UPDATE ON DRAFTEES AND CAMP BODIES Jerry Gilbert 9/1/2007
As Packer Training Camp 2007 comes to a close, it is a good time to look back on the draft choices and camp bodies we have been watching and discussing, and draw some conclusions. In general, draftees and camp bodies have not made the biggest impact. The story of this camp has been the development of players already on the roster. Subject to a couple of exceptions, veterans from the 2006 roster are more likely to determine whether the team succeeds in 2007 than will the newly added talent. A position by position analysis will illustrate the point.
As last season came to a close, the Green Bay Packers possessed one reliable quarterback, Brett Favre, and he was widely criticized for poor ball security and inconsistent judgment. The present situation is far different. Brett Favre, at least to some extent, appears to have bought into Coach Mike McCarthy's strategy that the quarterback required by this team is a game manager who takes what the defense gives and minimizes risk. The real change however is in holdover backup Aaron Rodgers. Basically inadequate a year ago, Rodgers turned his game around, and has proved in this preseason that he could, if needed, lead the Green Bay Packers in 2007. The Draftee from 2006, Ingle Martin, and a free agent this season, Paul Thompson are non-factors. The improvement in Aaron Rodgers' game is the big difference.
At tight end, Donald Lee replaces the departed David Martin as starter. His blocking has improved significantly, and he is showing signs that he will be a more consistent receiver. Another veteran, Bubba Franks, who last season appeared to be over the hill, has, particularly in the preseason games, played as well as he has ever played as a Green Bay Packer. By contrast, 2007 Draft Choice Clark Harris will probably not even make the roster. Holdover rookie free agent from last season Zac Alcorn has also not impressed the coaches. Barring the late addition of a productive free agent, how much this position contributes to team success will depend on the improved performance of Lee and Franks.
Wide Receiver is one position where a rookie is making a big impact. Third round selection James Jones has been the brightest light in Training Camp and is likely to be an integral part of the passing attack. However, every other wide receiver returns from last season. Donald Driver and Greg Jennings are the starters. The other reserves are Ruvell Martin and Carlyle Holliday. Both were signed as low level free agents, and each is playing much better than he did last season. These players will have a big impact on whether the Packers have a successful passing attack in 2007. The emergence of Martin and Holliday has destroyed any meaningful chance for Rookie Draftee David Clowney and for all the camp body receivers. Clowney may possibly make the roster, but the camp bodies have no chance. The practice squad is the only hope for Chris Francies, Shaun Bodiford and Calvin Russell.
It is only in the offensive backfield that rookie draft choices may hold the key to success this season. Partly because of injuries to running back Vernand Morency and fullback Brandon Miree, the opportunity was there for draft choices Brandon Jackson and Korey Hall .to emerge as opening day starters. Seventh round selection DeShawn Wynn and rookie camp body Corey white could also be a part of the backfield. It is also conceivable and probably desirable that a free agent will be added to this backfield, if for no other reason than to provide a veteran presence to go with the young talent. Either way, this is the part of the team that is most impacted by newly arrived talent.
Turning to defense, the defensive line is an example of a position in which the improvement of incumbents has virtually eliminated any room for new people. Three solid starters, Ryan Pickett, Aaron Kampman and Corey Williams will start again.
New millionaire Cullen Jenkins played effectively at defensive end last year, and based on training camp, he could be a star this season. These four along with Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, will be the rock on which the defense is built. At the time of the draft, it was expected that first round choice, Justin Harrell would threaten the starters. Instead, both Johnny Jolly and Colin Cole seem to be playing much better than last year and Harrell as well as camp body Daniel Muir are behind them on the depth chart.
At linebacker, there are also returning starters, and what was once an intriguing opportunity for camp bodies has evaporated. The camp bodies will not make the team because rookie draft choice Desmond Bishop has played well enough to be the top reserve. At the same time, returnee Tracy White has been such a force on special teams that the rookies could not supplant him. One camp body such as Spencer Havner or Rory Johnson may stick, provided that a better free agent is not added, but the development of Tracy White has reduced opportunities for new players.
The defensive secondary is another position in which rapid improvement by existing players has made it difficult for new players to earn a spot. The best examples are cornerbacks Jarrett Bush and Will Blackmon, who have beaten out both incumbent Patrick Dendy and free agent veteran Frank Walker for the nickel and dime cornerback positions. Camp bodies Tramon Williams and Antonio Malone have been left in the dust. Together with veterans Al Harris and Charles Woodson, the corner back group should be more effective than in recent seasons.
At safety, rookie draft choice Aaron Rouse was drafted as a possible replacement for Marquand Manual. Instead, a free agent from last season Atari Bigby has seized the starting role and fellow 2006 free agent Charlie Peprah could be the top reserve. Former 2005 draft choice Marviel Underwood was expected to compete for the starting position, but he never fully recovered from injury. Tyrone Culver, a low round choice in 2006, was also losing out even before his injury in the final preseason contest.
In one of my articles written before the draft, which still appears below, entitled "Missing Pieces Could be Nearby", I noted that the focus at draft time tends to be on new players "however, when those high priced rookies arrive at mini camps, they may find themselves playing behind a bunch of free agents and waiver wire players who have earned a role with the Green Bay Packers." Now that Training Camp is over, those free agents and waiver wire players have generally held on to their positions on the team.
Many of us have criticized Ted Thompson for the strategy of depending upon improvement of existing players rather than adding high-priced "free agents". Based on what we have seen thus far, the players returning from 2006 have improved, and the team should play better than it did last season. On the other hand, one can suggest that the team would be even better with additional veteran talent at fullback, running back, tight end or linebacker. Generally speaking, the "all eggs in one basket approach" is not the best way to improve an organization. However, as matters now stand, Ted Thomson has improved this team. The season will tell us whether the improvement will be enough.