Late March on the calendar typically means the majority of eyes are focused directly on the NFL draft. Rightfully so, as free agency has usually begun to slow down and the draft enters its last month of preparation.
However, this time of year also provides a chance to take a glance back, particularly at some unknowns from the season before. Seemingly every year, a mostly forgotten-about player from the previous season surprises by making an impact during the next.
The Packers may have a few names that fit that profile. Rarely seen last season, these four players have the opportunity to seize much bigger roles for Green Bay in 2013:
ILB Terrell Manning
Despite significant injuries hitting the inside linebacker position, Manning appeared in just seven games and played zero defensive snaps in 2012. However, it's easy to forget that Manning arrived at training camp with a mystery stomach illness that caused him to lose 15 pounds, and his chances of making an impact as a rookie all but evaporated in the summer heat. Given a full offseason and a healthy start to camp, Manning could surprise.
Remember, the Packers did move up in the fifth round last April to snag Manning, who was an athletic (4.63 40-yard dash) and aggressive defender at NC State. He also had collegiate experience rushing the passer and could have went in the top 75 or so picks had he stayed in school another year. Desmond Bishop (hamstring) and D.J. Smith (anterior cruciate ligament) will head into next season with major injury question marks, and Brad Jones could still leave in free agency. There may be a golden opportunity to be had for Manning in 2013.
CB Davon House
A shoulder injury during the 2012 preseason sapped House of the opportunity to play a significant role last season. However, his early camp showings haven't been forgotten by head coach Mike McCarthy, who raved about House during the NFL owners meetings in Arizona this week. He went as far as to call House the "best cornerback we had" during the first three weeks of camp.
The Packers remain deeper at cornerback than any other defensive position, with Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Casey Hayward capable of being the starting three next season. Don't count out House making a run at one of those spots. He has ideal size (6-1, 195 lbs.) to play press-man, as evidenced by the way he man-handled receivers at the line of scrimmage early in camp. His top-end speed isn't great, but that isn't a make-or-break requirement to be a very good boundary cover man. Another full offseason and a healthy shoulder could give House a real chance to jump one of the cornerbacks (Williams?) for playing time next season.
TE Andrew Quarless
The road to recovery has been a long one for Quarless, who tore up his knee in December 2011 and still hasn't played a snap since. Despite the lengthy time off, McCarthy sounded very confident at the owners meetings that Quarless will be back and healthy in 2013. While expecting the former fifth-round pick to be productive after nearly two years on the shelf might be overly optimistic, his 2011 film was very promising.
No offense to recently-departed tight end Tom Crabtree, but Quarless was the team's best in-line blocker when his knee went out in New York. He also showed more flashes of receiving ability over his first two seasons than we've seen from helmet-and-shells All-Pro D.J. Williams. Losing Crabtree to Tampa Bay has obviously opened up the competition to be the offense's blocking tight end, and Quarless, Williams, Ryan Taylor and a potential draft pick will all get a crack at winning it. But if Quarless is anywhere near where he ended 2011, this could be his job to lose.
S Sean Richardson
A neck injury that put Richardson on IR to end last season is worth monitoring, but barring a setback, he's expected to be ready by the start of training camp. If he is, Richardson might have a chance to emerge as a candidate to play alongside Morgan Burnett at safety in 2013.
At 6-2 and 215 pounds, Richardson ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds at the NFL combine. That combination of physical attributes could help a Packers defense that so obviously lacked speed, size and toughness against top teams last season. Neither M.D. Jennings or Jerron McMillian—who each saw significant playing time at safety in 2012—can provide what Richardson can from a physical standpoint.
Obviously, Richardson is still raw after entering the NFL as undrafted free agent. But if the Packers can get him on the right page mentally, the physical skills are all there. Taking a few big strides in next year's camp could make it difficult for Dom Capers to keep him off the field.
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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