Packers Roster Countdown Part 16

We're almost in the top 10 on our list of most-important Packers, leading off with tight end Jermichael Finley being poised for a bounce-back season. Also: Morgan Burnett, who has a new challenge, as well as Jeff Saturday, Desmond Bishop and Bryan Bulaga.

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. More than the ranking itself, hopefully you will learn a little something about each of the 90 players in the process.

No. 11: In good hands

One year does not make a career.

One year doesn't mean Jermichael Finley is a head case who can't catch. One year doesn't make Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski the second comings of the players Finley grew up watching, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates.

"I don't think I've done too much yet," Finley said. "I know Gronk and Jimmy Graham, they did well last year. But in this league, you've got to do it consistently. If you've shown that you can do it one time, you have to come back and do it. They're going to have to show me something."

Aside from his eight touchdown catches, Finley's season was a disappointment, with 14 drops of 99 targeted passes, as measured by ProFootballFocus.com.

That drop rate of 14.1 percent isn't the true Finley, he'll tell you, and the numbers back up that contention. In 2009 and his abbreviated 2010, he dropped just four of 103 balls — a drop rate of 3.9 percent.

"Catching comes second-nature to me," he said. "All I've got to do is focus a little bit more. I know I can catch the ball. I know I'm going to catch the ball this year — for sure I'm going to catch it."

No. 12: Leadership role

On the field, there aren't many questions about Morgan Burnett. The well-rounded safety finished second on the team in tackles and added three interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Of the 63 safeties who played at least half of his team's defensive snaps, Burnett ranked a respectable 13th in tackling efficiency.

All in all, that's a pretty fair season of work for a defender who spent much of the season playing with a cast on his right hand. That injury ruined what could have been a much better season. In the first three games, he combined with Clay Matthews for the game-saving tackle against the Saints, had a sack, forced fumble and interception at Carolina and added two interceptions at Chicago.

The next challenge for the soft-spoken Burnett is being more of a vocal leader and the quarterback of the defense. As a rookie starter during his injury-shortened 2011, he lined up alongside Nick Collins. Last year, he lined up with intelligent veteran Charlie Peprah after Collins' neck injury. This season, it's anyone's guess who will start with Burnett. It might be a revolving door of candidates at training camp, ranging from Peprah to soft-spoken second-year pro M.D. Jennings to rookie Jerron McMillian. If Jennings or McMillian emerge as the starter, Burnett is going to have a lot on his shoulders physically and mentally.

"Leadership. Being the true quarterback, true take-charge guy," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "Just having a better understanding of this defense and call command and relaying our checks to the remainder of our defense will only get better. He's really stepped up in that area."

No. 13: All's well

With Aaron Rodgers and Scott Wells, the Packers had an incredible synergy with their quarterback and center. They gave the offense a tremendous edge. Because Rodgers beat the blitz with stunning efficiency — he had the second-best passer rating against the blitz in NFL history last season — the Packers faced a lot of relatively vanilla defenses, which Rodgers picked apart, as well.

Wells, of course, signed a free-agent deal with St. Louis, and the Packers signed the best possible replacement in Jeff Saturday.

Wells has Saturday beat on age (31 to 37) and experience with Rodgers. Saturday, however, spent most of his career working in concert with Peyton Manning, and Saturday's experience in no-huddle attacks will mesh well with the Packers' fondness for letting Rodgers run the show at the line of scrimmage.

"I think offensive line-wise, five is one. That's the truth," Saturday said. "You have to all be on the same page, communication is key, especially in an offense like this with Aaron being the guy. You have to build your offense around protecting him and giving him time to make throws to guys down the field."

ProFootballFocus.com recently published a study of centers and pass protection over the last three seasons. Saturday is the NFL's best with 27 total pressures allowed over 1,873 pass-blocking plays. Wells was sixth with 37 pressures in 1,840 pass-blocking plays.

No. 14: Big-play Bishop

For years, with first-rounders Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk ahead of him on the defensive depth chart, Desmond Bishop couldn't get on the field.

Now, he's an irreplaceable member of the defense. When the Packers worked on their dime defense during offseason practices, Bishop stayed on the field and Hawk was replaced by a fourth cornerback.

Whether it's stopping the run (team-high 142 tackles despite missing three games), blitzing (second-ranked five sacks) or coverage (coordinator Dom Capers never hesitated putting Bishop on athletic tight ends or shifty backs), Bishop clearly has supplanted Hawk as the Packers' three-down inside linebacker.

"If he maxes out his potential, talent and skill set, he's as good as any linebacker in the league," inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. "He can cover, he can blitz and he can stuff the run."

Had Bishop maintained his tackle pace while playing in all 16 games, he would have finished with 175 stops: 19 behind Barnett's record (2005) and just off second-place Mike Douglass (180 in 1981).

No. 15: Top tackle

Bryan Bulaga was drafted in the first round in 2010 with the hope that he'd eventually replace veteran Chad Clifton at left tackle. Instead, the Packers found their replacement for longtime right tackle Mark Tauscher.

Bulaga started 12 games last season, twice missing two-game stretches with a knee sprain. When healthy, he was tremendous. He allowed one sack and 20 total pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com, giving him a pass blocking efficiency mark of 96.1, which tied for eighth-best among all offensive tackles. Plus, he was the Packers' best run blocker. Without question, he's one of the best young tackles in the league.

"He's an ascending player," offensive line coach James Campen said. "He played very well last year. The last eight games of 2010, you could just see him starting to get comfortable. Bryan's one of those guys that accepts nothing but perfection from himself. He's a very self-motivated, driven player."

If you missed ...

Finley, Burnett and ...: 11-15

Three O-linemen: 16-20

Some surprises: 21-25

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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