Depth is vital to the success of any National Football League team, and itís a primary reason the Green Bay Packers are entertaining Super Bowl hopes this season.
While General Manager Ted Thompson has been criticized for the Packersí perceived thin ranks at outside linebacker, halfback and cornerback, those complaints have overshadowed the teamís overall strength.
Consider that in the past year the Packers have lost seven starters to injuries, suspension or free agency. Every team suffers from attrition, but the Packers have not only weathered the loss of roughly one-third of their starting lineup from last season, but continue to flourish in spite of it.
That is only possible because of Thompsonís ability to upgrade nearly every position during his five-plus years on the job. Teams normally learn to manage a handful of injuries or other calamities, but overcoming the loss of seven significant contributors is no small feat.
Letís review the holes the Packers have adequately filled since early last season.
♦ Defensive line: The NFL lowered the boom on Johnny Jolly by imposing a minimum yearlong suspension for violation of the leagueís substance abuse policy. But the Packers have withstood that punch to the gut because Thompson chose B.J. Raji and Mike Neal high in the past two drafts.
♦ Linebacker: First the Packers lost Aaron Kampman to a season-ending knee injury last November, then they lost him for good to Jacksonville in free agency. But Thompson shrewdly moved up into the first round in 2009 to select Clay Matthews, whose six sacks in the first two games have made Kampman a distant memory.
♦ Safety: Injuries have bogged down Atari Bigby since a banner 2007 season, and this year he never made it to training camp because of ankle surgery. Thompson once again worked his draft magic last spring by moving up to grab Morgan Burnett in the third round. The rookie starter still has much to prove, but heís getting better and might have the job locked down even after Bigbyís expected return in midseason.
♦ Cornerback: Al Harris blew out his knee last November and the Packers subsequently blew a pair of potential victories against high-powered passing attacks, including a first-round playoff loss in Arizona. Thompson was least prepared for losing Harris, even though fill-in starter Tramon Williams wasnít a liability. What really hurt was the Packersí struggle to fill Williamsí nickel-back role. Thompson might have solved that problem in the offseason when he plucked hidden gem Sam Shields off the undrafted free agent scrap heap. Shields has yet to face a top-tier quarterback but looks like he could hold his own at least until Harrisí expected return in midseason.
♦ Left tackle: Injuries to Chad Clifton last season usually spelled disaster. With Clifton in and out of the lineup and no adequate backup plan, the Packers allowed more sacks than any other team in 2009. Thompson stopped the bleeding by using a first-round draft pick on Bryan Bulaga, who is expected to receive his first start Monday night against the Chicago Bears after Cliftonís 34-year-old knees failed him again. Thereís no guarantee Bulaga can handle Bears all-world defensive end Julius Peppers, but he leaves the Packers in much better shape than last year.
♦ Center: Hardly anyone remembers Jason Spitz entered last season as the starter. He barely lasted a month before a bad back shut him down. The benched Scott Wells came on strong and has refused to give back his job. Spitz, meanwhile, has 45 career starts on his resume and provides a comforting backup option at center and guard.
♦ Running back: Brandon Jackson gave no indication against Buffalo last week that he can adequately replace starter Ryan Grant, who was lost for the season in the opener. That might be why coach Mike McCarthy has opted to dole out handoffs using a running-back-by-committee approach. The lack of a dynamic rusher might not matter because the Packers have so many other offensive weapons.
That is a luxury that only comes with depth, something the Packers possess in abundance up and down the roster.
Mike Vandermause is sports editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.