All six of the team’s healthy draft picks (minus injured running back James Starks), three non-drafted rookies (cornerback Sam Shields, outside linebacker Frank Zombo and offensive lineman Nick McDonald) and two other non-drafted first-year players (tight end Tom Crabtree and punter Tim Masthay) made the final 53-man roster.
But in his discussion of the weekend’s roster moves on Sunday, General Manager Ted Thompson emphasized that young players with long-term potential were not kept at the expense of players who could have contributed more right away. The Packers will need their young players to help immediately – for example, Shields could be the No. 3 cornerback for the season opener, while Crabtree may be on all the special teams units.
The Packers don’t want to be forced to rely on too much youth in 2010, because that will mean far more than the usual number of injuries will have hit, but Thompson feels all the young players on the roster provide the best options depth-wise this year, as well as possibly down the road.
“Potential is overrated,” Thompson said, pointing out that it doesn’t factor into the roster decisions as much as some think. “We want to win. We want to win now.”
With that, here’s a breakdown of some of the areas of the roster Thompson talked about on Sunday:
Return game/special teams
The decision to seek an injury settlement with return man Will Blackmon leaves the Packers in the same place as a year ago in the return game following Blackmon’s season-ending knee injury in Week 4.
Receiver Jordy Nelson is likely to be a top option on both punt and kickoff returns, while running back Brandon Jackson got his most extensive look on kickoff returns this summer. Cornerback Tramon Williams may be the most dynamic punt returner on the roster, but he’ll be a starter on defense for at least the first six weeks of the regular season and will at a minimum be the nickel back when Al Harris returns, and whether the coaches would risk his health on special teams is unclear at this point.
Thompson also didn’t rule out possibly bringing Blackmon back after the expiration of his injury settlement and the requisite six-week waiting period, but that’s a consideration nearly two months away, at least.
In essence, Thompson is counting on the extensive practice time devoted to special teams and the second year under special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum to improve the team’s return game and coverage units. Also, with Masthay beating out Chris Bryan in a close battle for the punting job, improved production from the punter should boost the overall special teams performance as well.
“I think our special teams has been a focus all offseason,” Thompson said. “I know there were times during the preseason games where it didn’t look like we were performing well, but we think we have got a good 53-man roster and we think that leads to having pretty good special teams, so that is what we believe in.”
One of the more surprising developments numbers-wise is that the Packers kept a total of seven at these positions – four tight ends and three fullbacks.
“We like the different groups that we can put out there during the course of a game,” Thompson said. “We think being able to substitute the way we do, we think that gives us something of an edge.”
Fifth-round draft pick Andrew Quarless and Crabtree were chosen over Spencer Havner in what amounted to three players battling for two spots. Thompson said he liked the ability he saw from the athletic Quarless in the last couple of preseason games, with four catches for 40 yards and a TD against the Colts and Chiefs, after some early struggles in camp.
Meanwhile Crabtree had simply “earned a spot on the team,” according to Thompson, with his hard work, dedication to blocking, and playing through a wrist injury that limited his pass-catching to this point. Crabtree will be looked to as a replacement on special teams for Havner, who was a core member of those units all of 2009.
At fullback, keeping Korey Hall, John Kuhn and Quinn Johnson for the second straight year is qualified somewhat by the fact that Kuhn is also the No. 3 running back behind Ryan Grant and Jackson. As for Johnson, who is not the special teams contributor that Hall and Kuhn are, Thompson indicated he saw improvement in the 2009 fifth-round draft pick and believes his value will show up in the short-yardage and cold-weather running game.
“He is a very physical, dynamic lead blocker,” Thompson said. “You get in games in November and December and you want to keep the ball or get first downs or whatever, I think he is a very valuable player. I thought he played very well this preseason.”
The Packers have only eight on the roster, which is one fewer than last year and may be viewed as a little light for a 3-4 defense. But all of them have multiple years of NFL experience except for Zombo, and judging by Thompson’s comments on the non-drafted rookie from Central Michigan, it’s very likely all eight of the linebackers will be active and seeing the field on gamedays.
Thompson credited outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene with bringing Zombo along in a hurry, and he was impressed with the former defensive end’s transition to a new position and insistence on continuing to practice and play despite a significant ankle injury.
“When Frank had to play a lot of the preseason games, a high percentage of plays, we felt like he consistently made plays and hustled and showed athletic ability,” Thompson said. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world to play in a three-point stance almost your entire college career, and all of a sudden you’re playing in a two-point stance and dropping into coverage and things like that. But I think he proved that he could do that. We’re counting on him helping this team this year.”
As a group, the Packers will enter the season with two pairs of inside linebackers in Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop, and two pairs on the outside in Clay Matthews, Brad Jones, Brady Poppinga and Zombo, as the middlemen to run defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4. The one swing player is Chillar, who got a fair amount of work at outside linebacker during camp and could take some snaps there along with his customary inside role in the nickel package.
“I think there’s really good depth, guys that we can put in the game and continue to play,” Thompson said. “Again, the NFL is a hard business and you have attrition from time to time, and guys will miss a game and things like that. I think we can continue to play, and we have the quality of players I think that we can use the different packages that Dom likes to do.”
Odds & Ends
Thompson said that the team did not put in any waiver claims on players released from other teams, and that there were extensive trade discussions with several teams over the past couple of weeks, but no trades materialized. Thompson stated that he isn’t inclined to make any trades prior to the final preseason game because of how injury and roster situations can change, and in the end other teams decided to take their chances on the waiver wire with any players the Packers might be releasing.
Thompson also said the Packers would announce their practice squad on Monday morning. He indicated Bryan, as a backup punter, would be an option for the practice squad.