GREEN BAY – A few weeks ago, Ted Thompson trotted out one of his favorite lines when asked about what he’d be looking for in the final 53-man roster.
“With a final roster – which is never final, as you guys know – you never can tell,” the Green Bay Packers general manager said. “Coach McCarthy and his staff, they’re very flexible. They’re very cognizant of the importance of trying to keep the best players, and that’s what we’ve tried to do in the past, and sometimes it looks unusual. You never know.”
With the 20 roster moves Thompson made Friday evening – cutting 18 players and placing outside linebacker Vic So’oto on injured reserve and backup left tackle Derek Sherrod on the physically unable to perform list – the Packers’ current 53-man roster does indeed look unusual. And it definitely isn’t final.
The team has almost as many wide receivers (six) as offensive linemen (seven). Undrafted rookie free agent Jarrett Boykin made the cut over last year’s practice-squad darlings Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel, while on the line, the Packers only have their five starters plus Evan Dietrich-Smith and undrafted rookie free agent tackle Don Barclay.
You can bet Thompson will scour the waiver wire and perhaps even explore trade possibilities to find line help, as it’s almost inconceivable that he’d go into the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against San Francisco with fewer than eight offensive linemen on the roster.
Then there are the Packers’ two suspended players – defensive end Mike Neal (four games) and outside linebacker Erik Walden (one game). Barring major injuries, the Packers will have to clear roster spots for each of them when their suspensions expire. As of now, neither player counts against the 53-man roster or the salary cap.
So while keeping in mind that the roster remains fluid, here’s a look at where it stands:
Quarterbacks (2): Aaron Rodgers, Graham Harrell.
For the fourth straight year, the Packers will open the season with only two quarterbacks on the active roster. The release of seventh-round pick B.J. Coleman was in no way surprising, and he’s a virtual lock to be back on the practice squad Saturday. The Packers like his potential but know that he’s nowhere close to being ready to play in an NFL regular-season game. Harrell silenced the cacophony of doubters with his incredible performance in Thursday night’s 24-3 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, achieving the perfect passer rating of 158.3.
Running backs (5): Cedric Benson, Alex Green, James Starks, Brandon Saine, John Kuhn.
Benson’s acquisition on Aug. 12 could turn out to be a game-changer, but his arrival did not result in Starks’ departure. Sidelined by a turf toe injury suffered in the preseason opener at San Diego three days before Benson’s arrival, Starks was never truly in danger, according to a pair of NFL sources. While his durability remains a major issue, he has shown tantalizing talent that the Packers don’t want to give up on. Green appears to be rounding into form after last year’s reconstructive knee surgery. Saine missed a ton of time with a hamstring injury but stuck nonetheless.
Wide receivers (6): Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb, Donald Driver, Jarret Boykin.
For all the talk about Diondre Borel and Tori Gurley, neither took his game to the proverbial next level in training camp. They may wind up elsewhere, but Boykin flat-out beat them out. Rodgers loved his route-running, and while he’s not a burner, he knows how to get open. The old man, Driver, was never in danger from the moment he signed a restructured contract, but he went out and had a typically solid camp to ensure that his return was more than ceremonial.
Tight ends (4): Jermichael Finley, Tom Crabtree, D.J. Williams, Ryan Taylor.
The only reason the Packers didn’t keep five tight ends again is Andrew Quarless (knee) is on PUP. Crabtree suffered a shoulder injury at Cincinnati and didn’t play in the finale, and he appeared to be in significant pain during the week. Williams (ankle) also sat out Thursday night but had a nice camp. Taylor remains a key special teamer.
Offensive line (7): Marshall Newhouse, T.J. Lang, Jeff Saturday, Josh Sitton, Bryan Bulaga, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Don Barclay.
The decision to put Sherrod on PUP is a gamble, given that he won’t be able to even practice for at least the first six weeks of the season. Once he does start practicing, the team will have three weeks to decide whether to activate him or put him on IR. Whenever that clock starts, Sherrod won’t have taken a snap in a game or a practice since Dec. 18. How long will it take him to get into football shape? Who knows? The release of veteran lineman Reggie Wells wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was mildly surprising simply because it left the team with just seven linemen. There’s simply no way the Packers don’t add an eighth guy. At the same time, how many genuinely good offensive linemen were cut Friday, given how hard they are to find in the first place?
Defensive line (6): B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson, Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels, Phillip Merling.
Another mild surprise here: The release of Daniel Muir, who had a better camp than Merling but probably was a victim of circumstance, given that Raji and Pickett can both play the nose tackle spot while Merling delivers depth at end. That said, someone will have to go either when Walden returns after his one-game ban or Neal comes back after his four-game suspension, and Merling might be the odd man out. He’d better continue to prove himself. Worthy (a second-round pick) and Daniels (a fourth-round pick) now must pick their games up considerably.
Linebackers (9): Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk, D.J. Smith, Nick Perry, Robert Francois, Jamari Lattimore, Brad Jones, Terrell Manning, Dezman Moses.
Manning made the team as a draft pick despite a less-than-stellar camp. He’s another candidate to lose his spot to one of the suspended players. His quiet camp likely means he could sneak through waivers to the practice squad, where he could use a year of seasoning. Francois, Lattimore, Jones and Moses will all contribute on special teams, and Moses remains the story of camp for the way he started off with a bang at the rookie orientation camp and never let up. He could wind up a big-time impact player before too long.
Defensive backs (11): Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Jarrett Bush, Morgan Burnett, Jerron McMillian, Sam Shields, Davon House, Casey Hayward, Brandian Ross, M.D. Jennings, Sean Richardson.
Young, young, young – that’s the Packers at safety, at least when Woodson isn’t playing the position in the base defense. Given they’re a 70 percent-plus sub-package team, expect to see plenty of McMillian, Jennings or Richardson paired with Burnett, who’s only going into his third year. McMillian is the odds-on favorite for the gig to start the season. At corner, Bush looks like he’s solidly in the starting lineup ahead of Shields, who fought his way out of an early hole to earn the dime spot. The wildcard is House, who could return to practice this week wearing a harness on his injured left shoulder. If he can play at close to the level he was at before the injury on Aug. 9, the Packers are in business. Ross may only be on the roster temporarily but cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt really liked what he saw from him.
The Packers are sitting pretty with this threesome, all of whom are entering their primes and have been good to very good the last couple of years. Crosby is coming off his best season, Masthay is working his way up the hit parade among top punters and Goode just doesn’t make mistakes.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.