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To Aaron Rodgers, cautious preseason approach began with Jordy Nelson's ACL tear

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The NFL preseason ain’t what it used to be, at least it’s not for the Green Bay Packers’ signature players. And Aaron Rodgers knows one of the reasons why: Jordy Nelson’s knee.

“When you have a major injury to a star player like we had last year in the preseason, I think it’s only natural that there’s a little bit of a more cautious approach to the rest of that preseason and then to the next season,” Rodgers said Monday.

Rodgers, who is entering his 12th NFL season and his ninth as the Packers’ starting quarterback, is not expected to play in Thursday night’s preseason game against the Oakland Raiders at Lambeau Field. He wasn’t slated to play in the Aug. 7 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game before it was canceled due to field conditions, and he didn’t suit up for Friday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, one of 17 players who sat out.

In fact, Rodgers sounded Monday as if he expects to play in just one preseason game this year: Aug. 26 at San Francisco. It’s possible other high-profile starters won’t play in any other games, either.

And while Rodgers has made it clear that he believes he can get the work he needs in practice, he believes the bigger reason he and other key players aren’t going to see much game action this summer goes back to Nelson tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during an Aug. 23, 2015, preseason game at Pittsburgh.

Rodgers is convinced that losing Nelson for the year threw off the Packers’ entire offense last season, when the unit plummeted to No. 23 in the 32-team league in yards and No. 15 in scoring. In the wake of Nelson’s injury, Rodgers emphasized several times in his postgame news conference that day that his Pro Bowl wide receiver had been lost “in a meaningless game.

“You’re seeing some of the marquee players play less,” Rodgers said after Monday’s practice, during which he ran the scout team. “Running backs notoriously haven’t played a whole lot in the preseason, but now you’re seeing quarterbacks play less and less. Obviously, my reps have gone down over the years. It’s just the way it is.

“I think everybody feels like four or five [preseason games] is probably more than we need to get ready. But until they make a change there, that’s the way it’s going to be, and we’re going to be smart about it.”

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, a two-time NFL head coach with Carolina and Houston who started his NFL coaching career in 1986, said he has seen teams’ approach to the preseason change “tremendously” in recent years.

“You certainly have to adjust with it,” Capers said. “There was a time that probably the third preseason game you took a lot of your [starters] well into the third quarter. That doesn’t happen much anymore. There might be a specific guy or two that you feel like you’ve got to give more reps and get a good look at him in terms of how they respond against the No. 1 offense and that type of thing.

“That hasn’t been the case lately. You’ve got to get a good look at your people so you can hopefully make the right decisions for your team.”

Back in spring, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy said he planned to devote many of the extra preseason game snaps to young players, but it appears he’s giving the young guys some of the veterans’ regularly scheduled snaps too.

“That’s why the preseason games are so important,” McCarthy said last week. “That’s the kind of environment you want to evaluate your players in, especially the young free agents.”

And that, as far as Rodgers is concerned, is proof of his other theory on why fewer and fewer veterans are seeing extended playing time in these "meaningless" games. To Rodgers, the 2011 collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association -- while curtailing the amount of offseason work and removing the burden of two-a-day training-camp practices -- had the unintended consequence of altering how teams prepare their young players during camp.

That’s especially important in Green Bay, where the Packers annually are among the league’s youngest teams.

“I think in general, since we’ve had the CBA changes, we’ve seen some different development of the young players. When I was a young player, we were in here March 15. Now, we haven’t been in here before Tax Day,” Rodgers said, referring to the limits put on offseason programs since 2011. “You’re looking at a month less of offseason work for the young guys, so that translates to needing more time in the preseason games.

“Really, everything’s changed."

"The practice time is just so limited in comparison to what it was in ’05, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09," Rodgers continued. "I think it’s better for our bodies, but in order to make up some of that lost time, you have to add extra meeting time and more opportunities when the games roll around.”