Building Roster Is A Numbers Game

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While the upcoming Packers training camp will focus on getting the team ready for the 16-game season that begins September 10, it will simultaneously build the final roster of the 2006 Packers.

The latter exercise is a numbers game that is likely to have some tough decisions at its conclusion for General Manager Ted Thompson and Head Coach Mike McCarthy.

The Packers currently have 91 players on the roster and will open training camp on Friday. (The team is above the NFL roster limit of 80 for the start of camp because of unsigned draft picks and exemptions for players who participated in NFL Europe.)

The first roster cut, down to 75 players (with no more NFL Europe exemptions) must be made on Aug. 29, the day after the third preseason game. The final cut to 53 players must happen by 3 p.m. on Sept. 2, the day after the fourth and final preseason game.

That's a total of 38 players who will not be on the final roster six weeks from now, and many of them aren't going to leave without a fight. Injuries will always factor into final decisions, but competition for roster spots, as well as starting spots, is just what Thompson and McCarthy have been aiming for to help the Packers rebound from their 4-12 mark in 2005.

Here is a position-by-position breakdown of what the roster looks like and some areas to keep an eye on as training camp opens. (Note: The first number after each position is the number of players currently on the roster. In parentheses is how many were on the 53-man roster for the regular-season opener last year.)

Quarterback - 4 (3)

Brett Favre attended the majority of offseason workouts to help learn the new terminology of McCarthy's version of the West Coast offense as quickly as possible.

Many eyes in the preseason games will be on backup Aaron Rodgers, who will look to improve upon his game performances from his rookie season.

Fifth-round draft pick Ingle Martin went from a big-time recruit at the University of Florida to a record-setter at small-town Furman University and is an intriguing prospect.

Running back - 9 (5)

Excluding fullbacks for the moment, there are six running backs vying for probably three or four spots, but how this position shapes up will depend largely on health.

Ahman Green (torn quad tendon) and Najeh Davenport (broken ankle) are coming back from severe injuries and are expected to return sometime during camp, though perhaps not at the beginning. Samkon Gado and Noah Herron proved to be valuable pickups last year.

The veterans at fullback are William Henderson and Vonta Leach, with small-college rookies Ben Brown (Tabor) and A.J. Cooper (North Dakota St.) the challengers.

How many total running backs will be kept could depend on the demands of the new zone-blocking scheme, and whether any of the backs are versatile enough to play running back and fullback. Herron took some snaps at both spots during the June organized team activities (OTAs).

Tight end - 5 (3)

In his address to the team's shareholders on July 19, Thompson noted this may be the team's strongest position with Bubba Franks, David Martin and Donald Lee leading the group. Of the challengers, Tory Humphrey was on the Packers' practice squad late last season and was activated for the final game.

Wide receiver - 12 (5)

This is by far the most wide open position coming into camp, with the only sure thing being Donald Driver as the No. 1. After that, Robert Ferguson, Rod Gardner and Marc Boerigter are the only receivers with legitimate NFL experience, but that doesn't mean their spots are set in stone.

Draft picks Greg Jennings and Cory Rodgers will be worth watching in their first NFL training camp with playing time seemingly there for the taking. Among the other challengers, Chad Lucas, Ruvell Martin and Vince Butler finished 2005 on the Packers' practice squad, with Lucas leading NFL Europe in touchdown catches and making the all-league team this spring. Leo Bookman has attracted some attention for his speed.

Offensive line - 14 (10)

The interest here isn't so much who will make the team, but who will ultimately earn one starting guard position and how quickly the revamped unit can come together.

Second-year pro Junius Coston and rookie third-round draft choice Jason Spitz are vying for the starting job at right guard, and the two went back-and-forth during the mini-camps and OTAs working with the first unit.

The winner of that battle is expected to join veteran tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton, center Scott Wells and rookie guard Daryn Colledge in the starting unit up front.

The season-ending injury to Kevin Barry (torn quad tendon) has necessitated the youth movement and hurt the overall depth, but fifth-round pick Tony Moll has the versatility to play tackle or guard, Will Whitticker and Adrian Klemm appear to be moving from guard (where they played last year) to backup tackle spots, and center Chris White made the 53-man roster last season as an undrafted rookie.

Defensive line - 14 (9)

Aside from tight end, this position got probably the strongest endorsement from Thompson at the shareholders' meeting. The depth on the roster right now is impressive, but that also means there isn't a spot for everyone who may be capable of contributing.

If it's assumed the returning players who notched the most starts last year (Aaron Kampman, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Cullen Jenkins) and the most notable free-agent acquisitions (Ryan Pickett and Kenderick Allen) will make the final roster, that still leaves a significant log jam for the other spots among several draft picks and other noteworthy free agent signees.

Kenny Peterson (2003), Corey Williams ('04), Michael Montgomery ('05), Johnny Jolly ('06) and Dave Tollefson ('06) all have been drafted by Green Bay in the past four years, while part-time 2005 starter Colin Cole was signed two years ago and Jerome Nichols (who made the all-NFL Europe team by tying for the league lead in sacks) were picked up this year.

There simply isn't room for them all, and it's possible someone, or more than one, on this list may be good enough to make another team's roster in 2006.

Linebacker - 11 (6)

Thompson believes this area went "from a position of concern to a position of strength" in the offseason and the group has a chance to be "remarkable."

As of now, the starters are Nick Barnett in the middle, first-round pick A.J. Hawk on the weak side, and free-agent pickup Ben Taylor on the strong side. But there should be some depth behind them as well.

Third-round pick Abdul Hodge is expected to contribute in some fashion, Roy Manning played in nearly every game last year, 2005 seventh-round pick Kurt Campbell spent all of last year on injured reserve, and Tracy White was another veteran free-agent pickup like Taylor.

The wild card in the mix is promising second-year pro Brady Poppinga, who sustained a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament late last season but is reportedly way ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation. If he's healthy enough to hold a roster spot at the end of training camp, which seemed like wishful thinking a few months ago, this unit will look even better than it did right after the draft and the competition for the final spots will be fierce.

Defensive back - 16 (9)

The sheer volume of secondary players on the roster now is startling, but it should make for some spirited battles.

The projected starters heading into camp are returnees Al Harris and Nick Collins at one corner and safety spot, respectively, and free-agent acquisitions Charles Woodson and Marquand Manuel at the others. Third-year pro Ahmad Carroll performed well in mini-camps and OTAs and is probably the leading candidate for the nickel slot.

Beyond that, players will be watched closely to see who emerges. Veteran Mark Roman has started 31 of 32 games his two years in Green Bay, 2005 draft picks Marviel Underwood and Mike Hawkins will look to continue their development, 2006 draft picks Will Blackmon and Tyrone Culver will see their first live NFL action (though Blackmon is recovering from a broken foot suffered in the spring), and third-year pro Jason Horton will look to rebound from a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve last November.

There may not be enough room for all of them, let alone when you add in four free-agent pickups from last year (Patrick Dendy, Atari Bigby, Therrian Fontenot and Jerron Wishom) who were all on the roster at season's end.

As will be the case at linebacker, the final roster spots at defensive back will be at a premium and may be determined by which players can provide the most help on special teams.

Specialists - 6 (3)

Rob Davis is headed for his 10th season as the Packers' long snapper.

But competition is open at kicker between Billy Cundiff and Dave Rayner, while the same is true at punter between Jon Ryan and B.J. Sander. Cundiff and Ryan currently hold the edge in those battles, but at these positions it's never out of the question that the players who ultimately get the jobs aren't even on the roster yet.

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