Saving Space on the Packers' 53, Part 2: Defense

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we addressed the positions on offense where the Packers might keep fewer players than a year ago. Today, we finish this analysis with the defense.

When I wrote about the areas on offense where the Packers could retain fewer players, the team had yet to make any cuts towards Tuesday's 75-man restriction. One game and a few days later, the Packers are already several bodies lighter with more releases waiting on the horizon. In less than a week, the identity of the players making final roster will finally be known. Until then, we'll continue to speculate.

What is almost certain given the Packers' history is that several long shots will make the team. In previous years, they've been names like Sam Shields, Vic So'oto, and Don Barclay. This year, players like Micah Hyde, Andy Mulumba, and Johnny Jolly are expected to steal some spots away. For that to happen, either a rostered player at their position will be released, or the Packers will take a spot from somewhere else. Here are the areas on defense where some roster spots might be found:

Outside Linebacker

Outside linebacker is on the short list of shallowest positions on the Packers. Clay Matthews and Nick Perry form a solid tandem, but little is guaranteed beyond them. Last year's backups, Erik Walden and Dezman Moses, are either playing for another team or working through injuries. Undrafted rookie Andy Mulumba has been a bright spot, but it's a stretch to assume he's ready to be the primary backup at the position. Going down the depth chart, 6th round pick Nick Palmer has been maddeningly inconsistent, and neither Jarvis Reed nor Donte Savage is a rosterable player at this point.

But the Packers have a viable alternative to keeping five of those players. This offseason, Dom Capers and the defensive staff have tinkered with the slimmer, faster Mike Neal at outside linebacker. In 2012, Neal finished second on the team in sacks with 4.5. Now 20 pounds lighter, Neal has demonstrated the ability to rush the passer from a two-point stance and play in space. If he can double as an outside linebacker on passing downs, the Packers can afford to retain fewer players at the position than a year ago.

Inside Linebacker

Not counting Desmond Bishop, who tore his hamstring in the first preseason game of 2012, the Packers carried six inside linebackers on last year's opening day roster. Of those players, all but one (D.J. Smith) is still with the team heading into the Tuesday's cutdown to 75, while another was added late in this year's draft. A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, and Robert Francois all received contract extensions or alterations this offseason and will stick around for the regular season. Jamari Lattimore and rookie Sam Barrington have each flashed during camp and the preseason, while Terrell Manning has been somewhat invisible.

The Packers could retain the status quo by keeping all six, or they could jettison one of them in favor of a more valuable player at another position. With Hawk and Jones starting and Francois capable of filling in at either spot, the Packers could keep the two linebackers who either fill a niche or possess the greatest upside. Lattimore's pass rushing skills outclass the others while Barrington's had a better camp than Manning. While Manning was the rare player that Ted Thompson has traded up to draft, his release could mean a spot for someone more valuable.

Safety

Entering 2012, the Packers carried four or five safeties depending on how you classify former Packer Charles Woodson. Three of those players, Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings, and Jerron McMillian, are locks for this season's roster. Sean Richardson would likely have made it as well if not for the neck injury that has placed his career on hold. That leaves David Fulton, Chaz Powell, and Chris Banjo as the only remaining safeties on the roster. Neither Fulton nor Powell have done enough to warrant inclusion on the regular season roster, and while Banjo flashes from time to time, he's best suited for the practice squad.

Rather than keep one of the three fringe safeties, the Packers could instead elect to go with only Burnett, Jennings, and McMillian and use either Jarrett Bush or Micah Hyde as an emergency fourth safety. While neither is an ideal fit for the position, they each have some experience there. Given that the Packers may keep six corners included the aforementioned Bush and Hyde, this is an easy way to offset their roster spots.

So where on the Packers' defense do you believe there's some fat to trim? Cast your vote in the poll below.

Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn

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