The Green Bay Packers open their preseason schedule on Saturday as they visit the Tennessee Titans. This will be the team’s first live game action of the 2014 season and we’ll finally get a chance to see these players in action that matters. The outcome isn’t so much important, but this is the most valuable look that the coaching staff will have for some of these young guys that haven’t taken game snaps yet.
During the regular season, I typically publish “Keys to the Game” on the Friday prior but I’m going to change it up this preseason and focus on the players who have the most to gain or lose each week. Hopefully this format is a bit more relevant as it pertains to what the preseason games are truly for in terms of shaping the Packers roster.
With this being the first preseason game, I doubt anyone’s future with the team is truly hanging in the balance so the approach here is about starting fast and making a good impression early. As we move along through weeks two through four, the criteria will change a bit.
Most To Gain
These are players who can begin taking hold of a starting spot or move up the depth chart at their position and become a serious contender for a roster spot. This is only the first preseason game so I don’t expect a lot to be settled after this week, but the quest begins here.
Center J.C. Tretter
Tretter is one guy that I mentioned during this week’s N0 Huddle Radio show as a guy I am anxious to see in live game action. There’s no risk of Tretter not making the roster, even if he doesn’t win the starting job so he’s in the “gain” column.
He has reportedly had struggles during one-on-one drills in camp and is really going through the entire experience for the first time as a healthy player. He also missed all of last season so he’s a redshirt rookie, for all intents and purposes.
Tretter has improved in individual drills over the past few days of practice, winning matchups against both B.J. Raji and Mike Daniels, who have been devouring offensive lineman all week long. Will that confidence and momentum carry over into this week’s game?
Having two solid guards next to you in T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton probably helps as well as the zone blocking scheme that should slide help Tretter’s way on many occasions. It doesn’t automatically translate to great things for Tretter, but the scenario isn’t a bad one and he needs to play well.
Tight End Richard Rodgers
The third-rounder is also in no danger of not making this year’s team and has had a good showing at camp so far. Coming in and before camp had even started, some were saying that Rodgers has an outside chance of being atop the depth chart by the start of the regular season.
While it doesn’t sound like Rodgers has done enough to be the clear-cut starter at tight end, he does look to figure into the team’s offense this season. Incumbents Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick have had good camps as well and trump Rodgers with experience in the offense.
If Rodgers can stand out early and develop chemistry with the other Rodgers (that being quarterback Aaron), he can quickly elevate his status and push for more playing time. As a third round pick who many questioned at the time, Rodgers certainly has plenty to prove to the masses out there.
Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
With Morgan Burnett having missed the last few days of practice with an oblique injury, Clinton-Dix has seen extensive reps with the first and second team defenses. Many analysts were enamored with HHCD’s ball skills and felt that he could be a great “center fielder” for whichever team drafted him. What has stood out in camp so far, however, has been his run support. He’s been solid playing at or near the line but has not made any spectacular plays on the ball. In fact, he dropped an interception at Wednesday’s practice.
The safeties will be called upon in pass coverage and for a group that had no interceptions last season, they need more ball-hawking attitude. HHCD is in no danger of not securing a roster spot, but he needs to come through in this critical area that has been lacking.
If the season started today and Burnett was healthy, he’d be starting along side Micah Hyde. Clinton-Dix needs to elevate himself early and often if he wants any type of chance to see more time on the field.
Safety Chris Banjo
Before this week, Banjo would have been in the “lose” section. He wasn’t getting time with the defense and I wasn’t hearing his name at all. This week, Banjo has been taking reps with the first team kickoff coverage team and that likely indicates that he’s got a better chance of making the roster than not.
Still, he’s not a lock. Earlier this week, head coach Mike McCarthy praised Banjo’s confidence and seemed to indicate that he’s coming on in week two. With four other viable options at safety in Morgan Burnett, Hyde, Sean Richardson and Clinton-Dix, Banjo has to make some plays and prove his worth at safety as well. Special teams along may not be enough.
Wide Receiver Jeff Janis
Janis finally returned to practice this week after dealing with the shingles virus last week. Immediately, Janis made a few nice plays in the team portion of practice and flashed his good hands. With a nice showing in game one, Janis could quickly elevate himself into the receiver conversation. Since Jared Abbrederis was lost last week, none of the others have really stepped up and taken a strong hold of the last spot or two.
The Packers like their draft picks and tend to stick with them, but Janis was a seventh rounder and if he proves to be anything less than really good, he may become a casualty. With missed time last week, Janis needs to catch up a bit. He has to show well consistently throughout the preseason and it has to start right away, this week.
Undrafted Free Agents
You could argue that this group should be in the “Most to Lose” section and you’d be right. But as an undrafted free agent, most come in with a “Nothing to Lose” mentality. They already know they’re fighting an uphill battle.
One way to tackle that fight is to stand out sooner rather than later. Linebackers Jayrone Elliott and Joe Thomas have both done just that so far in camp. Elliott has consistently won one-on-one matchups and created problems for the offense during team periods. Thomas has played well during team periods as well.
Each year, someone emerges as a dark horse candidate to stick on the Packers’ final roster. Will it be one or both of these guys this season? We’ll start to find out this weekend, mostly likely during the game’s second half.
Another guy who deserves mention is wide receiver Alex Gillette. Gillette has a lot of competition at receiver but has been with the Packers before on practice squad. He has at least some familiarity with the offense and he’s a former quarterback who has proven an ability to find ways to get open and make plays. With only one or two spots open and a fair amount of talent around him, it’s a long shot, but Gillette could emerge much like another undrafted free agent receiver, Jarrett Boykin, did two seasons ago.
Most to Lose
These are players who stand to lose something from a bad or lackluster performance this week. That could mean being in danger of losing a starting job and moving down the depth chart or entering the discussion about whether or not they make the roster at all. Just like the “gain” list, this first game may not settle any discussions, but a bad performance is likely to be more magnified than a good one.
Easy pickings here. Anyone who can’t get on the field is already behind the curve, both veteran and free agent alike.
Tight end Colt Lyerla hurt his leg during last week’s Family Night practice and on Thursday, Peter Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported that Lyerla is not optimistic that he will be ready to return to practice prior to the end of the preseason. That makes it a virtual certainty that Lyerla won’t be on the roster this season. The team will likely try to reach an injury settlement and re-sign him to the practice squad after the mandated six-week time period ends.
Veteran defensive end Jerel Worthy hasn’t participated in any offseason nor preseason work with the team. After missing most of the 2013 season recovering from a torn ACL, Worthy has battled additional injuries since the end of last season. The latest is a back issue from weight lifting during the offseason. Worthy said he was hurt while hang cleaning. I get that players have to work out during the spring and summer to stay in shape and can’t have the coaching staff looking over their shoulder every day. That doesn’t diminish the frustration that fans and likely, the team feel. Last year during the offseason, cornerback Casey Hayward suffered a hamstring injury while working out on his own and missed most of the 2013 season. Worthy is missing valuable time and reps to the likes of Datone Jones, Mike Daniels, Josh Boyd and rookie Khyri Thornton. All four of them will be on the roster. Will there be room for Worthy if he’s able to finally get on the practice field?
Defensive tackle Letroy Guion may have something to say about that last question. Guion is listed as a tackle, whereas Worthy is an end, but if Guion can get healthy and keep a spot, Worthy may become a bigger question mark. Guion is an unknown as far as the Packers go and he has no bond with the coaching staff. The only way he can seep his way into the conversation is by being available and making plays.
Morgan Burnett suffered an oblique injury last week and has not practiced for the past four sessions. If healthy, Burnett should keep his starting spot, given his experience with the defense. If for no other reason, Burnett is likely to make fewer mental errors than any of the others in the mix at safety and that is worth his being high on the depth chart. However, if Hyde, Clinton-Dix and Richardson continue to improve throughout the preseason, Burnett may find himself in a bigger battle for his spot. He will be on the team this year, but it’s not inconceivable that Hyde and Clinton-Dix may eventually become the first and second safeties on the depth chart
Linebacker Nick Perry
Nick Perry just returned to practice this past week. He’s been quiet in practice and could really use a strong showing early on in preseason action. Back in 2012, Perry sacked San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers on the first series of the first preseason game. Early on against the Indianapolis Colts that season, Perry had the infamous sack of quarterback Andrew Luck. Since, Perry has not been able to stay healthy nor consistent.
The ability is there, as we saw last season during the Baltimore Ravens game when Perry had a sack and forced fumble at the end of the first half. But as soon as he makes a big play, Perry tends to come up with an ailment of some sort and that momentum is derailed. I see no way Perry isn’t on the roster, but with Julius Peppers in the mix and a push from Mike Neal, Andy Mulumba and a few strong-performing rookies (Carl Bradford, Adrian Hubbard, Jayrone Elliott), Perry’s road to keeping his starting role is not an easy one.
Quarterbacks Matt Flynn/Scott Tolzien
Will the Packers keep two or three quarterbacks this season? Logic and last year’s debacle at the position would dictate that it’s three. But with the Packers and McCarthy, anything is possible. They kept three fullbacks one season, after all. If both Flynn and Tolzien are consistent and making enough plays during team periods in camp, they’ll both stick.
It’s during preseason play where everything could fall apart, as we saw with Graham Harrell last season. A few bad games and Flynn may be on his way out, despite his knowledge of the offense. He can probably survive a bad first game, but beyond that and the questions will start to fly.
If Tolzien is playing well, he’ll have a lot to say about just how many questions there are about Flynn. The Packers would love nothing more than to see Tolzien step up and claim the backup role. He’s younger and has a much stronger arm. His ability to make many of the throws that the passing game calls for is more of an asset than what Flynn currently offers. Tolzien has struggled with consistency and accuracy in practice. Those are two of the biggest issues a quarterback will have in the NFL and if he can’t overcome them, he’s suddenly not in the NFL.
Both Flynn and Tolzien will see extensive reps this week, albeit with second and third teamers. It may be difficult to showcase their skills with young and inexperienced players who can’t make a catch or run the right route at times. Still, it’s about making plays and each will need to turn in a good handful to keep themselves in the conversation to be on the roster. Tolzien is no longer eligible for the practice squad so he has to make the roster outright if he’s going to be in Green Bay this season.
Wide Receiver Myles White
This one took some deliberation for me. I could have easily listed Chris Harper here. I chose White because he has played more than anyone else competing for the fifth receiver spot. If the season started right now, I think White would likely be the fifth man based on that.
The Packers like Kevin Dorsey, who was on injured reserve last year and has quietly had a decent camp. We also haven’t seen much from rookie Jeff Janis yet (and hence why Janis is on the “gain” list). That said, White is being pushed hard by Harper, Dorsey and Janis and all three have made some nice catches. Harper has had some bad drops and that was why I strongly considered him in this slot. He will obviously need to fix that issue or he will exit this discussion quickly.
It may not be long before one of them jump ahead of White for a fifth and potentially, sixth receiver spot. White can’t go back on practice squad so he has to make the team roster. White also made some nice plays and has matured most in his route running, something that young receivers tend to struggle with. White’s chemistry with Aaron Rodgers is also to his advantage and any reps he gets with the first and second team have to be quality ones.
The Packers have a good problem at receiver in that they have some good options, even with the loss of Jared Abbrederis. White has also taken some reps on special teams and that could be his ticket back on the team. Dorsey took some during OTA’s/mini camp and Janis will likely continue to take special teams reps so this is a true battle. For White, who was the man at the end of last season, each of these preseason games are huge.——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: