Packers Roster Countdown Part 14

It's Nos. 21-25 on our list of most-important players. You'll be surprised where we have a few of these players ranked, including one veteran with limited production and two young players who might not get any meaningful snaps this season.

As we've done in past years, we're counting down the Green Bay Packers' roster, from No. 90 to No. 1.

These rankings are not simply based on skill. Players were ranked on their importance to the team. Skill, a player's position, the depth of his position group, the odds he contributes, salary and draft history all play a part in how a player is ranked. (That's vital to keep in mind for this part of our series.) More than the ranking itself, hopefully you will learn a little something about each of the 90 players in the process.

No. 21: Hawkeye

A.J. Hawk is one of the Packers' starting inside linebackers. Period. D.J. Smith and Robert Francois made more plays when they were thrust into action due to injuries last season, but there are no signs whatsoever that the Packers are even considering a change.

Ask inside linebackers coach Winston Moss or defensive coordinator Dom Capers about Hawk, and the first thing you'll inevitably hear is how solid Hawk is at organizing the defense amid the chaos at the line of scrimmage.

"I thought A.J. did just an outstanding job of leadership, being consistent, and really just was steady week-in and week-out," Moss said. "The one thing that you guys look for, obviously, is the impact and the paper production, but you cannot measure A.J. and what he brings to this team in some of the intangibles. From that standpoint, he's as good as anybody as far as being a leader, the players believing in him and really having a good grasp of what we're trying to do defensively."

That said, Hawk went from three interceptions and 44 run stops in 2010 to no interceptions and 29 run stops last season. He's a solid blitzer, used mostly as a setup guy in helping Desmond Bishop collect five sacks, but had just 1.5 sacks.

Capers appears inclined to use more dime, meaning a fourth cornerback would replace Hawk to help the pass defense. Still, that can't possibly be a staple of the defense, unless all pretense of stopping the run is thrown out the window. That means Hawk, with his base salary of $4.4 million and cap number of $6.531 million, must provide more "paper production" for this defense to turn things around.

No. 22: Casey at the dime

Second-round pick Casey Hayward may or may not be the 22nd-most important player on this year's team, but looking down the road, his development is absolutely vital for the Packers' style of defense.

At some point, Charles Woodson no longer will be effective playing the nickel (slot cornerback against three-receiver packages). It's a demanding position in terms of coverage, run support and blitzing. Perhaps no player in NFL history has played that position better than Woodson.

"You've got to play at times like a linebacker in there," Capers said. "You've got to be able to play a gap at times on the run. You've got to be able to tackle backs more. You've got to be able to blitz and win one-on-one against backs. It takes a more physical presence inside. You're going to get involved more in the physical aspects of the game inside. The way we play, you have to understand when you're going to contain or squeeze the play or when you're going to spill a play, which corners outside in the sub stuff aren't quite as involved."

If there's an heir to Woodson's position on the roster, it's Hayward. He showed all of those skills as a run-stuffing, ball-hawking, super-intelligent player at Vanderbilt. Whether he gets on the field this year — either beating out Sam Shields as the third corner or beating out Jarrett Bush to be the second slot corner in dime, will be determined in the preseason.

No. 23: Mean Green

No. 1 running back James Starks hasn't been able to stay healthy and there's no Ryan Grant as a proven, capable backup. That opens the door for Alex Green to be the No. 2 back and possibly even seize control of the position.

Green, of course, is coming off a torn ACL. By all accounts, he's attacked his rehab with vigor and should be ready for the start of training camp or, at worst, be available early in camp.

There are a lot of touches available. Last season, Grant had a team-high 134 attempts and chipped in 19 receptions. That's 155 touches, or almost 10 a game. Starks, even when healthy, wasn't the workhorse he was in the 2010 postseason, when he had three games of 20-plus carries. Last year, Starks' season-high was 13 carries.

Is Green ready and capable of carrying a sizable load? As a third-round pick last year, he carried three times for 11 yards in the regular season and averaged a dismal 1.4 yards in the preseason. He'll have to prove he can protect Aaron Rodgers and protect the football.

"Watching the tape on him (from last year), he's an extremely explosive, talented guy," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said of Green.

No. 24: Pickett fence

Big Ryan Pickett plays a huge role on the defense. With Capers' preference to run nickel even against base offensive packages, that puts the onus on the two defensive linemen — typically Pickett and B.J. Raji — to hold up against double teams so the linebackers can make the tackles.

Pickett does more than just hold up against the run. Among the 24 3-4 defensive ends who played at least half of their defense's snaps against the run, Pickett finished fourth in the league with a run-stop percentage of 9.6 (19 run stops out of 197 snaps against the run), according to ProFootballFocus.com.

Pickett, who tuns 33 on Oct. 8, has a base salary of $4.5 million and a cap figure of $5.738 million.

"It's still with me. I'm real sour about it still," Pickett said of the playoff loss to the Giants. "You just use it as motivation to work hard and get ready. We just came up short so we've got to work. We've got to work to get this taste out of our mouth."

No. 25: Derek and the dominoes

Derek Sherrod received significant playing time in just three games before breaking his leg at Kansas City on Dec. 18. He was drafted in the first round last year to eventually replace veteran Chad Clifton at left tackle, but the injury and Marshall Newhouse's emergence have put Sherrod's career path in a holding pattern.

It's possible Sherrod, who didn't get the advantage of offseason workouts in 2011 (lockout) or 2012 (injury), won't play a meaningful snap all season. It's possible Sherrod will challenge Newhouse for the starting job, either in training camp or during the season. Or, injuries could open the door. Either way, Sherrod has the height, reach, feet and intelligence the coaches love, and he plays a premium position as the MVP quarterback's blind-side protector.

"He was doing very well until the Kansas City game," offensive line coach James Campen said. "You felt good about having him being a tackle who can play both sides. His development was slowed because of the lockout. I expect him when he gets back, he'll pick up (where he left off). That is a very strong-minded, tough kid now."

If you missed ...

Safety dance: 26-30

Bush and four on offense: 31-35

Two DL and Driver: 36-40

Make-or-break camp for two vets: 41-45

Going hog wild: 46-50

Rookies at key positions: 51-55

Gurley's detours: 56

Fighting for jobs: 57-60

Five defenders: 61-65

Don't be surprised if ...: 66-70

It's Noah's Ark: 71-81

Roster long shots: 82-89

Longest of long shots: 90


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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