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Green Bay Packers roster analysis: Set at quarterback, but thin at running back

Jun. 16, 2012
 

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It looks like the Green Bay Packers are comfortable with Graham Harrell as their No. 2 quarterback behind Aaron Rodgers. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette

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All signs suggest the Green Bay Packers are ready to go into the season with Graham Harrell as their backup quarterback.

Though they lost Matt Flynn in free agency, they didn’t sign a veteran quarterback in the offseason, waited until the seventh round to select a developmental prospect in B.J. Coleman of Tennessee-Chattanooga, and just a few weeks thereafter cut former arena-league quarterback Nick Hill.

That leaves Harrell as the front-runner for the No. 2 job behind Aaron Rodgers. Harrell’s advantage is that for the last two seasons he’s been on either the Packers’ practice squad or 53-man roster (eight games, playoffs included). This year, he also went through a full offseason in coach Mike McCarthy’s quarterback school, which emphasizes improving strength and skill.

Coleman is bigger and stronger than Harrell and has more arm talent, but the jump in the sophistication of an offense from a lower level Division I college program to the NFL is huge.

The Packers still could sign a veteran backup during camp or after final cuts, but their offseason moves thus far say McCarthy thinks Harrell has improved substantially in his two-plus years with the team.

“Graham’s getting better,” McCarthy said. “We’ve had Graham in our program for some time. Really the preseason games will be the biggest challenge for Graham, that will be his biggest test, because the classroom, the fundamentals, he’s hitting all the targets you like to see. I’m anxious to see him play in the games. Mentally he’s prepared himself, he knows the offense. He’s done a very good job with the protection adjustments and all the little nuances of our offense that take a little more time.

“B.J.’s exciting, he’s a whirl a minute, he has a lot of questions, he’s always talking, a lot of energy. Talented young man, but he’s got a lot to learn. I feel good about those two guys, and they have an excellent mentor in Aaron Rodgers.”

Following is a position-by-position look at the Packers’ roster at the conclusion of their offseason workout and practice sessions, six weeks before the start of training camp.

Offensive line

With last year’s first-round draft pick, Derek Sherrod, missing all offseason work while rehabilitating a broken lower leg sustained last December, third-year pro Marshall Newhouse goes into training camp as the front-runner for the starting job at left tackle. The Packers expect Sherrod to be ready for the first training-camp practice on July 26, so he’s in the running.

There’s no indication McCarthy is considering moving starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga to the left side, though Bulaga looks like he has the athletic ability to do it if asked. The Packers appear to think he can become one of the league’s best right tackles if he stays there.

General Manager Ted Thompson didn’t draft a center as the possible successor to 36-year-old Jeff Saturday, but third-year pro Evan Dietrich-Smith keeps improving and might become that guy. He’s done enough this offseason that besides practicing as the No. 2 center, he also filled in at left guard with the No. 1 offense on the final day of minicamp when T.J. Lang didn’t practice because of an injury.

Seventh-round draft pick Andrew Datko looks like a real prospect at tackle and at least has a chance to be a bargain pick in the long run if his health holds up. The question is whether his recurring shoulder problems that date to high school will undermine his NFL career.

Wide receivers

With practice squad holdovers Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel, the Packers go at least seven deep with players worthy of their 53-man roster. The team usually keeps five receivers but it seems a given that barring injuries they’ll keep six this year. The question is whether McCarthy and Thompson will take the extreme step of squeezing a seventh on the final roster if all get through camp healthy; or trade one to avoid cutting a player they really like; or need the extra depth because of injuries in training camp.

Gurley looks stronger after adding 16 pounds (to 234) via improved diet and weight training this offseason and provides the kind of big target (6-foot-4˝) no one else on the roster can; plus, based on training camp last year, he has unusual skill as a punt blocker.

Borel isn’t as big (6-0, 199) or polished as Gurley but is a quicker, faster athlete. At minicamp last week, McCarthy and Rodgers offered unsolicited that Borel has improved as much as anyone on the team. Who knows, maybe Thompson will do the seemingly unthinkable and keep seven receivers. That would mean going especially light elsewhere, but then, this coach and GM have had some unusual final rosters in the past. Last season, they kept five tight ends and only one fullback.

Tight ends

With the depth at receiver, it’s hard to see the five returning tight ends making it again, though one, second-year pro Andrew Quarless, will open camp on the physically unable to perform list and might not be able to play at all this season. He’s recovering from a severe knee injury sustained Dec. 4.

Jermichael Finley didn’t do anything to stand out in the five practices open to reporters this offseason but looks like he’s in top shape and unlike last year, when he was coming off a knee injury, should start training camp at full speed.

Second-year pro Ryan Taylor and third-year pro Tom Crabtree have limitations as receivers but are good bets to make the team because they’re core special teams players.

Second-year pro D.J. Williams wasn’t as good on special teams and needs to show more as the big-play receiver he was in college to make the roster.

Running backs

This is the thinnest position group on the roster.

At halfback, the Packers appear to be expecting last year’s third-round pick, Alex Green, to be ready by early in the season as the No. 2 behind James Starks even though Green will be only 10 months removed from knee-reconstruction surgery when the regular season opens. That’s an optimistic but not superhuman timetable.

Brandon Saine showed the NFL wasn’t too big for him when he replaced Green last year, but it’s still a big jump to becoming a productive player. Unless Thompson trades for a running back, Saine will be the No. 2 until Green is ready to play regularly.

Neither of the undrafted halfbacks, Marc Tyler of USC and Du’ane Bennett of Minnesota, made an impression in the offseason practices open to reporters, but halfbacks need pads and especially game settings to show what they have.

Fullback John Kuhn’s ability to play in one-back sets allows the Packers to go light at halfback if they want. Undrafted rookie Nic Cooper (5-10, 249) is an interesting potential backup to Kuhn. Like Kuhn, Cooper was a primary ball carrier at a lower level in college and last year had 1,808 yards rushing and averaged 6.8 yards a carry for a Winston-Salem team that went to the Division II semifinals. He’s not quick or fast enough to be a halfback in the NFL but is plenty big for fullback and caught more than his share of passes out of the backfield in offseason practices.

Defensive line

Second-round pick Jerel Worthy flashed some of the pass-rush quickness the Packers talked about when they drafted him. Playing in pads in camp will be the real test, but early signs suggest he could help the rush immediately.

Fourth-round pick Mike Daniels is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and didn’t practice, though the Packers are expecting him to practice when camp opens. He’ll be behind after missing all the offseason work, but if he can rush the passer, it still should show up in August.

Third-year pro Mike Neal looked to be moving well and in good shape after his lost 2011 season, when a cartilage injury in his knee early in camp rendered him a nonentity the rest of the year. The Packers won’t know until padded work in camp whether he can rush the passer as well as he did last year in camp before the injury. Neal also is suspended for the first four games for testing positive for Adderall, though he’s hoping the NFL will reduce or overturn his suspension now that it has OK’d his prescription.

Something to watch before camp is whether Anthony Hargrove, signed as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, takes the NFL to court if the league doesn’t reduce or overturn his eight-game suspension for his alleged role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal. If Hargrove takes the NFL to court, he could end up with an injunction that allows him to play until the case is decided, which could take well into next year, if not longer.

Hargrove, Phillip Merling and Daniel Muir — all veterans signed in the offseason — probably are fighting for one roster spot, and all could get cut. Merling looks heavy and out of shape. Muir is a hustler.

Linebackers

First-round pick Nick Perry shows some explosion off the snap as an outside rusher, though his ability to transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 standup outside linebacker will determine how much defensive coordinator Dom Capers can use him in coverage. Perry is big for the position (271) and is unusually thick through his upper body and haunches, so he’s not nearly as smooth as Clay Matthews was dropping in coverage as a rookie.

Matthews pulled out of practice because of a twinge in his hamstring on the first day of OTAs and didn’t practice thereafter. The injury didn’t appear to be serious when he sustained it, and he said he didn’t practice strictly for precaution, though that will be something to watch in camp because he’s had recurring hamstring problems.

Third-year outside linebacker Frank Zombo can’t catch a break. He had scapula, knee and hamstring injuries last year that limited him to five games. Then this offseason he sustained a relatively severe hamstring injury that prevented him from practicing in OTAs and minicamp.

Undrafted rookie Dezman Moses of Tulane made a big impression as a pass rusher and has a good chance to make the team. He doesn’t have straight-line speed — he reportedly ran the 40 in the low 4.8-seconds — but showed instincts and natural ability as a rusher and in coverage during practice.

Last year, the Packers finished the season with six outside linebackers and four inside linebackers, but they could switch that to five and five after moving Jamari Lattimore and Brad Jones to the inside. Those two could be fighting for one roster spot and would be able to play outside as well.

Second-year pro D.J. Smith looked like he was playing fast in practice at inside linebacker and figures to get on the field in some defensive packages.

Defensive backs

There are two open cornerback positions now that Charles Woodson appears set to move to safety in the base defense — Woodson will remain a slot cornerback in the nickel and dime, which the Packers probably will play on about 80 percent of their defensive snaps.

For most of the offseason, Sam Shields and Davon House worked as outside cornerbacks, so they are the front-runners for the job opposite Tramon Williams. Shields had the full offseason in the team’s workout program that he missed last year because of the lockout, and he was the No. 3 cornerback the last two years, so he enters camp as the more likely to win the job. But he could lose out if he’s not more physical and effective as a tackler than he was last season.

Jarrett Bush, second-round pick Casey Hayward, fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian and Brandian Ross worked extensively as inside cornerbacks and are the lead candidates for that role in the dime defense, though if House and Shields outplay the others, the Packers presumably would find a way to get both on the field. Bush is the leader heading into camp because of his experience (seven years in the NFL), but Hayward showed some natural skills and instincts as an inside cover man in practice.

McMillian also is in the running with second-year pro M.D. Jennings and veteran Charlie Peprah for playing safety opposite Morgan Burnett in the nickel and dime, which means for a large majority of defensive snaps. Peprah is the best quarterback of the secondary at age 29, but Jennings and McMillian can cover more ground.

Specialists

The Packers are as stable here as they’ve been in years, with ascending players at kicker (Mason Crosby) and punter (Tim Masthay), plus a proficient long snapper in Brett Goode, who’s entering his fifth season.

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

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