Notebook: Depth At CB Makes For Tough Battle

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With veterans Al Harris and Charles Woodson firmly entrenched as the starting cornerbacks on the Green Bay Packers' defense, there are two interesting competitions unfolding amongst the backups behind them.

First, which corner will win the job of nickel back, the fifth defensive back for passing situations. And second, which of those competing for that nickel slot may eventually step forward into starting roles in future seasons.

With Harris (minor back injury) and Woodson (excused for an event) both absent from the final minicamp practice on Sunday, four different cornerbacks were rotating in with the No. 1 defense, all trying to stake an early claim to that nickel job.

Third-year pro Patrick Dendy, who took over at nickel last year when Ahmad Carroll was released, along with second-year men Will Blackmon and Jarrett Bush and free-agent pickup Frank Walker all carried over some off-field competition during the offseason strength and conditioning program to the on-field practices this weekend and beyond.

Head Coach Mike McCarthy noted that during the offseason program, each week one player was selected as the team's 'Performer of the Week,' and of the nine weeks, three times it was a cornerback.

"I think the young guys, there's excellent competition there, and you just go all the way down the line," McCarthy said.

It's too early, and too competitive, to forecast a future lineup, but it appears McCarthy is pleased with the depth at cornerback despite not selecting one in the recent NFL Draft.

"It's good," said Blackmon, a fourth-round draft choice in 2006 who saw only minimal playing time as a rookie due to foot and rib injuries. "I like all the competition. We have a lot of depth. All the DBs are working hard, and it just brings out the best in me so that's good right now. I like being challenged."

As for getting an edge in the competition, Blackmon has a simple answer.

"Make plays, period," he said. "If you make plays, they're going to see it, and you'll play."

As training camp progresses later this summer, special teams contributions could factor in as well, and all four can play valuable roles there.

Ultimately, everyone is aiming for a starting job down the line when Harris and Woodson, both 10-year vets, step aside. But in the meantime, the understudies have two of the league's best to lean on for advice when needed. Though they enjoy taking their reps when Harris and Woodson aren't around, the other cornerbacks use them as a resource, if not on the field, then in the film room.

"Those guys are two great corners," said Walker, the most experienced of the backup group, having played four seasons with the New York Giants after being a sixth-round draft pick in 2003. "I've watched film on them, and I'm trying to learn everything they do, everything they know. If I can learn what they know, to me I'll be a much better corner."

Easing back

Wide receiver Robert Ferguson was held out of all this weekend's practices while still recovering from a foot injury that limited him to just four games last year.

{sportsad300}But he did slip into the individual wide receiver drills for a few moments on Sunday morning, running some end zone routes and catching a handful of passes. Prior to that, he had just been doing individual conditioning on the sidelines while watching practice.

Ferguson said he's about 80 percent recovered, and unlike past seasons when he may have come back from injuries too soon, he's not rushing things this time. He knows he's at a crossroads in his career, having sustained multiple injuries throughout his six seasons and finding himself among a slew of candidates for roster spots behind starters Donald Driver and Greg Jennings.

"That's nothing new to me," Ferguson said of the extensive competition at receiver. "I'm used to going out there and competing."

Ferguson said he's had a productive offseason, adding 15 pounds of muscle to weigh in at 220 pounds. If there's one positive to having injuries end each of the last three seasons prematurely (a vicious clothesline tackle by Jacksonville's Donovin Darius in 2004, a knee injury in 2005, and the foot injury last year), it's that Ferguson feels his body is relatively fresh for a 27-year-old veteran.

He's hoping to be cleared medically by the start of organized team activities (OTAs) in June and put his rebuilt body on display in a new jersey. Ferguson switched from No. 89 in the offseason to No. 87, saying it revolves around the second digit - he's in his seventh season, he wore No. 7 in junior college, his daughter is turning seven this year. And maybe it will be his lucky number.

"I've definitely had my share of bad luck," he said. "I think I'm due for some good luck."

Itching to go

First-round draft pick Justin Harrell didn't participate in any of the team (11-on-11) drills during minicamp as a precaution due to his recovery from a torn bicep. But the defensive tackle did start to hit the blocking bags and is anxious to get medical clearance to go all-out in the OTAs.

"I wanted to come here and pretty much prove myself to the guys, and you can't do that when you're not participating all the way," he said. "But that's part of football. I'm just following doctors' orders, and when they release me I'm going to go out there and try to do my best."

McCarthy couldn't say for sure, but he'll have a better idea on Harrell's timetable during the rookies' strength and conditioning work this coming week. McCarthy said he's hopeful Harrell would be cleared by the end of the first week of OTAs, which begin May 30.

"With all of our players that are coming off medical issues, we're just being extremely cautious because once we release them, they're full go," McCarthy said.

All hands on deck

In an unusual twist to a regular drill, a handful of offensive and defensive linemen were asked to field simulated kickoffs on Sunday and then run through a tunnel of players trying to slap at the ball and strip it out.

Normally, the drill is done with running backs and wide receivers, and they have to run the gauntlet of all the linemen while protecting the ball like their life depends on it.

"We're an equal opportunity outfit here, so we gave them an opportunity to get after the big guys," McCarthy said.

Seriously, though, the drill is a way to emphasize that ball security is every player's responsibility, not just those who normally handle the ball.

For the most part, the linemen acquitted themselves well. On a total of 10 kickoffs, only two were mishandled. Offensive lineman Junius Coston failed to make the initial catch, while defensive tackle Corey Williams had the ball punched out from behind by running back Vernand Morency. Williams got through the line and appeared to relax when Morency snuck up behind him to pop the ball loose.

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