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From 90-to-1: The 2016 Green Bay Packers (Part 2)

Part 2 of our annual countdown leads off with No. 61, guard Josh Walker, and includes players battling for roster spots at inside linebacker and safety and a mini-feature on offensive lineman Matt Rotheram.

Part 2 of Packer Report’s annual 90-to-1 roster countdown continues with No. 61, offensive lineman Josh Walker, and includes a couple players who played extensively last season, inside linebacker Joe Thomas and offensive tackle Don Barclay.

Our rankings aren’t solely based on talent, as we also take into account salary and the state of the depth chart in trying to determine the importance of each player on the roster. More than anything in this incredibly unscientific process, perhaps you’ll learn a little something about each member of the roster.

No. 61: Guard Josh Walker

Walker had an excellent training camp and played incredibly well against Rams stud Aaron Donald when T.J. Lang went down in the second quarter of their Week 5 clash. Donald has 20 sacks in two seasons, including 11 last season. But in two-plus quarters against Walker, Donald managed a total of three tackles (two solos) and didn’t get a finger on quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Walker didn’t do nearly as well in one snap at left tackle at Detroit in Week 13 (sack) or in extended action at right tackle at Arizona in Week 16 (one sack and a few pressures before being benched).

“What a great opportunity to go out against some real studs,” Walker said. “That’s why I was fired up about it. Shoot, if I can pass block 99 (Donald) … I felt good about it.”

Even though he’s 6-foot-5 and 328 pounds, Walker’s best spot is at guard. With another strong training camp and preseason, he’ll put himself squarely in the mix to replace Lang or Josh Sitton should either of the free-agent-to-be guards depart in free agency next offseason.

No. 62: Outside linebacker Lerentee McCray

The Packers made huge strides on special teams last season. They signed McCray in hopes of continuing that upward trajectory.

McCray, who entered the league as an undrafted rookie in 2013, spent his first three seasons with the Broncos. Denver didn’t tender him as a restricted free agent. The Packers gave him signing and workout bonuses worth a total of $125,000, signaling he’s a player they value. McCray, who missed the offseason practices due to injury, had two tackles on special teams and a half-sack on defense last season.

“He’s an athletic guy. He likes to play football,” Zook said. “I’m looking forward to getting him on the field and seeing where the best place is for him and where he can help us. Mentally, he’s been involved in the meetings but, once again, you’ve got to take the meeting to the drill, the drill to the play, the play to the game. That still remains to be seen.”

No. 63: Punter Peter Mortell

Mortell is a great story. Not only is he a native of Green Bay, but he spent his NFL Sundays in the Lambeau Field press box delivering stats to reporters. Being a great story, however, isn’t going to help him unseat record-setting punter Tim Masthay, though.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to wear the green and gold and play for my hometown team,” Mortell, who was given a $2,000 signing bonus, said during the rookie camp. “It was the best opportunity for me and I’m happy I’m here.”

The undrafted rookie, who owns the best punting average in Minnesota history and was named the Big Ten’s top punter as a junior, has the leg to compete. What he needs is consistency.

“He’s done a good job since he’s been here,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said at the June minicamp. “The one thing that’s a little different is, just like any special-teams play, you don’t get second down or third down, so you can’t have a couple great punts and then one or two (bad punts). It’s a consistency thing. As a football player, you’re continually working on being consistent and knowing your craft and being as good as you possibly can be.”

No. 64: Cornerbacks Robertson Daniel and Demetri Goodson

This will be a do-or-die training camp for Goodson, the former Gonzaga point guard whom the Packers selected in the sixth round in 2014. In two seasons, he wasn’t good enough to play on defense, aside from a lengthy stint at Carolina last season in which he gave up a touchdown. However, he used his athleticism and tenacity to rank fourth on the team with nine special-teams tackles. His work as a gunner helped Masthay break his own record for net punt average. The elephant in the room as he enters Year 3 is a four-game suspension to open the season.

That opens the door for Daniel, who quit football during his senior year of high school. Daniel, a junior-college All-America at safety before landing at BYU and moving to corner, had a predraft visit with Green Bay but went undrafted and signed with Oakland. The Raiders released him at the end of camp and he signed onto Green Bay’s practice squad, where he spent the entire regular season before being promoted to the active roster for the playoff game at Arizona. At 6-foot 7/8, he has the size the rest of the Packers’ corners (other than LaDarius Gunter) lack. With a 4.46 clocking in the 40-yard dash, he’s fast enough. Physical play is his forte.

No. 66: Inside linebackers Carl Bradford, Beniquez Brown, Manoa Pikula and Joe Thomas

The Packers are down one man at inside linebacker, with the addition of fourth-round pick Blake Martinez but the loss of Clay Matthews (moved back to outside linebacker) and Nate Palmer (released). That opens the door for at least one of these four players to make the final roster.

The intelligent but undersized Thomas, who missed the offseason practices due to injury, has the track record. The Packers cut him at the end of camp last season, but when Matthews rushed the passer only twice during a Week 2 win over Seattle, the Packers signed Thomas off Dallas’ practice squad and immediately handed him the third-down dime role. “He’s an excellent player in that particular package,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the time. Thomas had one sack, three tackles for losses, two passes defensed and two hurries. He added four quarterback hits — Jake Ryan and Palmer had zero. Thomas certainly didn’t kill the defense, though he didn’t make anything happen, either. The Packers need to do better, which is why they used a fourth-round pick on Stanford’s Blake Martinez.

For Bradford, this likely will be his last chance. Bradford was a dynamo at Arizona State, with 29 sacks and 40.5 tackles for losses during his final two seasons. He sunk into the fourth round because he seemed like a man without a position, and that’s exactly how it’s played out. Bradford spent his rookie training camp at outside linebacker before being moved to inside linebacker At times, he looks like a fit. He made a nice interception during OTAs but also has been beaten badly by backs coming out of the backfield.

Brown and Pikula are undrafted rookies who received signing bonuses of $5,000 and $2,500, respectively. Brown left Mississippi State following a redshirt junior season of 100 tackles, including four sacks and 10.5 stuffs (a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run). At the Scouting Combine, Brown (6-0 3/4, 229) ran his 40 in 4.77 seconds with a 31-inch vertical leap and a 4.28 clocking in the 20-yard shuttle, a drill that measures change-of-direction agility. That compares favorably to Martinez, who ran his 40 in 4.71 with a 28.5-inch vertical and a 4.20 in the shuttle.

“In our defense, we kind of match some things — not completely man-to-man but we matched things and I felt like I did a pretty good job at that,” Brown said. “In some of our defenses, we played man-to-man coverage and I felt like I did pretty good. I guarded tight ends like (first-team all-SEC performer Evan) Engram from Ole Miss, guarded (former Alabama star receiver) Amari Cooper in the slot. I did a lot of that in our system. I feel comfortable at it. Whatever I can do to help my chances, of course I’m willing to do it.”

As a senior, Pikula tallied 55 tackles despite missing the final two games for what he called “BYU stuff.” With such ho-hum production, Pikula needed a big pro day. Pikula (6-1, 234) delivered, with a 4.57 in the 40-yard dash, 24 reps on the 225-pound bench press, a 36.5-inch vertical leap and a 4.23 in the 20-yard shuttle.

His competitiveness comes from being part of a big family. “You’ve got to eat fast. One box of pizza, five boys — you do the math,” Pikula said. “It’s survival of the fittest. Everyone would eat the pizza. I’d just have the crust. I took the scraps. It all paid off.”

No. 70: Offensive linemen Don Barclay, Kyle Murphy and Matt Rotheram

Green Bay’s starting five returns intact, with J.C. Tretter, Lane Taylor and second-round pick Jason Spriggs joining them as locks to make the roster. That leaves Josh Walker (No. 61), Barclay, Murphy and Rotheram leading the battle for the final spot or two.

“A lot of good football players. It’s fun,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “It’s an exciting room to be a part of. It’s fun to see such a competitive nature with 15 guys in there. It’s very fun.”

Even while missing the 2014 season with a torn ACL, Barclay has started 29 games in four seasons, including four starts at right tackle and one at left tackle left season. He also played extensively at left tackle vs. Detroit in Week 10. He gave up a whopping 10.5 sacks — with 6.5 at right tackle and the other four coming when the Packers inexplicably hung him out to dry as the in-over-his-head left tackle at Arizona.

Murphy was the team’s sixth-round pick after earning All-American honors at left tackle at Stanford. Because class was in session, Murphy missed most of the offseason practices — he studied with Campen via Skype as much as league rules allow — and didn’t take any live reps.
“It’s tough during those team periods when you see the fellow rookies taking my reps,” Murphy said. “I missed a solid five weeks. You can only learn so much on the iPad. Coach Campen made sure I took some extra reps in the individual stuff getting my footwork right and my pad level and my hands.”

The wild card on the offensive line is Rotheram. The team signed him as an undrafted free agent last year and thought he’d need a year of grooming before he’d push for a roster spot. A guard by trade, he got some time at center during the offseason practices.

“He’s a big man that’s a powerful guy who understands schemes and techniques,” Campen said. “You create more opportunities for him, which obviously helps him but it’s a two-way street. It helps him but it helps us, too, if you’re able to do it. It’ll be interesting to see. Things are looking pretty good but once we put the pads on it’s a different game. I like the work that he’s done.”

Rotheram knows that versatility will be his ticket to the roster. The Packers have “just a guard” with Taylor. It’s an opportunity he has earned through hard work.

“Being a backup, you have to be able to do that,” he said. “That’s how you stick around — being as versatile as possible. Coming out of college, you’re so worried about numbers. You’re running 40s all the time and working on these drills, and I don’t think a lot of that really translates that well to the game. This offseason, I really focused on skill work. As much as I was lifting weights, I was working on my pass sets, my footwork and my get-off. From what people have told me, I’m moving pretty well and I feel good about my footwork.”

Rotheram insists he’s only concerned about the here and now, and not the free-agent outlook — even though a strong training camp and preseason could put him in position to vie for a starting job in 2017.

“I try not to look too much into that,” he said. “I’m like a horse with blinders on. I’m just trying to focus on what I’m doing and play the best I can. We’ll see where that takes me.”

No. 73: Safeties Kentrell Brice, Marwin Evans and Jermaine Whitehead

Scouts flocked to Louisiana Tech to watch star defensive lineman Vernon Butler and versatile running back Kenneth Dixon. But they couldn’t take their eyes off of Brice, who ran his 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds, with a 42-inch vertical leap, an 11-foot, 1-inch broad jump and 21 reps on the 225-pound bench press. Among defensive backs at the Scouting Combine, Brice’s vertical would have ranked No. 1, his broad jump would have trailed only first-round pick Jalen Ramsey’s 11-3 and his bench press would have trailed only Utah State’s Miles Killebrew’s 22.

Brice needed a strong pro day. After intercepting two passes and forcing four fumbles as a junior, Brice had only one interception as a senior.

“I love the game,” he said. “I’m just a physical, aggressive type of player. I fly around to the ball. I like interceptions and I like big hits. I like everything. When you see me around, I’m a quiet person — really don’t talk much and just go about handling my business. When it’s time to play, I’m totally different.”

Brice, whose contract included a $2,000 signing bonus, was the lone offseason addition at safety until they added Evans on May 10 and Whitehead on May 18.

Whitehead (5-11, 195) went undrafted out of Auburn last year. He spent most of his rookie season on the 49ers’ practice squad until he was signed to Baltimore’s active roster for the final two regular-season games. He showed a nose for the ball during the offseason practices, which should come as no surprise. During his senior season at Auburn, Whitehead intercepted six passes despite being suspended for four games for an altercation with a coach. At the 2015 Scouting Combine, Whitehead ran his 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds and posted a 37-inch vertical leap.

Evans (5-11, 211) took a long, circuitous route back to Wisconsin to join the Packers. The native of Oak Creek, Wis., spent one year at Rochester (Minn.) Community College and another year at Highland (Kan.) Community College before landing at Utah State. As a senior, he had 73 tackles, including two sacks and 10 for losses, plus one interception, two forced fumbles and five passes. Evans went undrafted and was a tryout player at Seattle’s rookie camp before signing with Green Bay; he was not given a signing bonus. Along with hitting ability, he brings athleticism to the table: a 4.47 in the 40, a 42-inch vertical leap and 19 reps on the bench.

Evans’ story is a feel-good one, beyond his Wisconsin ties. When he was 3, his brother was murdered. Later, when Evans was looking at junior colleges, the grandfather who helped raise him in his father’s absence lost his ability to walk. “Even if it’s your worst day, somebody probably has it worse than you,” Evans said. “Just stay strong day in and day out.”

Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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