While the Packers certainly want to know what kind of player the 35-year-old Harris will be this season after suffering a horrific knee injury against San Francisco on Nov. 22, Harris' absence will provide more opportunities for the young cadre of cornerbacks.
Pat Lee, a second-round pick in 2008, didn't play last season after a preseason knee injury and has played in only about two-dozen snaps at cornerback in his career. At 6-foot and 196 pounds, he's got the potential to be that physical player the Packers prefer at the position. Brandon Underwood, a sixth-round pick in 2009, is a long and rangy 6-foot-1. Before his off-the-field issues, which are still pending, coach Mike McCarthy cited Underwood as one of the most improved players on the roster. Sam Shields, an undrafted rookie from Miami, has the most raw talent of any cornerback on the roster, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said during the offseason.
Considering how many offenses play with four receivers — especially among the NFL's elite clubs — the Packers need to find out which of the young players can be counted on. So, the more reps they get in practice against the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Donald Driver, the better in the long run.
None of that is meant to discount the value of the crafty Harris. The Packers desperately need Harris to play a big role on the defense. Harris was having a tremendous season until the injury, but can he come close to reaching that level after suffering a laundry list of injuries to his knee?
"He is ahead of schedule," McCarthy said. "It is amazing how fast some of these players in today's game come back from major knee surgery, and Al is definitely no exception to trying to be one of those types of players. But it was a significant injury and he is making a lot of progress. I would purely be speculating on that."
"I would not be surprised (if he plays in Week 1," McCarthy continued. "If you were to have asked me three or four weeks ago, I would have probably said no, but the report that I was given today by Dr. Pat McKenzie, he has made a lot of progress."
Bigby's absence has opened the door wide open for third-round pick Morgan Burnett to wrest away the starting job. Burnett had a strong offseason while Bigby stewed about not being offered a long-term contract extension, and now Bigby can't practice because of recurring ankle pain from an injury dating to 2008. If Burnett parlays his strong offseason into the live work in training camp, Bigby's days in Green Bay could be numbered.
While McCarthy said he was "concerned" for Bigby, he's probably secretly pleased to see if Burnett jumps off the film when the pads are on and the intensity is up.
"That's what training camp is for," McCarthy said. "I really like what the young man has done in the underwear practices. He's very smart. I think he's a very good communicator, showed a lot of athletic ability. Those types of things that you can see in the OTAs. Everybody is very pleased. He has an opportunity in front of him, and I think he has gotten off to a good start, good foundation. Really like his work ethic. I'm excited to see him out there."
The third player to fail his physical was sixth-round running back James Starks. It was the same hamstring injury that held him out for most of organized team activities. This setback bodes poorly, considering he was only the slightest of favorites to beat out Kregg Lumpkin and promising return prospect Quinn Porter.
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