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Who's a lock? Who's a long shot? Breaking down the Green Bay Packers roster

Aug. 24, 2011
 

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Fullback John Kuhn makes a catch druing Green Bay Packers Training Camp at Ray Nitschke Field Monday, August 22, 2011. / File/Press-Gazette

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The last two years, the Green Bay Packers have done the seemingly unthinkable and kept three fullbacks, a position that’s nearing extinction in the NFL.

Could they do a turnabout this season and drop that position to one, and maybe do something equally unthinkable by keeping five tight ends?

Yes, they could, taking into consideration their depth at that position and coach Mike McCarthy’s affinity for tight ends because of their flexibility in personnel groupings and on special teams.

“If you look at our roster makeup of the 53 cutdown, it’s changed every year,” said Ted Thompson, who has been the Packers’ general manager since 2005. “It kind of depends on the circumstances at that particular time.”

The Packers have three fullbacks on their training camp roster, but only two, John Kuhn and Quinn Johnson, are in the running for spots on the 53-man roster. Final cuts are Sept. 3.

It’s a given Kuhn will make the team. He can lead block, handle third downs in protection and as a receiver, and in a pinch play halfback.

On the other hand, Johnson, a third-year pro, is niche player, so his chances of making the roster rest mostly on how much the Packers think they need that niche. At 6-foot-1 and 263 pounds, he’s bigger than Kuhn (6-0, 250) and more of a sledgehammer blocker. His main value is lead blocking on short-yardage and goal-line downs, and in the inverted wishbone McCarthy likes to deploy a couple times a game.

Working against Johnson is a roster that has six NFL-worthy tight ends. The Packers will have to cut at least one, and if they want to keep five, it’s hard to see how there will be room for Johnson.

Following is a position-by-position breakdown of the Packers’ roster heading into their third preseason game, which is Friday night at Indianapolis (the number of players they’re likely to keep at each position is in parentheses):

Running backs (4 to 5)

Locks: RB James Starks, RB Ryan Grant, FB John Kuhn, RB Alex Green.

On the bubble: FB Quinn Johnson, RB Dimitri Nance, RB Brandon Saine.

Long shot: FB Jon Hoese.

Comment: The Packers usually keep at least five halfbacks and fullbacks combined, but there’s a chance it will be four this year. Earlier this month Grant accepted a pay cut that guarantees his $2.5 million salary, so he’ll be on the team. Green, a third-round pick, has flashed open-field running ability, and though he missed a big blitz pickup last week against Arizona, he’s in the running for the third-down halfback job. Nance, signed last year off Atlanta’s practice squad after Grant’s season ended in Week 1, has had a good camp and is in the running to make it as a third-down back. Saine is more likely a practice-squad candidate.

Tight ends (4 or 5)

Locks: Jermichael Finley, D.J. Williams.

Good bet: Ryan Taylor.

On the bubble: Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree, Spencer Havner.

Comment: Williams, a fifth-round pick, is a natural as a receiver and could become a playmaker. Taylor, a seventh-rounder, has the makings of an excellent blocker and decent receiver, and could be a special-teams standout as a rookie. Quarless raised red flags with two injuries in the first two weeks of camp (hip flexor, groin) but returned quickly from the groin and has been an effective receiver the last week or so. He’s probably too big and talented to get cut in only his second season, and a Packers nightmare would be seeing him show up as a productive receiver on a rival’s roster. Crabtree has been prone to the occasional bad drop in practice but probably is the best blocker and a core special teams player. Havner’s chances took a major hit because he’s missed nearly two weeks of practice — a quirk in the new CBA prevented him from practicing until Aug. 4, and he’s just returned from a hamstring injury that sidelined him a full week.

Receivers (5 or 6)

Locks: Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb, Donald Driver.

On the bubble: Chastin West, Tori Gurley, Shaky Smithson, Brett Swain, Diondre Borel.

Long shots: Antonio Robinson, Kerry Taylor.

Comment: The Packers’ quality here is impressive — they might have 10 NFL-caliber receivers — but other roster issues and game-day realities might mean they keep only five. West and Gurley have separated a little from the pack going for the possible sixth spot. West, who spent last season on the practice squad, isn’t a burner but has good strength and hands and impressed with his 97-yard touchdown last week against Arizona. Gurley lacks suddenness but has a hard-to-find quality in his 6-4 height and is an inviting target for high throws along the sideline, where he’s shown an ability to go over defensive backs for the catch. Borel, an undrafted rookie, is a converted quarterback with good body control and instincts, and Smithson shows some elusiveness as a runner and return man. All are practice-squad candidates if they don’t make the final 53. Swain, a core special teams player last year, saw his chances take a big hit when he missed two weeks of camp because of a hamstring injury.

Offensive line (9 or 10)

Locks: T Chad Clifton, G T.J. Lang, C Scott Wells, G Josh Sitton, T Bryan Bulaga, T-G Derek Sherrod.

Good bets: T Marshall Newhouse, G Caleb Schlauderaff, C-G Nick McDonald.

On the bubble: C-G Evan Dietrich-Smith, T Chris Campbell, G-T Ray Dominguez.

Long shots: G Adrian Battles, T Theo Sherman, C-G Sampson Genus.

Comment: Newhouse has made a jump from last year and is pressing Sherrod for the backup job at tackle. The Packers have loved McDonald’s big, square build since he made the roster last season as an undrafted rookie, and he figures to make it because he played guard primarily last year. But his play strength has to improve, especially at his new position, center, where he hasn’t shown he’s their starter of the future. Dietrich-Smith remains viable because he’s played at least as well as McDonald. Schlauderaff looks like a decent prospect with OK athletic ability at guard, but like McDonald, needs strength. Dominguez, an undrafted rookie, is a developmental prospect who looked overmatched at right tackle but has played a little better since moving primarily to right guard last week. He’s a practice-squad possibility. Campbell, a practice-squad player last year, was making a strong argument for the final 53 until he tore his medical collateral ligament a week into camp.

Quarterbacks (2 or 3)

Locks: Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn.

Good bet: Graham Harrell.

Comment: Harrell isn’t at Flynn’s level at the same point in their careers, but he’s not that far behind. It’s hard to see the Packers finding better on the waiver wire, and he’s played more than well enough that they’d likely lose him if they’d try to slip him through waivers and onto their practice squad.

Defensive line (6 or 7)

Locks: NT-DE B.J. Raji, DE-NT Ryan Pickett, DE Mike Neal, DE-NT Howard Green.

Good bets: DE C.J. Wilson, DE Jarius Wynn.

On the bubble: DE Lawrence Guy, NT Jay Ross.

Long shot: DE Eli Joseph.

Comment: Wilson started camp slowly and sustained a concussion last week at Arizona, but with the huge improvement he made through last season, it’s hard to see the Packers letting him go. Wynn isn’t nearly as strong or dynamic as Neal but might provide some inside rush if Neal’s knee injury is worse than the Packers are saying. Guy looked overwhelmed early but was making strides before recurring concussion symptoms sidelined him starting last week. He’s a good candidate for the practice squad if he doesn’t make it, though if Wilson’s concussion is worse than his, Guy might have a chance.

Linebackers (8 or 9)

Locks: OLB Clay Matthews, OLB Erik Walden, ILB A.J. Hawk, ILB Desmond Bishop, ILB D.J. Smith.

Good bets: ILB Robert Francois, OLB Brad Jones.

On the bubble: OLB Frank Zombo, OLB Vic So’oto, OLB Jamari Lattimore, ILB Cardia Jackson.

Long shots: ILB Elijah Joseph, ILB K.C. Asiodu, OLB Ricky Elmore.

Comment: Smith, a sixth-round draft pick, is undersized but looks like a good football player and is closing in on Francois for the top backup job at inside linebacker. Zombo was on track for splitting time with Walden at right outside linebacker before he suffered a broken shoulder blade last week against Arizona. Zombo probably will miss six weeks, if not more, and the Packers will have to decide at final cuts whether to carry him on the roster until he can play or put him on injured reserve. Jones’ odds went way up when he returned in less than a week from a knee injury only two days after the Packers announced Zombo’s injury. Jones has had an OK camp but hasn’t rushed the passer like he did when he had four sacks in the final seven games of his rookie season in 2009. So’oto looked out of place early in camp in his transition from defensive end in college to outside linebacker in the NFL, but he’s flashed some pass-rush power on the edge in the last week or so. Lattimore, an undrafted rookie from Middle Tennessee State, showed quickness as an outside rusher early in camp but leveled off and at 230 pounds looks like a practice-squad type player who needs more strength. Jackson, a first-year pro, is a decent athlete and made several plays in pass coverage this week but will need to do it in a preseason game to knock Francois off the roster. Elmore, a sixth-round pick, has had a tough time transitioning from end to standup linebacker. He’s better in coverage than at the start of the camp but hasn’t made gains as a standup rusher.

Secondary (10)

Locks: CB Charles Woodson, CB Tramon Williams, S Nick Collins, S Morgan Burnett, CB Sam Shields, CB Davon House.

Good bets: CB-S Jarrett Bush.

On the bubble: S Charlie Peprah, CB Josh Gordy, S-CB Brandon Underwood, S Anthony Levine, S M.D. Jennings, CB Pat Lee.

Long shots: S Anthony Bratton, CB Brandian Ross.

Comment: House was the second-best rookie in camp, behind only Cobb, before missing 2˝ weeks because of a pulled hamstring. He’s back this week and still in the running with Bush for the No. 4 cornerback job. Gordy probably has inched ahead of Lee, a former second-round draft pick, for the sixth and final cornerback spot. Lee is bigger (6-0 to Gordy’s 5-11), but Gordy is faster and has more want-to. Peprah, Underwood, Levine and Jennings are going for the two backup safety spots. Peprah, who is 28, would be hard to cut after holding up well as a starter last year in Burnett’s absence. Peprah’s lack of speed in coverage can be an issue, but he would provide a steady hand as a defensive quarterback if one of the starters goes down. Underwood is the most talented of the group but missed two weeks because of a knee injury and in his third season needs to prove he has a professional mindset. Levine, who was on the practice squad all last season, was playing fine until he sustained a concussion last week. He’ll miss a second preseason game this week, so his odds are sliding. Jennings, an undrafted rookie from Arkansas State, is small (187 pounds) but covers OK and is a willing tackler.

Specialists (3)

Locks: K Mason Crosby, P Tim Masthay, LG Brett Goode.

Comment: The Packers appear to be stronger in these three spots collectively than they have been for years.

pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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