In Dom Capers’ first season as their defensive coordinator in 2009, the Green Bay Packers kept nine defensive backs on their opening-day roster.
In Year 2, they kept 10.
And Year 3? It’s among the hardest position groups to predict the final spots going into the Packers’ preseason finale against Kansas City on Thursday night.
This weekend, General Manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will decide whether their personnel dictates going a little heavy or light at a couple of positions. And if they go heavy and keep, say, five tight ends, or decide they want John Kuhn and Quinn Johnson at fullback, then they’ll have to go lighter somewhere else.
That somewhere else could be the secondary, where Capers no doubt would prefer to keep 10 players but might have to make do with nine.
“It’s kind of fluid,” Capers said of the roster. “You don’t etch it in stone because you want to keep your best football players. As I mentioned, you don’t ever have enough of those cover-type guys.”
The roster spots on the line are the No. 4 safety and the No. 6 cornerback, though with the former, it’s not just whether Brandon Underwood or Anthony Levine will get the job, it’s whether the Packers will keep four safeties at all.
Nick Collins and Morgan Burnett are the undisputed starters at safety, and 28-year-old Charlie Peprah is the clear-cut No. 3.
The Packers usually keep a fourth, though they could use backup cornerback Jarrett Bush as the No. 4 safety if they think they need the extra roster spot. Bush appears to be the No. 4 cornerback, so he’ll be the dime back plus the first cornerback off the bench in the nickel if Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams or Sam Shields gets injured. For what it’s worth, Bush didn’t work at safety in this training camp, though he played some safety earlier in his career.
“I think Bush can play two or three positions,” Capers said, “and you’re always looking for those guys that can, because they’re going to have to do it. You start going to your (46-man) game-day roster, some guys are going to have to play one position and back up another position or two, especially with the way we play, because we play so many different personnel groups.”
The Packers have two players they’re at least intrigued by for that fourth safety, but they haven’t had much chance to evaluate Underwood and Levine in training camp.
Underwood sustained a knee injury that sidelined him two weeks, including the first two preseason games. He played in the second half last week against Indianapolis and is expected to play much earlier Thursday night against the Chiefs, with select starters getting the night off and the others playing probably only one series.
The Packers like Underwood’s intelligence — his score of 28 on the Wonderlic intelligence test is highest of any of their defensive backs — and his cover skills after playing cornerback his first 1 2/3 years in the NFL
But he has to show he’s physical enough at 191 pounds to fill hard in the run game and that his Wonderlic score carries over to the field as an assignment-sure, trustworthy player. The Packers moved Underwood from cornerback to safety late last year.
“Just like to see a little more,” said Rod Perry, the Packers’ safeties coach. “He obviously hasn’t played a lot of reps back there, so it’s new to him a little bit. But he played it in college, so it’s not totally foreign to him. When you get these young guys that haven’t played a lot at a certain position, the more reps they get the better they become, and the next thing you see is them making plays. That’s what we’re hoping for him.”
The question with Levine is whether his concussion in practice two weeks ago has ruined his chances of making the roster.
Levine spent all last season on the Packers’ practice squad after getting to training camp via the most difficult route possible — not only was he undrafted, but he was signed only as a minicamp tryout player coming out of Tennessee State.
This year he was making a solid run at the No. 4 safety the first two weeks of camp until Aug. 16, when he collided with cornerback Pat Lee while trying to play the ball in coverage. Levine hasn’t practiced since and will not play Thursday night, though he expects to take his next concussion test today or Thursday, and if he passes he presumably would be available to practice Sunday.
If he can pass the concussion test, he’d at least be eligible for another year on the practice squad if the Packers don’t want to hold a spot for him on the roster.
“I was on the practice squad last year, they’ve seen some there,” Levine said. “I got in the first preseason game against the Browns. I feel real confident in my skills and ability. I’m sure they know what they’re getting in me. I really don’t know what’s to happen. I just stay prepared, still working out, still running, and then whatever happens, happens.”
At cornerback, the No. 5 job almost certainly will go to fourth-round draft pick Davon House as long as he doesn’t aggravate the hamstring injury that sidelined him for 2½ weeks of camp. Based on his play before he was injured, House could surpass Bush as the No. 4 cornerback before the season is finished.
“Talent is not a question,” said Joe Whitt, the Packers’ defensive backs coach. “He just needs time.”
The No. 6 cornerback then likely comes down to Josh Gordy and 2008 second-round pick Pat Lee.
Gordy, who was promoted from the practice squad to the roster last November, is faster than Lee and made more plays on the ball early in camp. Lee, a fourth-year pro, scored points with the coaching staff for his play as an injury replacement in the second half of the Super Bowl last season but hasn’t done much in camp to draw notice either good or bad.
“He’s in the same category with Gordy, House and (undrafted rookie Brandian) Ross,” Whitt said. “They have to play well and see who makes the team.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.