Wide receivers (5): Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Jarrett Boykin, Jeremy Ross.
The team had four rookie wide receivers in camp – undrafted free agents Myles White and Tyrone Walker and seventh-round picks Johnson and Dorsey – but in the end, none made the cut. White and Johnson have signed with the practice squad, an NFL source confirmed, but the Packers are ready to go into the season with Boykin and Ross behind their Big Three. When healthy, that threesome can go toe-to-toe with any other pass-catching trio in the league. The problem is that Cobb (biceps) and Nelson (knee) played three snaps of preseason football as they missed the first three exhibition games with their injuries.
Boykin made the team as an undrafted free agent last year, forcing the Packers to keep six receivers for the first time under Thompson. He appeared to take a step later in camp and finished the preseason with six receptions for 63 yards.
“Jarrett Boykin, after kind of a slow patch there in the middle of camp, I think really stepped up, especially the last two weeks and solidified his spot in this locker room,” Rodgers said late in camp. “And I think you’ve got to give him a lot of credit for the stuff he’s done on special teams as well, from what I hear.”
Ross’ saving grace was special teams, as he was up-and-down as a receiver but could give the Packers the return option they have been looking for while saving Cobb for critical returns. Ross, who was impressive on returns late in the season until his back-breaking muffed punt against the 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, averaged 10.5 yards on two punt returns and 23.3 yards on four kickoff returns in preseason.
“I thought he’s been very solid (on returns),” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “What he did in the game (against Seattle) with getting the punt return outside the 20 was solid. I thought his kickoff return in the game was done the way I like it done. It was good.”
Tight ends (4): Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Ryan Taylor, Brandon Bostick.
The club kept five tight ends last year, but after allowing Tom Crabtree to walk as an untendered restricted free agent to Tampa Bay, waiving D.J. Williams on Sunday and releasing offseason free-agent signee Matthew Mulligan, the Packers went with Quarless, Taylor and Bostick, who spent last season on the practice squad, behind Finley.
Mulligan’s release reinforced the Packers’ develop-from-within approach, as he seemed to be a logical addition as a blocking tight end after Crabtree’s departure. Mulligan had specialized in run-blocking with St. Louis (14 career receptions) but Thompson decided he liked Bostick’s potential, Taylor’s solid special-teams contributions and Quarless’ gradual return to health after a catastrophic knee injury in December 2011 better.
“I think (Mulligan’s release) speaks more to the other tight ends that we have. We have a very good group. And I think it’s a reflection of that more than anything else. He’s a good football player,” Thompson said. “In Matthew’s defense, we have more body work with those guys because they’ve been here practicing and playing over the course of the last couple years.”
Offensive linemen (8): David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Evan Dietrich-Smith, T.J. Lang, Don Barclay, Marshall Newhouse, Greg Van Roten, Lane Taylor.
Bakhtiari, a fourth-round pick from Colorado, stepped in after Bryan Bulaga’s season-ending knee injury during the Family Night Scrimmage Aug. 3 and will have the spotlight on him all season long. Barclay appears to be the starting right tackle, although McCarthy has yet to make it official, while Newhouse, who started 28 games the last two years at right tackle (Packers’ record: 22-6), will back up both left and right tackle.
Sitton, Dietrich-Smith and Lang may be solid inside, but the backups are unproven. Taylor was the most impressive undrafted free-agent lineman in camp but had growing pains during the preseason. Van Roten narrowly beat out undrafted free agent Patrick Lewis to win the backup center job, but Lewis was immediately claimed on waivers by Cleveland Sunday. Van Roten, who was promoted from the practice squad last year, was up-and-down throughout camp.
A year ago, the Packers kept only seven linemen coming out of camp, and in the days leading up to the cuts, offensive line coach James Campen was asked if he had eight players deserving of spots. “It’s whatever warrants the spot. If it warrants having eight, nine, 10, 11 guys, then it warrants a spot,” he replied. “Guys have to perform to make that happen. It doesn’t matter to me, we play with five, we’re going to have seven on game day.”
Defensive linemen (8): B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson, Datone Jones, Johnny Jolly, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels, Josh Boyd.
While Neal is really an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid, the Packers kept a higher number of defensive linemen than in past years in the 3-4 scheme no matter how you classify him. It’ll be an interesting year on the line with Raji, Pickett, Wilson, Jolly and Neal all in the final years of their contracts, too.
Jolly might have been the feel-good story of camp with an interception, a sack and two pass deflections, but he’ll have to contribute. If he’s anywhere near the player he was in 2009, he’ll be well worth the risk the Packers took on bringing him back after a three-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy and a stint in prison.
“Johnny’s a real natural football player, I’ve always said that. He really loves to play the game. I think he’s a bit infectious with our team,” Thompson said. “I don’t think any of us can really speak to the journey that he’s been on because I’m not sure any of us know all the things that’s encompassed in that journey. I admire him. I’ve said this all along: I liked him before when he was here and I like him now that he’s here. When he wasn’t here, I can’t speak to that. I just know that different people have different challenges as you go through life.”
Daniels elevated his game as a second-year player, while Jones, the team’s first-round pick, was bothered by an ankle sprain throughout camp after going down against Arizona in the Aug. 9 preseason opener. Boyd did not have a good camp – it seemed like defensive line coach Mike Trgovac was yelling at him every day in practice – but was kept on his potential.
“I think we've had probably as good a competition that we've had since I've been here,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think that there's more depth in that area, which is what you hope. To me, the more competition you create, the better you are.”
Inside linebackers (5): A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Robert Francois, Jamari Lattimore, Sam Barrington.
While Thompson wouldn’t say which cuts were the toughest, keeping Barrington, a rookie seventh-round pick, over 2012 fifth-round pick Terrell Manning, had to be among the toughest. Manning was claimed on waivers by San Diego, and the Chargers made room for him by releasing D.J. Smith, whom they’d claimed after the Packers cut him loose this spring.
“There were a lot of considerations; not only people that play the identical position, but people who play different positions,” Thompson replied when asked about keeping Barrington over Manning. “The 53 that you’re getting down to, there’s certain numbers at each position, but it’s a little more complicated than one player versus another.”
In the days leading up to the preseason finale against the Chiefs, inside linebackers coach Winston Moss was hoping he could keep all six. But he hinted that the finale would be a deciding factor, and Barrington did come through with a sack for a safety.
“I would love to keep all of them. That decision is not mine,” Moss said. ‘Each one has made a case for themselves. … I think Sam’s been impressive for a guy to come in, he comes to work every day, doesn’t say a lot but very consistent, plays very hard. He works. Terrell is the same thing. He’s had that rocky start. He’s fighting back. It’s very important to him.”