If the Packers get improved play from their safeties this season, it will be because Manuel made the right adjustments in the off-season and recovered from nagging injuries that bothered him last season. Or, it may be because the Packers inserted either rookie Aaron Rouse, a third-round draft pick, or any of the other backups that showed flashes of potential last season.
There is no disputing, however, that safety is the weak link of Green Bay's defense heading into training camp, but by the start of the season it should be a position that is in good hands. And possibly due to the improvement by Manuel this off-season.
"Marquand got beat up on some things last year that weren't his problem," secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer told correspondent Tom Andrews in a Q&A that will appear in the upcoming issue of Packer Report magazine.
"But people took it and ran with it. We were very poor in the first six ballgames and we were not a very good secondary because we failed to do the things necessary to play winning football. We improved in the second half of the season and Marquand was part of that. Right now, he's moving as well as I've ever seen him move. I know that his groin injury from the Super Bowl (with Seattle) and his calf injury affected his ability to get into top shape early last year."
The Packers' secondary, and the safeties in particular, indeed did improve as the season moved along last year. Green Bay ranked 17th against the pass after ranking near the bottom of the league through the majority of the season. That doesn't mean that there won't be any changes in personnel this season.
Challenging Manuel and third-year pro Nick Collins, a lock to start at free safety, for two backup positions will be Rouse, Marviel Underwood, Tyrone Culver, Atari Bigby and Charlie Peprah. Unless the 6-foot-4, hard-hitting Rouse completely bombs in camp, which is not likely to happen, Culver, Bigby and Peprah will be fighting for one spot. All of the aforementioned possess two or less seasons of NFL experience.
Of course, there is a chance that the Packers may part ways with Manuel, entering his sixth season, but only if he struggles early on. The Packers handed him a five-year, $10 million contract that included $2 million in bonuses in March of 2006. That's not to say that the Packers wouldn't eat the contract, but only if he has a tough time in camp. Thus far in the off-season, Manuel has done nothing to hurt his chances of starting.
Rouse is the wild card. If he is every bit the solid tackler that he is proclaimed to be and can use his speed to cover receivers better than Manuel, he may beat out Manuel as the starter at strong safety. If that happens, the Packers probably will think seriously about parting ways with Manuel, 27, and retaining younger backups.
At this point, look for Manuel to make the team. His experience is valuable, especially for a team that has a good chance of earning a playoff berth. Also, by keeping Manuel, Rouse has a full season to play special teams, and watch and learn behind Manuel and Collins.
Stay tuned to this interesting battle. For now, here is a fearless prediction of the four safeties that the Packers will retain when all is said and done prior to the season opener:
1. Marquand Manuel
2. Nick Collins
3. Aaron Rouse
4. Marviel Underwood
Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.