Harrell strapped on the pads and buckled his helmet on Wednesday for the first time since the Jan. 20 NFC championship game. Harrell had back surgery on April 11, then again on Aug. 25 after his recovery failed to progress enough to allow him to practice in training camp.
The defensive tackle was a full participant at Wednesday's practice, and coach Mike McCarthy said last year's first-round pick is in good shape. Harrell, who has lost about 15 pounds since the second surgery to tip the scales at 313, said he came through a live blocking session without a problem.
"That was the only test we had left at this point," Harrell said of battling against offensive linemen. "We were doing a lot of stuff on the side with pads and things like that, but the biggest test was getting out there and just going live against those guys. You have guys pushing on your back and knocking you in different directions and torqueing you and just doing all of those things. We just wanted to come out here and see how it feels."
Harrell said he's been pain free since having the second surgery seven weeks ago, but there was a sense of relief after getting knocked around the first few times and feeling no pain.
"Yeah, because you're a little timid just coming off an injury," Harrell said. "Not being out there for that long a period of time, it's always going to take a couple of days to get your feet back under you."
McCarthy, meeting with reporters shortly after practice ended, said he wouldn't know the specifics of Harrell's practice until he watched the film later in the day. Officially, Harrell remains on the physically unable to perform list and does not count against the 53-man roster. The Packers have three weeks to put him on the active roster or season-ending injured reserve.
Harrell, however, knows the importance of him being healthy and effective. He's heard the word "bust" attached to his name, saying, "You don't want anybody to talk bad about you." The defensive line is short-handed and getting worn down, in part because so much was expected of him.
"It's my second year. Last year, being a rookie, you kind of have an excuse," Harrell said. "But just trading Corey (Williams to Cleveland) and all the moves they made were pretty much made for me to come up and start proving what they brought me here for."
Whether he will play on Sunday against Indianapolis will be determined at the end of the week, though clearly the addition of Harrell would be a huge positive considering starting tackle Ryan Pickett will be limited, at best, with a strained triceps. The only other defensive tackles on the roster are starter Johnny Jolly and backup Colin Cole.
"I'm excited for Justin," McCarthy said. "Any time you see a player go through a personal challenge of overcoming a medical situation, the excitement is more for him to get back out there and play.
"I'm not going to put him in the position where he can't be successful. I don't think that's very smart. I know our injury situation would create more urgency for that, but we've got to make sure he is ready to play, just like any other player that comes off of a medical situation. That's what we'll do. We've got three days to watch him work, and then we'll make a decision."
Pickett flashed a big grin when asked about Harrell's expected return.
"Oh, yeah, I'm excited about that," Pickett said. "Just to have another body out there. To see Justin out there, he's been working hard to get back out there."
For his part, Pickett hopes to test his injury on Friday, play on Sunday then heal over the bye week. Pickett said the pain is a "night-and-day difference from Sunday," when he sustained the injury and left the game in the third quarter.
To play, McCarthy said Pickett would have to wear some sort of protection to restrict the range of motion.
"They've got all kinds of stuff I've never seen before," Pickett said with a laugh.
Bill Huber is editor of Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at email@example.com