No. 3 Wide Receiver. Contenders: Randall Cobb, James Jones, Donald Driver.
Yes, Driver technically started 15 games in 2011, but in terms of snaps he's long since been eclipsed by Jordy Nelson. Most media outlets are handing this battle to Cobb, the electrifying returner who took a kickoff back 108 yards against New Orleans, then added a punt return TD against Minnesota. A year after averaging 27.7 yards a kickoff and 11.3 per punt, the consensus is that Cobb is ready for bigger things--perhaps even displacing the perennially drop-prone Jones from the No. 3 spot. Predicted winner: Cobb.
Inside Linebacker. Contenders: A.J. Hawk, D.J. Smith, Robert Francois, Terrell Manning, Jamari Lattimore, Brad Jones.
Hawk is the anointed starter and is signed through 2015, but you have to think there's some pressure on him heading into Year 7. In fourteen games in 2011, Hawk didn't produce a single turnover play and had a relatively modest 84 tackles. Smith managed 27 tackles and a pick in 2 1/2 games of relief, while Francois had two picks and forced a fumble. Manning, the rookie, is billed as a superior cover man to Hawk; Jones and Lattimore, converted outside linebackers, have yet to make their marks. Again, two-ish weeks before training camp, Hawk has little to fear. If Smith or Francois has a superior camp, however, Hawk could see less and less playing time; as recently as Week 1 of 2010, he was on the sidelines for all but nine snaps (if memory serves). Predicted winner: Hawk keeps the starting job, but Smith eats into Hawk's snaps.
No. 3 Cornerback. Contenders: Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Davon House, Jarrett Bush.
The last time Ted Thompson picked a cornerback in the second round, it was the disappointing Pat Lee, so I'm not holding out a ton of hope for Hayward. He's billed as an instinctive zone corner, though, and the Packers don't have a lot of guys that are good at zone. House is a total unknown after being a "redshirt" last year, as Bob McGinn put it in the Journal Sentinel. As for Shields, he's essentially started for two years (since Green Bay plays so much nickel defense) but regressed last year. He couldn't tackle worth a damn and often got outmuscled or outmaneuvered going for the ball. Although Bush has never been great in coverage, he has physicality in spades. Shields will have a fight on his hands to keep the nickel corner spot in 2012. Predicted winner: House, based on gut feeling only. Hayward will battle Bush for the dime back spot and probably win.
Running Back. Contenders: James Starks, Alex Green, Brandon Saine.
This one isn't a fight for the starting job so much as it's a battle for playing time. After splitting duties in 2011 with Ryan Grant, it's up to Starks to show that he can handle the job full-time without getting injured. His 133 carries from '11 could easily double in '12. Whether they do depends on Green's comeback from a knee injury in his rookie year, and on whether Saine can mature into a capable third-down back. The Packers would love for either Starks, Green or Saine to replace John Kuhn in the third-down, do-everything role. Predicted winner: Green and Starks are in a time-share by midseason, while Saine and Kuhn split the third-down duties.
Strong Safety. Contenders: Charlie Peprah, Jerron Macmillan, M.D. Jennings.
Like Hayward, all I know about Macmillan emerged in post-draft interviews conducted by the Journal Sentinel. According to those, he's an enthusiastic hitter who tries to knock people out, something the back half of the defense has been missing ever since Atari Bigby's heyday in 2007. Jennings made the 53-man roster a year ago and played mainly on special teams; he's faster than any other contender, but who knows if he can play just yet. After two seasons, the Packers basically know what they're getting from Peprah: a solid, rather slow, unspectacular player who makes more plays than he should (another McGinn-ism). Predicted winner: Jennings. With speed and ball skills, he learns how to hit in '12. Safety is not an easy position for rookies, and Peprah is at his ceiling potential-wise.
Nickel Defensive Tackle/End. Contenders: Jerel Worthy, Anthony Hargrove, Mike Daniels, Daniel Muir, Jarius Wynn, C.J. Wilson, Phillip Merling, Mike Neal, etc.
Raise your hand if you seriously thought Thompson was going to go out and sign a bunch of low-cost, low-risk, high-reward veterans to try and fill the hole Cullen Jenkins left behind. If your hand is raised, you're either considerably smarter than me or just way more optimistic.
Of the bunch, Muir figures to be more of a Ryan Pickett/Howard Green-style run-stuffer. Wilson and Wynn have had two and three years to make their marks, but neither has really done so; unless either one makes a big jump in training camp, they're unlikely to stick on the roster. Hargrove has an eight-game suspension to serve but is small and light enough (it's all relative) to squeeze through gaps and pressure the QB. Worthy and Daniels have yet to prove anything, although both were reportedly picked largely for pass-rush potential. Merling is a spaghetti signing in the New England Patriots/Seattle Seahawks mold: grab a former first-rounder with great size off the street and see if he sticks. There's no reason to expect anything from Neal. Predicted winner: Worthy, Hargrove (post-suspension) and Merling split time. The Packers benefit from competition among this group, and the more pass-rushers that emerge, the better off they'll be.