Last year at this time, the Green Bay Packers had unusually good depth at defensive tackle but were weak at backup linebacker.[img_r]http://cmsimg.greenbaypressgazette.com/apps/pbcsi.dll/bilde?Site=U0&Date=20080821&Category=PKR01&ArtNo=80821142&Ref=AR&Profile=1058&MaxW=318&Border=0[/img_r]
A year later, its the opposite. The Packers trade of Corey Williams and Justin Harrells back injury have been major factors in the depletion at defensive tackle.
The signing of Brandon Chillar, plus the ascending play of young linebackers Desmond Bishop and Abdul Hodge, have made for a linebacker corps that might warrant keeping as many as seven players for the first time since 2000.
General Manager Ted Thompson has betrayed no concerns about defensive tackle, but the strength of the defense last season was its ability to rotate solid defensive tackles and keep them fresh for an entire game. It has to be the Packers biggest concern heading into the final two weeks of training camp, especially with one of their best defensive tackles, Ryan Pickett, likely to miss all of training camp because of a hamstring injury.
Thompsons actions will tell more than his words, and this could be a position he tries to improve with a trade or perhaps a pickup on final cuts, though defensive tackles of any quality rarely get released theyre too hard to find.
After keeping an extra sixth defensive tackle last season because of the quality, the Packers might drop down to four at final cuts this season if Harrell is on the physically-unable-to-perform list, which appears likely, and none of the three players fighting for the last spot at defensive tackle Daniel Muir, Alfred Malone and Conrad Bolston elevates his play in the final two preseason games.
Following is a position-by-position look at the Packers roster with the cut from 80 players to 75 coming Tuesday and the reduction to the regular-season limit of 53 looming four days later on Aug. 30.
Defensive line (9 or 10 players)
# Locks: DE Aaron Kampman, DT Ryan Pickett, DE-DT Cullen Jenkins, DT Johnny Jolly, DE-DT Michael Montgomery, DE Jeremy Thompson, DE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, DT Colin Cole, DE Jason Hunter.
# On the bubble: DT Justin Harrell, DT Daniel Muir, DT Alfred Malone.
# Long shots: DT Conrad Bolston, DT Rodney Allen.
# Comment: Harrells back injury, which required surgery in April, has created major problems at defensive tackle. Hes on the PUP list and appears likely to remain there at the start of the season, so he wont be eligible to return until after the sixth game. The Packers are saying he should be able to play this year, but thats not a given.
Pickett (hamstring) is on PUP but should be ready for the regular-season opener at the latest. Even then, he wont have much stamina early. Jolly faces a possible suspension for his summer arrest for possessing at least 200 grams of codeine in a cough syrup, but it appears he can postpone a trial until after the season if it goes that far.
Muirs play has slipped after he made the team last year as an undrafted rookie. He missed part of the offseason because of a pectoral injury and hasnt been as explosive or effective. Malone has been more stout in the middle of the line and might be ahead of Muir, but theres at least a chance neither will make the team, depending on their play the final two preseason games.
Montgomery, a defensive end by trade, has been active as an occasional inside rusher on passing downs, but hasnt made any plays in that role. Thompson is a raw fourth-round draft pick who could develop into a decent pass-rush threat before the season is finished.
Linebackers (6 or 7)
# Locks: Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, Brady Poppinga, Brandon Chillar.
# On the bubble: Tracy White, Desmond Bishop, Abdul Hodge.
# Long shots: Spencer Havner, Danny Lansanah.
# Comment: The improving Poppinga held off Chillar for the starting job at strong-side linebacker. The other major story is the play of Bishop and Hodge. Last year, White was the No. 4 linebacker, but this year, hes probably the seventh best behind Chillar, Bishop and Hodge. But White will be especially hard to cut because hes perhaps the best special-teams player on the roster. Bishops and Hodges primary position is middle linebacker, but the Packers at least have to consider keeping both considering their play in camp. Bishop made big gains in the offseason workout program and has transferred them to the field, where he plays faster and has been better in pass coverage than Hodge. Throw in Bishops special-teams play, and hes slightly ahead. But Hodge is running much better this season after having patellar-tendon surgery last year, and hes made a strong pitch for a roster spot with his powerful striking ability and physical play in the run game.
Defensive backs (9 or 10)
# Locks: CB Charles Woodson, CB Al Harris, S Nick Collins, S Atari Bigby, CB Tramon Williams, S Aaron Rouse, CB Patrick Lee, CB Will Blackmon.
# On the bubble: CB Jarrett Bush, S Charlie Peprah, S Tyrone Culver.
# Long shots: CB Joe Porter, CB Scorpio Babers.
# Comment: Williams has locked up the No. 3 cornerback job. Last year, the Packers kept six cornerbacks but might keep only five this season because Bush hasnt improved in his third year. Though Bush has solid size (6-0, 200 pounds) and good athletic ability, something is missing, whether it be instincts or simply the ability to play the ball.
Blackmon is developing more slowly than the Packers predicted, but he also missed extensive time the last two years because of injuries. Lee is a second-round pick who was only a one-year starter at Auburn and is being developed for the future. Peprah was ahead for the No. 4 safety job before missing the first two preseason games because of a hamstring injury. He might be the teams smoothest safety and can play some cornerback he played that position two years at Alabama but will miss tonights game. He has to get on the field next week to beat out Culver, who excels at quarterbacking the defense from the secondary.
Quarterbacks (2 or 3)
# Locks: Aaron Rodgers, Brian Brohm.
# On the bubble: Matt Flynn.
# Comment: Flynn is giving Brohm a run for the backup job, but its far from clear that either will be ready to be a No. 2 quarterback like many rookies at this position, both have had major ups and downs in their first training camp. Coach Mike McCarthy has called their development a camplong project and been steadfast hes comfortable with two rookies to back up Rodgers, but the Packers will be watching the waiver wires closely at final cuts. If they pick up a veteran, theyd have to cut the seventh-round pick Flynn.
Running backs (5 or 6)
# Locks: Ryan Grant, Brandon Jackson.
# Good bets: Korey Hall.
# On the bubble: Vernand Morency, Noah Herron, John Kuhn, Kregg Lumpkin.
# Long shots: DeShawn Wynn, Corey White, Ryan Powdrell.
# Comment: Its a close call between Morency and Herron for the No. 3 halfback job. Morency is a more explosive runner and excellent in blitz pickup, but even though hes been healthy, his patellar-tendon problems from last year could be a concern. Herron is as assignment-sure as they come. Lumpkin has made strides in camp and cant be discounted if the team keeps four halfbacks, though he appears more likely headed for the practice squad.
Wynns most recent injury, a sprained ankle, probably has blown his chance of making the team, considering his long history of missing practices and games dating to college. He left the preseason opener and hasnt practiced or played since.
Tight ends (2 or 3)
# Locks: Donald Lee, Jermichael Finley.
# On the bubble: Tory Humphrey, Joey Haynos.
# Comment: The Packers have stayed much longer with Humphrey than they would with most injured players near the bottom of the roster, but they like his talent enough to give him every chance to show he can get healthy and help them. Hes back from an Achilles tendon injury that sidelined him last week and will need to do something in the final two preseason games to win a spot. The 6-8 Haynos has been a nice surprise whos shown decent mobility for his size as well as good hands. He could make the team if Humphrey doesnt come through, though hes more likely a practice-squad candidate because the Packers could add someone from the waiver wire at final cuts or early in the season. Finley, a fourth-round pick, has impressive natural talent running and catching, but hes extremely young (21) and raw for a possible No. 2 tight end.
Wide receiver (5 or 6)
# Locks: Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Ruvell Martin.
# On the bubble: Brett Swain.
# Long shots: Taj Smith, Johnny Quinn, Chris Francies, Jake Allen.
# Comment: Probably the teams best position for quality of depth, beginning with starters Driver and Jennings. Jones has built on a solid rookie year to easily hold the No. 3 receiving job, and Martins continual improvement makes him a sure bet to make the team. Hes also a favorite target of Rodgers because of their extensive work together on scout team the past two years. Nelson, the Packers top draft pick this year, has been fine but is in a major fight for playing time.
Swain looked good in the offseason then seemed overwhelmed when the pads when on he had a rough time getting off jams at the line and dropped a surprising number of passes the first three weeks of camp. But this past week he suddenly looked much sharper running routes and catching the ball while playing mostly on the scout team. The Packers will have trouble justifying keeping the seventh-round pick on the final 53 unless he does something spectacular in the final two weeks, but hes a practice-squad prospect worth watching.
Offensive line (9 or 10)
# Locks: T Chad Clifton, T Mark Tauscher, G-C Jason Spitz, C Scott Wells, G Josh Sitton, G-T Daryn Colledge, G-T Allen Barbre.
# On the bubble: G-T Tony Moll, T Breno Giacomini, C-G Junius Coston.
# Long shots: T Orrin Thompson, G Ryan Keenan, C-G Brennan Carvalho, G-T Ryan Considine.
# Comment: Wells lower-back injury and the uneven play of the young guards have made the middle of the line an issue as camp winds down. Sitton is ahead of Barbre and College for the starting guard job opposite Spitz because hes bigger and more stout at 317 pounds, and he has a major mean streak. However, Barbre has been good in one-on-one pass-blocking drills and is more athletic. Though Barbre didnt make the major jump the Packers thought he might, his play hasnt been much, if at all, behind Sittons. Sittons long look in the starting lineup might mean the Packers prefer the bigger player to give the run game more power potential, especially late in the season when the weather turns bad. With Wells out and Spitz at center, Colledge looks like hell start at left guard tonight, but Barbre is in the running there if Sitton doesnt show improvement at right guard. Colledge has played both guards and left tackle, so hes beginning to look like a utility man.
Giacomini, a sixth-round pick, has made major strides at right tackle, where early in camp defensive ends Jason Hunter and Michael Montgomery took turns abusing him as the converted tight end adjusted to the Packers blocking techniques. But the past two weeks, Giacomini has been increasingly stout and might win a roster spot. Moll has been incredibly up and down, looking slow on some snaps in one-on-one drills and playing tough and strong on others. Hes played every position on the line except center, so his versatility as a backup is his selling point.
# Locks: K Mason Crosby, P Jon Ryan.
# Good bet: LS J.J. Jansen.
# Comment: Crosbys nearly error-free camp suggests hes on his way to becoming one of the NFLs top kickers. Ryan has had more shanks than youd expect from a third-year pro and still hits the occasional long but low hang-time punt, but hes still improving and has noteworthy talent because of his strong kicking leg. The undrafted rookie Jansen out of Notre Dame has done nothing to suggest he wont have a long NFL career.