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Packers 53: Home Talent League

By By Jason Wilde
Published On: Sep 02 2013 12:14:01 AM CDT
Updated On: Sep 02 2013 12:33:33 AM CDT
Green Bay Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -

Ted Thompson appeared amazed.

The Green Bay Packers general manager had just been told a remarkable statistic about his 53-man roster: That 51 of the players on it have never played a regular-season snap for any other NFL team.

“Um … I wasn’t aware of that,” Thompson replied. “Where do you guys get all this stuff?”

(For the record, ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert was the first to point it out.)

"I don’t know that that’s ever been brought up in a personnel meeting,” Thompson added. “We don’t think about that."

While the raw number might not be intentional – in case you’re curious, only fullback John Kuhn (nine games with Pittsburgh in 2006) and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (75 games with St. Louis from 2001 through 2005) have seen regular-season action with other teams, although others did spend time with other clubs before coming to Green Bay – certainly the ethos behind it is.

And Thompson’s latest 53-man roster is reflective of that approach. They are Packers through-and-through.

Of the 53 players currently on the roster – Thompson emphasized that the roster could and likely will change before next Sunday’s regular-season opener at San Francisco – 34 entered the league as Packers draft picks (64.2 percent). Nine more signed with the Packers immediately following their respective drafts as undrafted free agents.

Eight of the team’s 11 draft picks from this year are on the 53-man roster (Datone Jones, Eddie Lacy, David Bakhtiari, Johnathan Franklin, Micah Hyde, Josh Boyd, Nate Palmer and Sam Barrington) while another, JC Tretter, is on the physically unable to perform list. (Seventh-round wide receiver Charles Johnson was cut but is being signed to the practice squad while the other seventh-round wideout, Kevin Dorsey, is on injured reserve awaiting an injury settlement.)

Coach Mike McCarthy amended the team’s draft-and-develop philosophy when he spoke to his new players at the post-draft rookie orientation camp in May, telling them that the Packers are now a draft-and-undrafted-and-develop team. Of the 19 non-Packers draft picks on the roster, 18 of them were undrafted coming out of college. Only Pickett, a 2001 first-round pick by the Rams, was drafted.

“When we put together roster changes and things like that, we try to evaluate literally what is going to be the best thing to help this team win. We think of it in terms of win now, win six weeks from now, win two years from now.” Thompson said. “We’re always thinking about what’s going to be best for the Packers organization and No. 1, the best thing in the guys in that locker room. When it comes out to be those numbers, it doesn’t affect me because we don’t bring that up. We don’t ever think about that.”

While Thompson may make a move or two in the coming days – “You never know what the next few days might bring,” he said – here’s a look at the Packers’ roster as it stands now:

Quarterbacks (2):  Aaron Rodgers, B.J. Coleman.

While they have arguably the best quarterback in the league, the Packers are apparently willing to back him up with arguably the worst backup in the league. Coleman threw a pair of interceptions in the Aug. 3 Family Night Scrimmage and improved only slightly thereafter, with his one shining moment coming when he engineered a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jake Stoneburner at St. Louis on Aug. 17. He was primarily running scout-team offenses the final two-plus weeks of training camp, but now he’s the guy behind the guy – at least for now.

Asked directly Sunday if he is actively pursuing another quarterback to back up Rodgers, Thompson replied, “We’re actively pursuing everything there is in the National Football League. At every position, and I’m not just making this up, at every position we’re looking to see if we can get better.”

Thompson has backed Rodgers up with unproven quarterbacks before, having used rookie seventh-round pick Matt Flynn behind Rodgers in 2008 and Graham Harrell, who was released on the cutdown to 75, last year. At the time, neither had thrown an NFL regular-season pass, something Coleman has yet to do after spending all of last season on the practice squad.

“Playing quarterback is an interesting thing. I think I’ve said this before in here, you don’t really know until you know,” Thompson said. “You’ve got to be put in the fire and see how everything works. (With) the timing and the reactions and all the things that go into playing that position, it’s extraordinarily difficult position to play well.”

Asked about Coleman’s development specifically, Thompson said Coleman is “growing. He’s continued to grow and continued to get better and processes the information and that sort of thing. We’re all trying to get better.”

An NFL source confirmed that the Packers have signed former University of Wisconsin and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Scott Tolzien, who was the 49ers’ third-stringer the past two years, to the practice squad. McCarthy and Thompson were impressed with Tolzien at the Badgers’ 2011 pro timing day in Madison, but it’s hard to imagine he’s an alternative to Coleman at this point.

Running backs (4):  Eddie Lacy, James Starks, Johnathan Franklin, John Kuhn.

Alex Green, a third-round pick in 2011, was released Saturday and claimed on waivers by the New York Jets on Sunday. Although he led the Packers in rushing last season (464 yards), he seemed to struggle with vision and finding running room after seeing gaping holes in Hawaii’s spread offense in college. By cutting Green, the Packers decided to give the oft-injured Starks another chance.

From the shoulder injury that wiped out his senior season at the University of Buffalo, to the torn hamstring that cost him the first half of his rookie season of 2010, to the knee and ankle injuries that limited him down the stretch in 2011, to the knee injury that sidelined him for the final four weeks of the regular season and both playoff games, Starks simply has never had a full, healthy season. With DuJuan Harris done for the year (knee), Starks must stay healthy to give the Packers another option behind Lacy.

“I think you have to be excited about James Starks’ camp. He has practiced every single day, something that has been important for him to do,” McCarthy said. “His availability has been the highest of his career. He runs very hard and he has contributed a little more on special teams than he has in the past, so there’s definitely steps James made through training camp.”

Thompson kept only Kuhn at fullback, and he figures to be the third-down back protecting Rodgers given how poorly Franklin performed in pass protection against Kansas City in the preseason finale. The team had four halfbacks coming out of camp last year (Starks, Cedric Benson, Green and Brandon Saine) and Thompson acknowledged that the position is lighter than he might have planned.

“You’d like to have as many as you could handle at every position,” Thompson said. “Again, you have to weigh this vs. this and another one of these vs. another one of that. You’re always a little bit light at some spot.

Wide receivers (5):  Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Jarrett Boykin, Jeremy Ross.

The team had four rookie wide receivers in camp – undrafted free agents Myles White and Tyrone Walker and seventh-round picks Johnson and Dorsey – but in the end, none made the cut. White and Johnson have signed with the practice squad, an NFL source confirmed, but the Packers are ready to go into the season with Boykin and Ross behind their Big Three. When healthy, that threesome can go toe-to-toe with any other pass-catching trio in the league. The problem is that Cobb (biceps) and Nelson (knee) played three snaps of preseason football as they missed the first three exhibition games with their injuries.

Boykin made the team as an undrafted free agent last year, forcing the Packers to keep six receivers for the first time under Thompson. He appeared to take a step later in camp and finished the preseason with six receptions for 63 yards.

“Jarrett Boykin, after kind of a slow patch there in the middle of camp, I think really stepped up, especially the last two weeks and solidified his spot in this locker room,” Rodgers said late in camp. “And I think you’ve got to give him a lot of credit for the stuff he’s done on special teams as well, from what I hear.”

Ross’ saving grace was special teams, as he was up-and-down as a receiver but could give the Packers the return option they have been looking for while saving Cobb for critical returns. Ross, who was impressive on returns late in the season until his back-breaking muffed punt against the 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, averaged 10.5 yards on two punt returns and 23.3 yards on four kickoff returns in preseason.

“I thought he’s been very solid (on returns),” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “What he did in the game (against Seattle) with getting the punt return outside the 20 was solid. I thought his kickoff return in the game was done the way I like it done. It was good.”

Tight ends (4):  Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Ryan Taylor, Brandon Bostick.

The club kept five tight ends last year, but after allowing Tom Crabtree to walk as an untendered restricted free agent to Tampa Bay, waiving D.J. Williams on Sunday and releasing offseason free-agent signee Matthew Mulligan, the Packers went with Quarless, Taylor and Bostick, who spent last season on the practice squad, behind Finley.

Mulligan’s release reinforced the Packers’ develop-from-within approach, as he seemed to be a logical addition as a blocking tight end after Crabtree’s departure. Mulligan had specialized in run-blocking with St. Louis (14 career receptions) but Thompson decided he liked Bostick’s potential, Taylor’s solid special-teams contributions and Quarless’ gradual return to health after a catastrophic knee injury in December 2011 better.

“I think (Mulligan’s release) speaks more to the other tight ends that we have. We have a very good group. And I think it’s a reflection of that more than anything else. He’s a good football player,” Thompson said. “In Matthew’s defense, we have more body work with those guys because they’ve been here practicing and playing over the course of the last couple years.”

Offensive linemen (8):  David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Evan Dietrich-Smith, T.J. Lang, Don Barclay, Marshall Newhouse, Greg Van Roten, Lane Taylor.

Bakhtiari, a fourth-round pick from Colorado, stepped in after Bryan Bulaga’s season-ending knee injury during the Family Night Scrimmage Aug. 3 and will have the spotlight on him all season long. Barclay appears to be the starting right tackle, although McCarthy has yet to make it official, while Newhouse, who started 28 games the last two years at right tackle (Packers’ record: 22-6), will back up both left and right tackle.

Sitton, Dietrich-Smith and Lang may be solid inside, but the backups are unproven. Taylor was the most impressive undrafted free-agent lineman in camp but had growing pains during the preseason. Van Roten narrowly beat out undrafted free agent Patrick Lewis to win the backup center job, but Lewis was immediately claimed on waivers by Cleveland Sunday. Van Roten, who was promoted from the practice squad last year, was up-and-down throughout camp.

A year ago, the Packers kept only seven linemen coming out of camp, and in the days leading up to the cuts, offensive line coach James Campen was asked if he had eight players deserving of spots. “It’s whatever warrants the spot. If it warrants having eight, nine, 10, 11 guys, then it warrants a spot,” he replied. “Guys have to perform to make that happen. It doesn’t matter to me, we play with five, we’re going to have seven on game day.”

Defensive linemen (8):  B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson, Datone Jones, Johnny Jolly, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels, Josh Boyd.

While Neal is really an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid, the Packers kept a higher number of defensive linemen than in past years in the 3-4 scheme no matter how you classify him. It’ll be an interesting year on the line with Raji, Pickett, Wilson, Jolly and Neal all in the final years of their contracts, too.

Jolly might have been the feel-good story of camp with an interception, a sack and two pass deflections, but he’ll have to contribute. If he’s anywhere near the player he was in 2009, he’ll be well worth the risk the Packers took on bringing him back after a three-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy and a stint in prison.

“Johnny’s a real natural football player, I’ve always said that. He really loves to play the game. I think he’s a bit infectious with our team,” Thompson said. “I don’t think any of us can really speak to the journey that he’s been on because I’m not sure any of us know all the things that’s encompassed in that journey. I admire him. I’ve said this all along: I liked him before when he was here and I like him now that he’s here. When he wasn’t here, I can’t speak to that. I just know that different people have different challenges as you go through life.”

Daniels elevated his game as a second-year player, while Jones, the team’s first-round pick, was bothered by an ankle sprain throughout camp after going down against Arizona in the Aug. 9 preseason opener. Boyd did not have a good camp – it seemed like defensive line coach Mike Trgovac was yelling at him every day in practice – but was kept on his potential.

“I think we've had probably as good a competition that we've had since I've been here,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think that there's more depth in that area, which is what you hope. To me, the more competition you create, the better you are.”

Inside linebackers (5):  A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Robert Francois, Jamari Lattimore, Sam Barrington.

While Thompson wouldn’t say which cuts were the toughest, keeping Barrington, a rookie seventh-round pick, over 2012 fifth-round pick Terrell Manning, had to be among the toughest. Manning was claimed on waivers by San Diego, and the Chargers made room for him by releasing D.J. Smith, whom they’d claimed after the Packers cut him loose this spring.

“There were a lot of considerations; not only people that play the identical position, but people who play different positions,” Thompson replied when asked about keeping Barrington over Manning. “The 53 that you’re getting down to, there’s certain numbers at each position, but it’s a little more complicated than one player versus another.”

In the days leading up to the preseason finale against the Chiefs, inside linebackers coach Winston Moss was hoping he could keep all six. But he hinted that the finale would be a deciding factor, and Barrington did come through with a sack for a safety.

“I would love to keep all of them. That decision is not mine,” Moss said. ‘Each one has made a case for themselves. … I think Sam’s been impressive for a guy to come in, he comes to work every day, doesn’t say a lot but very consistent, plays very hard. He works. Terrell is the same thing. He’s had that rocky start. He’s fighting back. It’s very important to him.”

Outside linebackers (4): Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer.

A year ago, the Packers entered the regular season with Matthews, Perry, Dezman Moses, Erik Walden (who was suspended for the first game) and Frank Zombo (who opened the year on the physically unable to perform list). Plus, Jones and Lattimore were still inside/outside players and hadn’t been moved inside full-time. After Saturday’s decision to cut Moses, who was claimed by the Kansas City Chiefs (and GM John Dorsey, the former Packers exec), it’ll be a fairly empty room for position coach Kevin Greene. Neal would be the fifth outside ‘backer, but according to Capers, his time will be split between there and the line.

“He’s a hybrid guy. You’re going to see him playing defensive line some, you’ll see him playing outside some, which has kind of been our goal,” Capers said. “It’s really been about 50-50. We chart those reps and it’s been pretty close to 50-50.”

Moses’ undoing can be traced to a calf injury that cost him most of the offseason and a toe injury that didn’t sideline him for a ton of time but bothered him throughout camp. He played more than 400 snaps on defense last season, started six games and had four sacks, so it was no surprise that the Chiefs snapped him up. If there’s a cut that has the makings of a regrettable decision, letting Moses go would seem to be it.

“He missed some time in the offseason with a calf and he’s had a toe that he’s had to deal with during camp,” Capers said of Moses before the cutdown. “I think he’s done fine. I think he knows a lot more now about what it takes to go out and play and play at a winning level than he did last year at this time.”

Cornerbacks (6):  Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde, Davon House, Jarrett Bush.

While Williams played only one snap of preseason football – albeit a good one, as he intercepted a pass on that singular snap – and Hayward reinjured the hamstring against Seattle that had kept him out for the first three weeks of camp, this is arguably the deepest position on the roster. Williams appears to be a go for the opener, and while Hayward seems unlikely to play, Shields is a bona fide starter, House has been inconsistent but has improved, and Hyde was a revelation as a rookie fifth-round pick.

If Hayward can’t play against the 49ers, the Packers will still have four legit cover guys at their disposal, with Bush, the team’s special-teams ace, on call in an emergency. Hyde gave up some plays in preseason, including a 57-yard deep ball in St. Louis, but was resilient and has the coaches’ confidence with his coverage and blitzing abilities.

“I think Micah's played more plays this preseason than any other guy. We've done that purposely, to try to give him opportunities. I think he's taken advantage of the opportunities,” Capers said. “He's performed well, and showed up, made plays in the run game and pass game. He's certainly proven he deserves an opportunity to show us what he can do.”

Safeties (4):  Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian, Chris Banjo.

Burnett’s hamstring, which he injured against Seattle, will be a major topic of conversation throughout the week if he’s not at his customary safety spot at practice Monday. He’s the leader in the back end, has a new $24.75 million contract and is far and away the team’s best player back there. Playing without him would mean Jennings and McMillian, who appeared to finish in a dead heat in their competition to start next to him, would then both be forced to start, and the undersized 5-foot-10 Banjo would be one snap away from playing.

“Obviously we know a lot more about (Jennings and McMillian); they both played around 600 plays last year. I think they've both had good camps,” Capers said. “You can see, in my mind, you can certainly see a difference in both of them, those guys, this training camp as compared to last training camp, when neither one of them had played a single play. So, that experience of having gone through it and been there before, I certainly feel a lot better with those guys heading into the opener this year than I did a year ago.”

Banjo, who went to the same school as Thompson, signed four days into camp and was one of the pleasant surprises of the summer, overcoming the team’s unofficial height requirement to make the 53.

“Because he and I both went to the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and Mustangs stick together,” Thompson replied when asked why Banjo earned a spot. “Sometimes, you just need an opportunity and we were looking for a safety after our rookie minicamps and stuff. We kept kind of looking and all of a sudden we brought him in for a workout – him and a couple of other guys – and he ran well. So we decided to sign him and the rest is him. He plays hard. He plays fast. He’s a good football player.”

Specialists (3):  Mason Crosby, Tim Masthay, Brett Goode.

Goode and Masthay appear on top of their games. Masthay punted an alarming 28 times in preseason and averaged 45.9 gross yards and 37.0 net yards. Goode is almost always on the mark and was particularly impressive one day in camp when he had to snap for three kickers attempting 11 field goals apiece – 33 snaps, into the wind. But the focus is appropriately on Crosby, who was able to stave off Giorgio Tavecchio and Zach Ramirez but must kick well to keep his job and earn back the money he gave up as part of a pay cut.

While Crosby’s now $800,000 salary will be guaranteed if he’s on the roster next Saturday, Thompson wouldn’t publicly commit to him being the opening-day kicker on Sunday.

“We look to get better at any position at any time. That’s not a knock on Mason. Mason has done a good job,” Thompson replied. “’Are you confident?’ The NFL is a fluid business, especially this time of year. But Mason is our kicker.”

Injured reserve (5):  Bryan Bulaga, DuJuan Harris, Sederrick Cunningham, Kevin Dorsey, Jarvis Reed.

Bulaga contemplated playing with a torn ACL before wisdom prevailed. Harris’ patellar tendon injury, which surfaced in the offseason and returned against Seattle, was a blow to McCarthy’s plans on offense. Cunningham dislocated his wrist on the second day of camp but the team apparently decided he was worth keeping around. Dorsey and Reed were waived/injured and are merely on the list until an injury settlement is reached.

Physically unable to perform list (4):  Derek Sherrod, Jerel Worthy, JC Tretter, Sean Richardson.

All four players will miss, at minimum, the first six weeks of the season. Then, a three-week window opens during which each player can start practicing at any time. Once he does, it starts a three-week clock at the end of which will leave the Packers with the choice to activate him to the 53-man roster, release him, or put him on season-ending injured reserve. McCarthy had been saying Sherrod was “close” for weeks, but he won’t be able to practice until mid-October at the earliest. Worthy tore his ACL in the Dec. 30 regular-season finale and could miss the year. Tretter broke his ankle in the first organized team activity practice and may end up taking the pro equivalent of a medical redshirt. Richardson’s career is in doubt because of a neck injury.

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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