Don’t bet on the Green Bay Packers’ keeping three fullbacks on their 53-man roster again.
They did it last year at a position where some teams keep only one man because they had two competent veterans in John Kuhn and Korey Hall, plus a fifth-round draft pick they especially liked in Quinn Johnson.
But coach Mike McCarthy’s liberal use of two tight-end places a higher value on that position than fullback, and with an unusually good group of five tight ends in training camp this year, the Packers are more likely to go heavier than normal at that position and keep four players.
“The fullback and the tight end position, the way we train our players, there’s a lot of carryover,” McCarthy said after a recent training camp practice. “With that, you have eight men (in training camp) fighting for those positions, whether it’s three fullbacks and three tight ends, or four tight ends and two fullbacks, however that combination works out.”
Injuries could make the decisions for the Packers, but as things stand, the former draft pick Johnson is anything but a sure thing to make the final 53.
General Manager Ted Thompson’s drafting of Johnson in the fifth round last year was something of a surprise because the Packers already had Kuhn and Hall at a position that’s getting closer and closer to extinct as the NFL game evolves. But Thompson loved the former LSU player’s size (6-feet-1, 263 pounds) and power as a lead blocker and special teams prospect, so he anted up the draft pick.
Johnson was only a bit player last year – he appeared in nine games – but in the final month of the season showed some ability to displace linebackers as a sledgehammer blocker. So the Packers were hoping he might seize that lead-blocking role this year and add a more physical dimension to their run game.
At this early point in training camp, it hasn’t happened. Johnson still is working behind both Kuhn and Hall in practice, and at least as importantly has yet to move up the depth charts as a special teams player. Heading into this week’s preseason opener against Cleveland, Johnson isn’t on any of the Packers’ No. 1 special teams units, whereas Kuhn and Hall are established special teams starters.
“That (fullback) position might be a little harder to evaluate (in practice),” said Joe Philbin, the Packers’ offensive coordinator, “when you look at the (low) number of snaps that we get in a two-back offense against our defense, because of all the third down you practice, all the red zone you practice. I haven’t really thought in terms of he hasn’t taken a big jump. Preseason (games are) going to be very valuable for him, and we’re going to get a good evaluation of him as we go.”
It’s not that Johnson has been a big disappointment, because the Packers knew when they drafted him he wouldn’t be as skilled a player as Kuhn and Hall. To that end, Johnson dropped a pass in last weekend’s Family Night scrimmage.
But Thompson must have wanted a bigger, more physically dominating option at fullback – Kuhn weighs 250 pounds, and Hall weighs 235 – or he wouldn’t have drafted Johnson. So with his shortcomings as a receiver and on special teams, Johnson will have to be a standout as a lead blocker in the exhibition games to win a roster spot in his second season.
“I don’t want to give away any trade secrets and say we’re never going to throw the ball to those (fullbacks),” Philbin said, “but safe to say, that’s the secondary commodity we’re looking at, at that position. We’d love to have one, we’d love the complete guy, no question. But if we’re going to be in a two-back offense, you better be able to step up and pick up a linebacker, and you better be able to do some lead blocking for your running back.”
At tight end, all five players in camp are viable for a roster spot. Starter Jermichael Finley has had as good a training camp as any player on the team and is a key piece of the Packers’ offense. Behind him, Donald Lee, Spencer Havner, rookie Andrew Quarless and 2009 practice squad player Tom Crabtree are going for probably three spots.
Havner appears recovered from the broken shoulder blade that sidelined him in the offseason, and the combination of his surprising play last year (four touchdown receptions) in his conversion from linebacker to tight end, plus his value as a core special teams player, bodes well for him.
Quarless, a fifth-round draft pick, might be too raw to help much this season, but if they consider cutting him to sign him to their practice squad, the Packers will have to weigh the risk of another team picking him up based on talent alone.
Lee’s age isn’t helping him – he turns 30 at the end of this month – but with 58 NFL starts he’d be a security blanket in case Finley gets injured.
And the 24-year-old Crabtree has been one of the team’s surprises of training camp and is the most ferocious blocker of the group.
“You have a guy that’s contributed for five years in Donald Lee,” Philbin said. “You’ve got a guy that flashed last year in Finley. Havner contributed a year ago, this kid Crabtree is a tough, hard-nosed football player, and you drafted a rookie who’s coming along. It’s a good group.”