As the Green Bay Packers begin preparations for Saturday night's preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans, coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson have to be pleased with the apparent depth of the Packers roster at all four of the premium positions.
The calendar still reads early August, but Green Bay now looks as healthy at quarterback, offensive tackle, pass-rusher and cornerback as any other time in recent years. In the NFL, teams possessing the necessary talent and depth at the four big positions must be considered legitimate contenders.
The Packers had the talent but not the depth in 2013, when significant injuries at quarterback and pass-rusher all but derailed a team with early Super Bowl aspirations.
The 2014 season will still remain heavily dependent on Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews avoiding the training table, but the depth at both positions—and also corner and tackle, the other two premium roster areas—is now better situated to handle a hiccup or two.
The depth at edge-rusher is especially encouraging.
Matthews and free-agent pickup Julius Peppers have the opportunity to be a dominant duo. Neither player has had the luxury of playing opposite such an accomplished rusher.
The Packers can mix and match behind them, giving snaps to 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry and also Mike Neal, who led the team in quarterback disruptions a year ago. There will likely be defensive looks that employ three or even all four of the rushers at the same time.
While injuries are probably a given for these four—Matthews has missed nine games the last two seasons, Peppers is 34, Perry has played in just 17 of 36 possible games and Neal owns just one season playing all 16 games—the Packers also look strong at the bottom of the depth chart.
|OLB1||C. Matthews||M. Neal||A. Mulumba||C. Bradford|
|OLB2||J. Peppers||N. Perry||N. Palmer||Hubbard/Elliott|
Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer, Carl Bradford, Adrian Hubbard and Jayrone Elliott round out the final five players at the position. All five have a chance at making the roster.
"All nine OLBs look like they can play," wrote Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "What a battle it will be for probably six roster berths."
Mulumba, a 2013 undrafted free agent, played over 300 snaps for the Packers defense last season. He flashed an ability to set the edge against the run. Palmer was drafted in the sixth round last spring and looks like a core special teams player.
Bradford was a fourth-round pick in May. His lower body power and relentless motor could make him a sub-package asset immediately as a rookie.
Hubbard was projected as a mid-round pick but instead became one of the more intriguing undrafted free agents. He's a mountain of a man at 6'6" and almost 260 pounds.
Maybe the most fascinating player is Elliott, another undrafted free agent who has opened eyes at camp. According to McGinn, Elliott had a dominating effort in individual pass-rushing drills at both the Family Night scrimmage Saturday night and Monday's practice. He also has a 82-inch wingspan and surprising athleticism.
Jayrone Elliot, a rookie LB out of Toledo, looks really good in drills. Violent hands. Interested to see him from scrimmage.— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) July 31, 2014
Thompson hasn't been shy about keeping undrafted free agents at edge-rusher, giving the likes of Mulumba, Frank Zombo and Dezman Moses chances on the 53-man roster. Elliott or Hubbard might be next.
The Packers couldn't find an edge-rusher a year ago, when they eventually had to ask rookie defensive end Datone Jones to stand up at linebacker in the postseason. This summer, experience and upside both ooze out of the position. Edge-rusher may now be one of Green Bay's deepest positions.
At quarterback, Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien might as well be Montana and Unitas when compared to last year's backup options.
Just 12 months ago, the Packers banked on Graham Harrell, who played all of 32 snaps in 2012, and B.J. Coleman, a former seventh-round pick, to run with the opportunity to be the offense's No. 2 quarterback. Each bombed. A trail run with Vince Young, the washed-up No. 3 pick in 2006, did not produce an answer. The failures of Harrell, Coleman and Young forced the Packers to scramble after final roster cuts to find Rodgers' backup.
The script has been flipped this summer. Flynn provides a veteran with starting experience (seven career starts) and an extensive history in the offense, while Tolzien has upside and a better arm than Harrell could ever dream of. Both bring a quiet confidence to the quarterback room in the event Rodgers suffered another injury. Flynn won two starts and helped engineer a come-from-behind tie after returning to Green Bay late last season, and Tolzien completed over 61 percent of his passes and averaged eight yards per attempt in his first NFL action.
|Graham Harrell/B.J Coleman||0||4|
|Matt Flynn/Scott Tolzien||9||431|
The Packers would still go from contender to pretender if Rodgers blew out his knee in Week 1, but Flynn and Tolzien at least give Green Bay a chance to remain competitive.
Depth at offensive tackle should help keep Rodgers upright.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari, a surprise rookie starter from 2013, is now a year older. He's also heavier. Per Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Bakhtiari put on seven to nine pounds of "good weight" this offseason, which should help him fare better against the power rushers that gave him problems as a rookie.
"That's going to help him in his run game, help him to take on bull rushes, drop his anchor and do those things evident to him — be able to do that even better without losing his athletic ability because he does have very good feet," offensive line coach James Campen told Hodkiewicz.
Despite being a fourth-round pick not expected to play, Bakhtiari was arguably the top rookie left tackle in 2013.
Rejoining Bakhtiari and the starting offensive line is Bryan Bulaga, who will return to his old position at right tackle. He missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Together, Bakhtiari and Bulaga could form a tackle tandem as good as the Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher combination enjoyed in Green Bay for many years.
MM: This offensive line, in my opinion, has the chance to be the best OL we've had. I'm excited about that group.— Green Bay Packers (@packers) July 25, 2014
There's also depth to the position.
Don Barclay, 25, has 18 career starts. Fourteen of the 18 came last season, when he was inserted as a starter after Bulaga's injury. Derek Sherrod, the team's 2011 first-round pick, is finally healthy and ready to contribute. Barclay will be the primary backup to Bulaga on the right side. If over his injury past, Sherrod could represent one of the better backup left tackles in the NFL.
(Update: Barclay tore his ACL during Tuesday's practice, per Hodkiewicz. He is now expected to miss the 2014 season.)
Cornerback, the fourth and final premium position, also appears deeper and better prepared today than a year ago.
Casey Hayward is back after missing the majority of last season with hamstring problems. Instinctive and quick, he should bring a playmaking element back to the position. Hayward will likely rejoin the defense in the nickel package, with Tramon Williams, who had a bounce-back second half of last season, and Sam Shields, Green Bay's $39 million investment, at the perimeter positions.
Davon House, an up-and-down player his first three seasons, is also making a legitimate run at playing time, despite the players ahead of him.
"Davon House is clearly having his best year here as a pro — just what he's done in the offseason, some of the things he's focused on, things he knew he could improve on," McCarthy said, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com. "You saw that since April. He's a big, long, strong corner. He does a lot of good things."
According to Demovsky, House spent this offseason training with Darrelle Revis in Phoenix. A player once lacking confidence from play to play may now have the mental edge he needs.
Micah Hyde, a staff favorite who has shifted to a starting role at safety, will also figure into the equation at cornerback when the Packers go to dime. Jarrett Bush, Jumal Rolle, Demetri Goodson, Antonio Dennard and Ryan White round out the position.
"I love that whole secondary, just our depth, competition," McCarthy said.
McCarthy would likely say something similar about his three other most important positions.
The Packers have an elite quarterback and two quality backups, an ascending tackle situation with promising depth, a hoard of edge-rushers behind a potentially dominant starting combination and four to five starting-quality cornerbacks. In the NFL, that's called a wealth of talent and depth in the right locations.
The start of the exhibition schedule Saturday should tell more about just how well off the Packers are at the game's premium positions.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.