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MISSING PIECES COULD BE NEAR BY


Jerry Gilbert

During this season of free agency and the upcoming college draft, football fans tend to concentrate on the players who can be added from outside the team to fill needs on a football team. However, many successful football teams are primarily built from within, as back up performers replace starters who retire or sign elsewhere as free agents.

This discussion arose in a particular context recently as long time running back Ahman Green was offered a huge contract by the Houston Texans, and the Green Bay Packers did not match it. The loss of Green generated controversy, particularly because the Packer brain trust had remained on the sidelines while many of the league's top running backs, including Thomas Jones, Travis Henry and Willis McGahee, were changing teams. Understandably, the questions then turned to whether the Packers' first round draft choice would necessarily be a running back.

Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson are stating publicly that they are pretty happy with the backs they have, Vernand Morency, Arliss Beach, P.J. Pope and Noah Herron None of these backs are proven NFL starters, but neither is any candidate available in the April 28 Draft. However, the situation raises a broader issue. Are there obscure players now on the roster who are likely to become major contributors this season?

In one respect, the numbers are on the side of the new players. By rough count, only 16 players from the current roster were on the team in 2004 and a quarter of them arrived in that year. Most of the players on this team have been added since Ted Thompson became General Manager, and a majority of them were either claimed on waivers or signed as low level free agents. On the other hand, most players signed as street free agents or claimed off waivers do not become stars in the league. Some do become valuable contributors, however, and team success is often related to the ability of coaches and general managers to develop players who entered the league as marginal prospects.

Beginning with running back, the Packers have four players who could be on the roster next fall. Vernand Morency, who came into the league as the third round draft choice of the Houston Texans, is not technically the type of street free agent we are discussing. However, he came to the team in a trade for Samkon Gado, who was a low level free agent, which could make him an honorary member of the group. Morency, last season, averaged over 4 yards per carry as a result of his ability to turn short gains into longer plays. He may have been the team's best weapon inside the 20. On the other hand, he is undersized and unproven as a blocker and receiver. He will have a full off season and training camp to improve in those areas. Morency will be part of the answer at running back next season.

The other back who has a track record with the Packers is Noah Herron. Herron came into the league as a seventh round pick by the Steelers and the Packers grabbed him off the Pittsburgh practice squad. Herron is the reverse of Morency. He blocks well, and catches passes fairly well. His problem is that he has not a proven break away threat. In fact, after his only starting assignment last season, Herron was criticized for missing opportunities to make big plays. Significantly, he started one game, gained over 100 yards, and has not been seriously considered as a starter since. Unless, he shows big play ability this summer, Herron will be competing for the last running back spot on the roster.

The two free agent types, that have chance to be part of the solution to the loss of Ahman Green, are talented running backs who have very different backgrounds. Arliss Beach 5-10 223 with good speed and cutting ability impressed the Packer coaches in training camp and probably would have made the final roster but for an injury he sustained late in camp. On injured reserve, he was able to follow along as the offense developed, and he should be ready to show what he can do in the preseason. Beach has the size and skills to be a featured back. The problem is that he never became the starter in college at Kentucky. This leaves a major question as to whether Arliss Beach has the mental makeup and durability to be a starter in the NFL. Training camp and the preseason may provide part of the answer. By contrast, P.J. Pope 5-10 212 does not provide the classic size and speed, but he was a highly productive running back for three years at Bowling Green. The fact that he did not make the crowded backfield in Chicago as a rookie free agent is not a disqualification. Like Beach, Pope has the potential to contribute at a high level next season. However, for both of them we have seen only "potential".

At tight end, the candidates to replace the departed David Martin are all players who began on the fringes. Donald Lee has been the leading candidate. Both he and Tory Humphrey arrived as free agents in 2005. At 6-4 248, Lee has prototypical size and also the speed to be a starting tight end. He also has had some success as a reserve and occasional starter with Green Bay and also Miami, where he began as a 5th round draft choice. Unfortunately, Lee has not been consistent and too often displayed "hands of stone" in 2006. He has the skills and is a prospect worthy of another chance. Tory Humphrey is a bit under-sized at 6-2, and injuries have held him back. He was successful in NFL Europe. However, the best prospect of the three could be 2006 rookie free agent Zac Alcorn 6-4 255 Black Hills State. One of the best athletes at the position in 2006, Alcorn at 6-4 255 and running a 4.6 forty has the raw talent to play in the league. With a year on the fringes to learn the pro game, Zac Alcorn may well be the player who replaces David Martin in the Green Bay offense.

Turning to wide receiver, the top three incumbents are Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and Robert Ferguson. Behind them are the same free agents and waiver players that played last season. There have been no losses from this unit, but the position needs improvement. There are three young players on the roster who could emerge as the fourth receiver. The most consistent performer last season, Ruvell Martin, may have the least chance to stick with the team this season. Martin has good size and caught passes in difficult clutch situations. The issue with him is whether he has the quickness to get open. We know he does not have the speed to stretch defenses. Martin is competing for the last receiver spot on the roster.

Shaun Bodiford is a bit small at 5-11 186, but he has return skills and the speed and elusiveness to make big plays. Bodiford missed much of last season with injuries after being added at the end of training camp. With a full off season to learn the offense, Bodiford could develop into the receiver the Packers need to stretch the field. The other serious candidate for playing time is former Notre Dame Quarterback Carlyle Holiday 6-2 217. In addition to a great knowledge of the passing game, Holiday is strong and athletic. He also opens up the possibility of trick plays. None of these players currently puts any fear into the mind of a rival defensive coordinator. It is very likely that Green Bay will draft a speedy wide receiver on April 28.

It would understate the excellent job by Ted Thompson to add free agents to the offense last season to ignore the offensive line. We all know about the three veteran starters and the three rookie draft choices. However, the next two players off the bench next season could very well be two rookie free agents signed last year. Josh Bourke 6-7 314 from Grand Valley State was the top reserve at tackle last preseason before he was injured. Look for Bourke to hold that status this year. Backing up on the inside will be Tony Palmer 6-2 311 Missouri. Palmer was claimed off the Rams practice squad at the beginning of the season and became the top reserve at guard. He also will have a complete off season program to improve his conditioning and skills as an NFL lineman.

The signing of Aaron Kampman last season and the recent contract given to Cullen Jenkins gives the Packers a pair of defensive ends for several years. For now, the speed rusher in reserve is Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Whether the Packers may consider trading KGB to help the team in other areas, may depend on the evaluation of 2006 free agent rookie Jason Hunter 6-4 250 Appalachian State. Hunter surprised many when he made the roster last season. He did not make a huge impact, but he was as productive as most rookies on special teams and as an occasional reserve lineman. Hunter together with former street free agent Cullen Jenkins should be important contributors to the defense next season.

The major needs on defense ore in the defensive backfield. Both cornerbacks and one safety are in competent hands. The major needs for improved play are at nickel corner at the other safety where Marquand Manual was inadequate last year.. At the beginning of last season, Ted Thompson made two last second moves in the defensive backfield by claiming cornerback Jarrett Bush and safety Charlie Peprah off waivers from Carolina and the Giants respectively. Each contributed on special teams in 2006; however, when a cornerback was needed, Mike McCarthy turned to street free agent Patrick Dendy, who had been with the team in training camp rather than Bush. Following a full off season, Bush or Peprah could work up to some playing time. Realistically, however, two draft choices coming off of injured reserve, Will Blackmon and Marviel Underwood are more likely to end up as nickel back and safety. Veteran free agent Frank Walker is another candidate for nickel corner while 2006 draft choice Tyrone Culver is the next candidate at safety.

Most observers expect the Green Bay Packers to draft a running back, a safety, a tight end, a wide receiver and a cornerback as need picks in late April, and this is likely to happen. 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.

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