For the second time in as many years, the Green Bay Packers will begin the season with three undrafted free agents on their 53-man roster. A year after undrafted rookies cornerback Sam Shields, outside linebacker Frank Zombo, and offensive lineman Nick McDonald found spots on the roster, safety M.D. Jennings and outside linebackers Vic So’oto and Jamari Lattimore made the 53-man roster after not being selected in April’s NFL draft.
So who exactly are these guys? Here’s a look.
M.D. Jennings, safety
What’s his story: The former Arkansas State safety chose the Red Wolves over the likes of Ole Miss and Mississippi State in order to see immediate playing time. After redshirting in 2006, he saw action in 12 games his freshman year, all as a reserve. He started his sophomore season and recorded a team-high three interceptions, five pass break-ups and 67 tackles. In 2009, he recorded 64 tackles, a team-high six pass break-ups and an interception. He was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference first team in 2010 when he recorded 84 tackles (second on the team), three interceptions, and a sack.
Why wasn’t he drafted: As it is for most undrafted rookies, especially the three who made the Packers’ 2011 roster, Jennings is undersized. Some scouts projected that Jennings would be a nickel corner at the next level due to his 187-pound frame, but for now the Packers project him as a safety. His ball skills were a plus but, despite 225 tackles over his last three years, his run support lacked. His 4.60 40-yard dash was just average.
What he does for the Packers: Other than Charlie Peprah, the Packers had little depth at the safety position entering 2011. Cornerbacks Jarrett Bush and Brandon Underwood (cut) had the ability to play safety if needed, but Bush is much better as a cornerback and Underwood was let go. That left an opening for a reserve behind Collins, and Jennings was that man.
He will primarily act as a special teams ace but he showed promise during the preseason as a safety, totaling 11 tackles and an interception. He beat out Anthony Levine and Anthony Bratton for the final spot.
Vic So’oto, outside linebacker
What’s his story:
As if his actual Super Bowl ring wasn’t enough, Packers cornerback Sam Shields is going to let everyone know that he and his fellow teammates were victorious in Super Bowl XLV.
Keeping busy during the lockout, Shields had an enlarged picture of the Packers’ Super Bowl ring tattooed onto the left side of his neck.
The Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers back on February 6, 31-25, in Dallas Stadium. Shields was credited with two solo tackles in the contest before missing the second half with a shoulder injury.
An undrafted free agent from Miami (Fla.), Shields made the Packers’ 53-man roster as a cornerback despite playing just one season at the position for the Hurricanes, transitioning from wide receiver.
At least on paper and according to most experts, the Green Bay Packers were one of the “winners” from the 2011 NFL Draft. But for as good as the newest Packers could be this season, there are a handful of others who could make the jump from roster-worthy to impact player.
Breaking out implies that the player is not already well-known and has not made an impact on the team worth writing about. For example, Jordy Nelson could very well become the Packers’ second leading receiver in 2011, but last season was when he became a household name. Other notable players left off the list include Desmond Bishop, John Kuhn and Tim Masthay.
1. Mike Neal, DE: The Packers’ second round selection from 2010 played just 83 snaps during his rookie campaign, but a shoulder injury forced him to miss the remainder of the season. Many were skeptical of the pick, but in those two games Neal registered a forced fumble and sack to go with three tackles. With the reality that Cullen Jenkins could be in a different uniform come September, Neal could be expected to enter a starter’s role. He has the size and speed to play the position and could make the loss of Jenkins that much easier on the defense.
2. James Starks, RB: There’s no denying Starks’ impact down the stretch and into the playoffs, but his sophomore season could be the year that he takes the reigns from Ryan Grant and becomes the Packers’ starter of the future. Grant has been one of the more underrated running backs in the NFC over the past three seasons, but Starks has played well enough to at least share a 50/50 load in the backfield. Grant is under contract for just one more season and the Packers could be grooming Starks to take the role full-time.
3. Bryan Bulaga, RT:
ESPN.com’s NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert ranked the most underrated players on each team in the division last Friday. His selection for the Packers, right guard Josh Sitton, came as no surprise. Staying with that trend, here are the top 10 most underrated Packers.
1. Josh Sitton, right guard: Left tackle Chad Clifton has been given much of the credit for the Packers’ recent successes in the Packers’ passing attack, as the offensive line allowed just 38 sacks in 2010, down from 51 a year ago. But for as good as Clifton was last season, being selected to the Pro Bowl and being voted as the 99th best player in the league by the players, Sitton is the foundation of the offensive line. The fourth year guard was called for just two false starts and one holding penalty in 2010, and unofficially did not allow a sack. He excelled in the ground game as well and was a Pro Bowl alternate. John Clayton ranked him as the most underrated right guard in the NFL.
2. Sam Shields, cornerback: The secret is out Shields after his performance in the NFC Championship Game, including the game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter, but Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams still shadow the rookie corner. Unofficially, Shields allowed 37 receptions on 63 passes intended on his receiver and committed just one pass interference penalty. He defended seven passes and intercepted four more, and the quarterback rating on passes on him was 80.7, just four points worse than Woodson’s 2010 mark. He is not on the level of Woodson or Williams, but for an undrafted rookie with just one year of defensive skills, Shields was a major success. He also helped on special teams, averaging 21.5 yards on 21 returns. Shields should make Woodson’s inevitable retirement in the next two or three years that much easier.
3. Brandon Chillar, inside linebacker:
What a game.
It probably wasn’t the contest either team pictured going in, but the Packers knocked off the Bears 21-14 Sunday at Soldier Field to advance to Super Bowl XLV. The game featured three Bears’ quarterbacks, two Aaron Rodgers interceptions, an interception returned for a touchdown from a 340-pound nose tackle, and two interceptions from an undrafted free agent rookie.
The Packers will take on the Pittsburgh Steelers, who also hung on to beat the New York Jets 24-19, Feb. 6 in Dallas, Texas. Here are game balls to hand out for the Packers’ NFC Title.
Sam Shields: For all the deserved talk cornerback Tramon Williams received over the last two weeks, it was another undrafted cornerback who came up huge for the Packers Sunday. Shields, a wide receiver-turned-cornerback from Miami, intercepted two passes and also recorded a sack, becoming the first rookie to ever do so in a playoff game. His first interception came late in the first half on the heels of an Aaron Rodgers interception in Chicago territory. Down 14-0, the Bears were looking to gain some momentum and were closing in on field goal range. Quarterback Jay Cutler lofted a pass down the left sideline intended for Johnny Knox, but Shields stayed stride-for-stride with Knox and made a leaping grab for the takeaway.
His second pick came in the final minutes and sealed the game for the Packers. Facing a 4th and 5 from the Packers’ 29-yard line, third string quarterback Caleb Hanie once again looked for Knox, but it was Shields who again jumped in front of his receiver to pick it off. He also added a sack and finished with four tackles. The addition of Shields has allowed the Packers to move Charles Woodson around without giving up too much on the outside, and the Packers’ defense has reaped the benefits. This was a mini-break out party for Shields, who was the Packers’ MVP today.
Greg Jennings: Aaron Rodgers was far from perfect today, missing some easy passes and throwing into traffic when he didn’t need to. However, the passes he did complete, or at least eight of them, were made far easier by the outstanding route-running and hands of Greg Jennings. He finished the game with eight catches for 130 yards and was targeted a team-high 11 times. In a game where field conditions were poor and neither offense was clicking, having a reliable set of hands on crucial plays was a main key to the game.
Jennings got things going early, catching passes on the first two plays of the game for 50 yards to put the Packers’ in great field position. Jennings was also on the receiving end of a few crucial second and third downs late in the game, keeping the Packers in great position to come out with the win. It’s not a stretch to say Jennings has become one of, if not, the best recievers in the league. He can beat teams from anywhere on the field on any kind of route, something that will be key in two weeks against the feared Steelers’ defense.
Being ranked as the top offense in the NFC is no easy task, especially with teams like the Packers, Saints, and Giants involved. But that’s exactly what Michael Vick and the rest of the Eagles’ high-powered offense have done this season, amassing 6,320 yards of offense in 2010. They ranked fifth in total offense through the air and led the NFC on the ground, and with Michael Vick in the lineup a serious argument could be made for them as the top offense in the conference.
The Packers’ defense, which has performed admirably despite handfuls of injuries to key players, will have its hands full trying to shut down Vick and the rest of the offense. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have had a full week plus 17 weeks on game film to plan for Vick, something he didn’t have when Vick entered the Week 1 matchup against the Packers.
Here’s a look at the Eagles’ skill position players and how the Packers will have to go about shutting them down.
Quarterback Michael Vick
Anyone who has seen Vick play this season, and by now that should be just about everyone, knows how dynamic and game-changing he can be. One play he will bullet a pass down the field for a 50-yard gain and the next he’ll scramble for 20 more. Just when defenders think they have him in their grasp, he uses his sneaky strength and unparralled agility to escape pressure.
A three or four-man rush will not get the job done against Vick because it allows too much time for his receivers (and defenders) to get downfield, allowing him to find an open man or scramble for big yards. Luckily for the Packers, blitzing has been one of its strong suits in 2010. They led the NFC in sacks and, behind linebacker Clay Matthews, defensive tackle B.J. Raji, and cornerback Charles Woodson, can and will bring pressure from everywhere on the field.
Another added bonus for the Packers is the expected return of defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who has missed the last four games with a nagging calf injury. He has tallied seven sacks on the season and will be a key pass rusher on the outside in both pressuring and containing Vick. Keeping Vick inside the hashmarks on passing downs with outside pressure and blitzes will be more effective than rushing up the middle, allowing Vick to move outside the pocket.
Through the air, Vick likes to take chances. His 8.11 yards per attempt ranks second in the NFC, trailing only Aaron Rodgers, so pressuring Vick and not allowing his receivers a chance to get downfield will keep him in check. He struggles with short passes because of his throwing motion and inaccuracy. Expect blitzes early and often to throw Vick’s timing.
Running Back LeSeasn McCoy
Anyone who thought the Packers did not look like a legitimate playoff team the last two weeks can quietly sit down. After disappointing losses to the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots, the Packers rebounded in a huge way by destroying the New York Giants 45-17 at Lambeau Field. The win put the Packers at 9-6 and one win away from a playoff berth. Here are game balls for performances in the Packers’ impressive win Sunday afternoon.
Aaron Rodgers: Returning from his one and a half game absence, Rodgers was nearly perfect. He passed for a regular season career-high 404 yards and threw four touchdowns to four different receivers in the win. He also scrambled twice for 26 yards, including a 15-yard run which he finished with a slide, being greeted by loud cheers from the Green Bay crowd. With one game to play, Rodgers needs 307 yards and three touchdown passes to finish with 4,000 yards and 30 TDs. Not too shabby.
John Kuhn: Dubbed the “folk hero” by many after yesterday’s performance, Kuhn finished with three touchdowns (two on the ground, one through the air) to help the Packers’ explosion on offense. In the past two games, 11 of Kuhn’s 17 touches have resulted in a first down or touchdown. He is a vital part of the offense and proved it Sunday, moving the chains and finding the endzone with ease. With Korey Hall out next week with a knee sprain, he will be that much more important.