The Green Bay Packers dealt with all kinds of adversity on their way to a Super Bowl win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, including key contributors Ryan Grant, Justin Harrell, Nick Barnett, Brady Poppinga, Brandon Chillar, Mark Tauscher and Jermichael Finley all landing on injured reserve.
All those man games lost to injury only reinforces that building depth at the back end of the roster is just as important to a team's success as hitting on early-round draft picks, and the Packers' championship run is a testament to their success in that area. Depth is built with late-round picks, rookie free agents and even castoffs from other teams, and the Packers' front office has done an excellent job of finding players from those groups who fit their system.
The first and most obvious example is RB James Starks, a 2010 sixth-round pick from Buffalo who missed his senior season with a shoulder injury. The Packers saw his size-speed combination and felt he was a good fit, and their diligence paid off, as Starks stepped in and became the leading rusher in the 2011 playoffs and helped keep the Steelers off balance with some key runs in the Super Bowl.
Fellow rookie CB Sam Shields is as much of a surprise, a former wideout who went undrafted in '10 thanks to questions about his raw instincts and technique. Shields has tremendous speed and athleticism, though, and eventually became Green Bay's top sub-package defensive back. His ball skills were an asset down the stretch for the Packers, as were the contributions of fellow rookie free-agent OLB Frank Zombo. Five tackles and a key third-quarter sack in the Super Bowl capped a solid postseason for Zombo.
Going a little further back, the Packers drafted LB Desmond Bishop in the sixth round in 2007. Bishop is somewhat limited athletically but is a thumper with a nose for the ball, and he totaled 26 tackles during the postseason. Then there's DT Cullen Jenkins, a rookie free agent out of Central Michigan in 2004 who's been a starter for most of his seven seasons in Green Bay.
Plenty of other Packers contributors couldn't cut it elsewhere, for whatever reason. Green Bay CB Tramon Williams signed with the Houston Texans as a rookie free agent out of Louisiana Tech in 2006 but was cut before the season, then caught on with the Packers shortly after and earned a roster spot in 2007. Williams has become a solid defender and return man, earning Pro Bowl recognition and a new contract in 2010.
Packers FB John Kuhn signed on with the Steelers in 2005 as a free agent out of Division II Shippensburg University, earning a Super Bowl ring as a practice-squad member in 2005 and making the active roster for a time in 2006. Kuhn was cut after the '06 season and immediately picked up by Green Bay, where his size and versatility are assets. Kuhn also helped fill the void at tailback late this season before Starks stepped up.
Finally, S Jarrett Bush was picked up by the Carolina Panthers as a rookie free agent in '06 and was cut by the Panthers, but he signed with Green Bay a week before the season opener and appeared in every game that year. Bush had a momentum-killing interception in the Super Bowl and has been a contributor both as a nickelback and safety.
So although high draft picks Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings and A.J. Hawk soak up much of the attention, don't forget the players whose careers had less heralded beginnings, and tip your hat to Green Bay's front office. The Packers do their homework and find hidden gems, which is a big reason they are bringing home the Vince Lombardi Trophy.