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Green Bay Packers have only 4 starting jobs open

Aug. 5, 2011
 

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Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant (25) is all smiles during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011. Photo by Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette

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The Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers are ready to defend their title.

Their roster is so deep, and their talent so plentiful, that only four of 22 starting jobs are up for grabs as they enter the second week of training camp.

Perhaps the most intriguing battle is taking place in the backfield, where halfback Ryan Grant missed almost the entire 2010 season with an ankle injury and rookie James Starks came on like gangbusters late in the season and the playoffs. The Packers also added competition with third-round draft choice Alex Green.

The other starting position up for grabs on offense is at left guard, where rookie first-round draft choice Derek Sherrod is squaring off against T.J. Lang after Daryn Colledge departed in free agency.

On defense, the outside linebacker post opposite Clay Matthews features a three-man tussle involving Frank Zombo, Erik Walden and Brad Jones. At safety, Charlie Peprah will attempt to hang on to the job he assumed after Morgan Burnett went down with a knee injury in the first month of last season.

Injuries always can change the landscape, and thereís no telling which players might emerge from the shadows, but the other starting positions are all but locked up.
Training camp and the preseason will help shape the bottom end of the roster. Otherwise, the Packers are gearing up for another championship run.

Here is a position-by-position breakdown of how the roster should take shape. (The number in parentheses denotes how many players likely will be retained at each position).

Quarterback (3)

Matt Flynn will become an unrestricted free agent after this season, so his preseason performances will serve as a dress rehearsal of sorts for other teams that will consider signing him in 2012. Graham Harrell must prove he can become a credible backup, and itís expected the Packers will keep him on the active roster all season. Meanwhile, the sky is the limit for Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers.

Halfback (3)

Grant has received the bulk of reps with the No. 1 unit early in camp, an indication his injury didnít affect his job status. However, he must prove he hasnít lost a step. Itís possible Grant and Starks will split carries and form a solid 1-2 combination, which will save on wear and tear. Starks also could become the primary third-down back. Or Green could find a change-of-pace role depending on how quickly he learns the offense and develops.

Fullback (2)

Thereís no way the Packers will keep three fullbacks again. I said the same thing last year and was dead wrong. However, with the departure of Korey Hall in free agency, chances are starter John Kuhn and Quinn Johnson will be the only keepers, which will enable the Packers to hang on to an extra tight end.

Tight end (4)

Thereís too much talent at this position to keep only three players. Jermichael Finley should become one of the best tight ends in the NFL, which leaves five players fighting for three jobs. The guess is Tom Crabtree, rookie D.J. Williams and second-year player Andrew Quarless stick, but donít count rookie Ryan Taylor out of the equation. If Quarless canít stay healthy, he might not have a job at the end of camp.

Receiver (5)

This is another loaded position led by Pro Bowler Greg Jennings. Veteran Donald Driver, 36, isnít getting any younger but he is expected to hold off James Jones and Jordy Nelson for the starting job for at least one more year. The addition of second-round draft pick Randall Cobb could spell the end of the line for special teams ace Brett Swain.

Offensive line (9)

Sherrod will be given every chance to win the left guard job, but itís not a guarantee. Rookies sometimes struggle out of the gate on the line, which could open the door for Lang. Chad Clifton, Scott Wells, Josh Sitton and Bryan Bulaga will round out the starting unit. Marshall Newhouse has made an early impression in camp and perhaps could be Cliftonís eventual replacement. Nick McDonald and Evan Dietrich-Smith stand the best chances to fill out the depth chart.

Defensive line (6)

The Packers let Cullen Jenkins get away in free agency with little or no resistance, which serves as a glowing endorsement for second-year player Mike Neal. As long as Neal can stay healthy, the Packers should be fine. B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett bring considerable beef to the starting unit, and C.J. Wilson has a chance to emerge as a significant contributor. Howard Green and Jarius Wynn are good bets to earn backup roles.

Linebacker (8)

Brad Jones went down with an injury and may not get his starting job back opposite superstar Matthews. Jones will have to beat out Zombo, the likely frontrunner, and Walden. A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop are the inside starters, but a once deep position has been thinned by the departures of Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar. Rookie D.J. Smith is perhaps the next-best option on the inside but has much to prove. Holdover Robert Francois has a decent chance to stay, and itís always possible the Packers keep a ninth linebacker at the expense of some other position.

Cornerback (6)

Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields form a solid 1-2-3 cornerback punch. Pat Lee, rookie Davon House and versatile Jarrett Bush, who remains one of the teamís best special teams players, should fill out the depth chart. Injuries would leave the Packers a little vulnerable, but that didnít stop them from winning the Super Bowl when Woodson and Shields went down.

Safety (4)

Nick Collins is a three-time Pro Bowler and continues to make big plays, such as his Super Bowl interception return for a touchdown. The big question is who will be lined up alongside him. Peprah was a nice fill-in starter and could hold the job if Burnett is slow to return from his injury. Brandon Underwood was shifted to safety from cornerback and will fight Anthony Levine for the No. 4 spot.

Special teams (3)

Kicker Mason Crosby, punter Tim Masthay and long snapper Brett Goode have no competition in training camp, even though the Packers have extra roster spots available with the enlarged 90-man roster. Early indications suggest Alex Green will get first crack at kickoff return duties and Cobb the punt return responsibilities.

Mike Vandermause is sports editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Email him at mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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