There was a time not so long ago when it looked like Derek Sherrod might never again suit up for the Green Bay Packers.
Now, they could be counting on him more than ever.
It's been a long journey back for the 6-foot-6, 321-pound offensive lineman, who snapped his right leg in two places against Kansas City in December 2011. The injury required two surgeries, and he was sidelined for nearly two years.
The long layoff left the Packers wondering what they had in the former first-round pick, but one week into training camp, his teammates and coaches believe they're starting to find out.
Sherrod, still only 25 years old, didn't see much of the field after he was activated last November — he played 35 snaps in seven games — but a clean bill of health allowed him to participate in his first offseason program.
"He got to do all the offseason work without any restrictions," offensive line coach James Campen said. "He did a hell of a job with his body. He's stronger than he ever was. I think he's older. He put in the time, and it's showing up on the field."
It also couldn't come at a better time for the Packers. A league source told Press-Gazette Media that swing tackle Don Barclay suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament midway through Tuesday's practice, which would end his season.
Barclay, who had to be carted off the field, blossomed while Sherrod was on the shelf. He started 18 games in place of an injured Bryan Bulaga, and entered the season as the top reserve at both guard spots and right tackle.
Sherrod won't be expected to do the same, but Barclay's loss multiplies his importance as the top reserve at both tackle spots once the season is underway. The next two most likely reserves, rookie Corey Linsley and Lane Taylor, are interior linemen.
One of the reasons Packers coach Mike McCarthy felt this year's offensive line could be the best in his nine seasons in Green Bay was because of Sherrod's strong start and Barclay's versatility.
Sherrod has spent most of training camp stationed behind left tackle David Bakhtiari, but says he has no problem playing either side. He played right tackle during his true freshman year at Mississippi State.
"I've played left tackle a lot more than right tackle, but I'm comfortable at both positions," said Sherrod before Barclay's injury. "I was able to work at both positions a lot over the last couple years. I'm just down for whatever the coaching staff feels I need to be at."
Campen believes Sherrod came into camp stronger and more flexible. It's helped him improve his knee bend, which was seen as an area of weakness for him prior to the injury.
Time will tell if his 9-3 record in one-on-one drills in camp will translate to the preseason — the Packers' opener is Saturday in Tennessee — but it's a positive sign for a player who has played in only 12 of a possible 48 regular-season games.
"I think he's had a hell of a camp," right guard T.J. Lang said. "He's a guy that it's definitely good to have some insurance at tackle, that third guy to fill in. ... He just needs to continue to get better and take steps, and he's also going to be an important guy for us."
Lang is right. The last time the Packers' starting left and right tackles played in all 16 games came in 2007 when Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher went the distance during the Packers' run to the NFC championship game.
What made Barclay so valuable was his ability to be inserted into multiple spots, which allowed the Packers to not have to shift Lang from guard to tackle every time an injury occurred. In most cases, the starting linemen remained at their best positions.
Sherrod stepped in for six snaps at right tackle in November's 45-10 loss to Detroit, but the rest of his work has been mostly limited to the classroom. It's not as attractive as actual reps, but it allowed him to keep pace until he returned to the field.
"He's probably the best I've seen him probably since he's been here, to be honest with you," left guard Josh Sitton said. "It's been a long road for him. He's handled it well. It's not an easy situation for him. When I have a week or two off, I feel extremely rusty, so I can't imagine having damn-near two years off."
It's a big year for Sherrod in more ways than one. He'll be an unrestricted free agent next spring after the Packers waived their fifth-year option on him this offseason.
He was one of only eight first-round picks who didn't have their options exercised, but it's tough to blame the organization. The price tag for an offensive lineman was $7.4 million.
Sherrod maintains that he never contemplated hanging it up. His focus was on getting back on the field. When times got tough, he leaned heavily on his teammates and his family back home.
"I always kept my confidence," Sherrod said. "We have a good training staff here and I was always just focused on getting back on the field because football is a short game, but I have a love for it and always just wanted to get back and continue to have some fun out here with the boys."
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.