The Green Bay Packers coaching staff will need to cut the team roster from 80 to 75 on Aug. 31, and then again to 53 players by Sept. 4, four days before the Packers open the 2011 NFL season with a home game against the Saints.
While the Packers have approximately 40 locks (by my estimation), there are plenty of players fighting for both active roster spots as well as practice squad spots. Here are five players who could surprise by being suited up on Sept. 8.
Brandian Ross, CB: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was intercepted just 11 times during the 2010 season, so when it happens people take notice. Ross, an undrafted rookie free agent, picked off Rodgers on Family Night last Saturday and returned it for an interception.
With Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Davon House all assumed locks to make the team, Ross will have his work cut out for him. He will most likely be competing with Brandon Underwood, Pat Lee, Josh Gordy and Jarrett Bush for two roster spots. Helping his cause is the fact that Ross played safety for two years at Youngstown State, before shifting to cornerback.
He has the size (6-feet, 191 pounds) and now has the attention of coaches and fans alike. Should he continue his impressive streak of play in the coming weeks, he just might find himself a roster spot. After all, a year ago Sam Shields was an undrafted free agent cornerback, and that turned out fine.
Brandon Saine, RB: Not much has been said out of training camp regarding Saine, another undrafted rookie. The Ohio State Buckeye finished his career with 1,408 yards and 17 touchdowns and ran a 4.43 forty-yard dash at his pro day, but a lack of top end speed and durability concerns left him undrafted.
No position was more injury-riddled for the Green Bay Packers in 2010 (and there were a lot of them) than at linebacker. Of the 15 Packers who eventually were placed on injured reserve, four of those players, linebackers Nick Barnett, Brandon Chillar, Brad Jones and Brady Poppinga, were all contributors to a 2009 defense that ranked second in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed.
The depth concerns were amplified at outside linebacker, where Jones had been the clear-cut starter in 2009 after taking over for an injured Aaron Kampman. Inside, Barnett and Chillar were only reserves behind A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop and, while Chillar was used in situational packages, he was easier to replace than finding a new starting outside linebacker.
Jones had not shown any signs of a sophomore slump in his five starts in 2010, which included the first two of the season and weeks five through seven. While he did not produce a sack in those five starts after recording four sacks in seven 2009 starts, Jones recorded 27 tackles, including 16 solo. In a Week 7 contest against the Vikings, however, Jones aggravated a shoulder injury suffered in training camp and was shelved for the rest of the season.
Filling in for Jones was little-known Frank Zombo, an undrafted rookie from Central Michigan. After 32 teams, including the Packers, passed over him in seven different rounds, Zombo tore up the 2010 preseason (18 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble) and found himself on the 53-man roster. He then wasted no time getting into the action, recording a sack in Week 1 against the Eagles and again in Week 3 against the Bears. It seemed the Packers had found their answer in Zombo, but a Week 14 knee injury against the Lions sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season, putting the Packers up against the wall to once again strike gold on a seemingly no-name outside linebacker.
This time around it was Erik Walden’s turn to make general manager Ted Thompson look good. A sixth round draft choice by the Cowboys in 2008, Walden saw time on special teams for Dallas and the Dolphins before latching on with the Packers in October, shortly after Jones was lost for the season.
He only started two regular season games, Week 15 in New England and Week 17 against Chicago, but he certainly made them count. In the season’s final week, with the Packers facing a must-win situation to make the playoffs, Walden ran circles around the Bears offensive line, finishing with 12 tackles (11 solo) and three sacks, earning him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors as the Packers defeated the Bears 10-3 to claim the NFC’s final playoff spot.
The date was October 5, 2009.
Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre’s first game against his former team, the Green Bay Packers, had been overshadowed by the five turnstiles in front of Aaron Rodgers. The Packers allowed eight sacks after left tackle Chad Clifton left with an ankle injury. Daryn Colledge and T.J. Lang unsuccessfully attempted to stop defensive end Jared Allen, who finished with 4.5 sacks, and three other defenders recorded sacks in the 30-23 loss.
Fast forward 22 months, to 2011 Packers training camp, and the Packers can actually say their offensive line is a strong suit on their already high-powered offense.
Mainstays left tackle Chad Clifton, center Scott Wells, and right guard Josh Sitton have proved their worth and are locked into starting roles entering the season. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who took over for Mark Tauscher midway through last season, seems to be locked into his position as well.