kevin Fishbain, currently has three years left on the six-year, $65 million contract he signed Nov. 1, 2008.

That the Packers re-upped with Brett Favre back in March 2001 with three years remaining on his contract, signing him to a 10-year, $101.5 million deal that made him the NFL’s richest player at the time, seems to me to be more than just a most intriguing coincidence.

On top of that, Thompson has made a habit in recent years of re-signing key players with the regular season fast approaching, the most recent example being P Tim Masthay, who deserves every penny he received and then some. Other noteworthy examples include WR Jordy Nelson, ILB Desmond Bishop and PK Mason Crosby.

At the end of the day, though, the contract game plans for three key players are the most important steppingstones to the Packers’ future — Rodgers, Matthews and No. 1 WR Greg Jennings, who is entering his contract year.

The more I think about it, the more likely it might be that a new deal gets nailed down for Matthews before Rodgers. With two years left on the five-year, $9.925 million deal he signed as a rookie on July 29, 2009, Matthews could get a significant hike in pay but not break the bank.

Could the Pack pull off the ultimate payroll parlay and re-up with both of their biggest stars? That’s probably stretching it. But if either Matthews or Rodgers gets a new deal before the Packers’ regular-season opener against the 49ers, I would hardly be surprised.

As for Jennings, while he has established himself as a top-of-the-line pass catcher, I don’t think the team is in a hurry to re-sign him, taking into account its growing embarrassment of riches at wide receiver.

Here are four other camp observations that I can’t get out of my head:

• If you had to identify the Packers’ weakest position at the moment, it would have to be the offensive line, which is interesting considering that their starting unit actually looks rock-solid. Jeff Saturday looks like he will fit right in for the departed Scott Wells at center, and I don’t think you can find a stronger right side of the line than OT Bryan Bulaga and OG Josh Sitton, whose massive presence can’t be denied. But with former first-round OT Derek Sherrod looking like he might start the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, the O-line’s backup situation is downright scary. Entering Thursday night’s preseason opener, the projected No. 2 line was as follows: OLT Andrew Datko, OLG Don Barclay, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, ORG Tommie Draheim and ORT Shea Allard. God forbid if any of the starters goes down for the count.

• On the other side of the line, the depth actually looks greatly improved with the veteran additions of Anthony Hargrove, Phillip Merling and Daniel Muir and the rookie additions of Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, among others. Even though Hargrove and Mike Neal are facing suspensions to start the season, and Daniels has been a disappointment with knee and groin injuries keeping him off the field since July 31, the Packers appear to be exerting a lot of positive energy up front. Worthy has a burst off the ball to die for, and he is constantly chatting teammates up, going out of his way to absorb the Packers’ scheme. Merling, a natural 3-4 defender his entire pro career, also has been showing off second-round skills that could come in very handy down the road.

• The strongest position by far remains wide receiver, with young Diondre Borel in particular adding fresh new blood to a unit already overflowing with talent. Jordy Nelson, who had a breakout season in 2011, has had an outstanding training camp. His growing chemistry with Rodgers is something to see. As for Donald Driver, he still seems to have plenty of game. While it’s possible he could get caught up in a numbers game, it’s more likely that the promising Tori Gurley, who has been battling groin problems, ends up being on the outside looking in. And Gurley is no slouch. In any event, the rich have gotten richer.

• One can’t help but be really impressed with the Packers’ obvious camaraderie. In the locker room after Tuesday’s practice, Nelson was asked to come up with one word that best described this Packers’ team. “Togetherness,” Nelson said. “Just last night, when we were all playing cards, there were guys at three different tables. It’s such a mixture of personalities, but everybody gets along so well. It’s just a really tight group. And this is with 90 guys! I’ve been impressed with that aspect of the team since Day One."

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