Before training camp, defensive line looked like a position with an abundance of depth.
Even without Johnny Jolly, Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett were returning starters, B.J. Raji was last year’s top pick, Mike Neal was this year’s second-round pick, Jarius Wynn, Ronald Talley and Anthony Toribio were a year wiser and seventh-round pick C.J. Wilson was an accomplished pass rusher in college.
The depth seemed so impressive that 2007 first-rounder Justin Harrell’s position on the team seemed precarious.
Well, a few things are as expected. Jenkins, Pickett and Raji will start, Neal is coming on strong and Harrell’s spot on the team remains precarious. But none of the young players has impressed. Typically, the Packers keep six defensive linemen on their 53-man roster and have five activated on gamedays. Entering Thursday’s preseason finale at Kansas City, the Packers appear to have only four reliable defensive linemen: the starters and Neal.
The wild card in the mix is Harrell. Clearly, the Packers want him to make the team. He’s in the fourth year of his six-year rookie deal and has pocketed $6.07 million in guaranteed money — including bonuses of about $518,000 already this year, according to salary data provided to Packer Report. For that money, he’s played in 13 regular-season games and has made exactly zero impact plays.
Harrell has made it through most of training camp without his bad back acting up, but can the Packers count on him to hold up all season? Or will he take a shot to the back in the first quarter of a game and leave the defense short-handed? Will he wake up one morning so sore that he can’t play for two months and the team will have wasted a valuable roster spot?
“I just go off the information that I am given from the medical staff,” coach Mike McCarthy said when asked those questions after Monday’s practice. “I think he is getting better as far as his strength levels through training camp. I think this is very normal for someone that has had a lower-back injury. He looks to be getting stronger, and now that we have been in one-a-day practices and been off the training camp schedule, I think it has really helped him.”
For all he’s gone through, even Harrell is uncertain of whether he can help the team that has stuck by him through thick (not much thick) and thin (a lot of thin)?
“I think I can help this team,” he said with a wary smile. “It’s not for me really to decide, other than just knowing all the calls and going out there and playing hard and just try to make plays. That’s what all these guys in this locker room are doing. That’s what it boils down to, just going out and showing the coaches I can be accountable.”
Harrell’s role on the team would be as a run defender because he’s provided almost zero pass rush at practice and in the preseason games — aside from his pressure of Peyton Manning last week that set up Frank Zombo’s sack and strip. Harrell knows this might be his last chance. He’s heard the talk about him being a bust. Injury prone. Lazy. He knows he’s been a colossal disappointment. Being able to contribute would mean the world to him.
“This relationship I have with these guys, with this whole town of Green Bay, it’s a great place,” Harrell said. “My family’s been here this whole time with me. We’ve grown acclimated to it. It’s comfortable for us and it’s a good place. Hopefully, I’ll be here for another year.”
Jones wearing harness
Last year, Brad Jones missed the first half of training camp with a back injury but turned in a terrific rookie season as the replacement for injured Aaron Kampman. This year, Jones has barely practiced again, first with a bruised back and now with an injured shoulder.
Jones has been on the practice field the last two days to test out a shoulder harness but hasn’t participated in any live drills. At this point, it appears highly unlikely he’ll play against the Chiefs. He’s played in only one preseason game, but if he’s healthy for Week 1, there’s a good chance he’ll be the starter, anyway.
“You always want to practice. That’s always a key,” Jones said. “You just want to practice. I want to practice as much as I can but I’m going to be smart. I’m not going to re-injure myself.”
Out on Monday: safeties Atari Bigby (ankle) and Will Blackmon (knee), cornerbacks Al Harris (knee) and Brandon Underwood (shoulder), running backs Quinn Porter (knee) and James Starks (hamstring), linebackers Clay Matthews (hamstring), Desmond Bishop (hamstring) and Jones, defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calves), tackle Chad Clifton and guard-tackle Allen Barbre (back).
Clifton took part in the jog-through then watched the rest with a bag of ice taped to his right knee. McCarthy said the knee “progressing” but it seems likely that first-round pick Bryan Bulaga or second-year player T.J. Lang will start Thursday’s game.
Porter was the sensation of early training camp, but a sprained ankle and now a knee sprain likely mean his best-case scenario is the practice squad. He’s not depressed, though.
“I’ve deposited all of my energy, all of my talent,” he said. “I did what I had to do. It’s in God’s hands — and Ted Thompson’s, Mike McCarthy’s, EB’s (Edgar Bennett’s) hands. I’m just blessed. I’m still blessed. I’m very optimistic, still confident. It hurts, because I want to be out there practicing, but I’m still confident. Still doing treatment, still believing in the program, in the system. I’m staying positive. Any decisions they decide to make, it’s on them. But I’m a Packer in my heart. First NFL team, first coaching staff, first bunch of players I’ve become close with. I’m just taking it all in.”
— Mason Crosby hit 6-of-8 field goals, with punter Chris Bryan doing all the holding. The misses came from 45 and 53 yards, with Crosby ending the drill by making a 53-yarder. Bryan will do the holding against the Chiefs.
— The first roster cuts are due at 3 p.m. Central on Tuesday. The roster must be cut from 79 players to 75. They’ll wait until the last minute to make those decisions. “There is too much stuff that is unknown right now in terms of injuries and nicked up and things like that,” Thompson said. “We just felt like with a little bit more time we would be able to make better decisions.”
— The Packers had two defenses working in the nickel simultaneously. The No. 1 had Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar at inside linebacker. The second had A.J. Hawk and Maurice Simpkins. That’s the No. 5 overall pick of the 2006 draft working with an arena leaguer.
— Thompson played linebacker for 10 NFL seasons after entering the league as an undrafted player. So, does he root for those long shots? “Yeah, I know what you’re saying, but no, it’s too important for us to make the right decisions for me to get into a cheerleading thing, hoping and wishing. You have to let this thing play out. It’s like even now, there’s a lot of assumptions being made, but this thing has to play itself out, and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. So we’ll see how the next few days go and try to get through the weekend and do right by the Packers. But I don’t have the luxury of being able to do that.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.