With so many young players jockeying for roles in the base, nickel and dime defenses, Thursday night’s preseason finale will help sort out the pecking order for Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers’ packages and calls for the regular season.
But Capers isn’t as concerned with who wins which job, such as the base and dime corner spots, or the nickel safety, as he is with feeling confident all the rookies on defense are prepared to elevate their play for the games that matter.
“I’d just like to see continued improvement (on Thursday), especially with our young players, and we felt like we saw that last week,” said Capers, who has five draft picks in outside linebacker Nick Perry, linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Jerron McMillian (pictured), who could all be asked to contribute significantly in Week 1.
“We’ve tried to play these young guys as many plays as we can play them, and we just think the experience they gain here in the preseason is going to be very valuable to them when we start.”
That start is a welcome-to-the-NFL like no other, with two games in five days against playoff contenders San Francisco and Chicago, a Monday night road game at Seattle, and a showdown with explosive New Orleans to conclude the first month.
“We need production from everybody out of the gate, that’s the bottom line,” Outside Linebackers Coach Kevin Greene said. “There’s no easing into the season obviously with the way we’re starting out schedule-wise. They need to hit the ground running.”
With that in mind, here are a handful of other things to keep an eye on as the preseason comes to an end against Kansas City:
Health – The preseason opener in San Diego was the game the Packers took their injury lumps, losing linebacker Desmond Bishop (hamstring) for the season and cornerback Davon House (shoulder) and running back James Starks (turf toe) indefinitely. Since then, nothing major has cropped up, and with the starters playing only one series or so on Thursday, further risks are being minimized. Back in 2008, in quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ first year as a starter, he threw a 68-yard TD pass to Greg Jennings on the first snap of the preseason finale and the offensive starters called it a night. No one would complain if history were to repeat itself.
The No. 2 offensive line – Assuming Evan Dietrich-Smith is the sixth lineman and 10-year veteran Reggie Wells is needed on the roster as an experienced backup, it’s up to the three undrafted rookies on the second line to prove they deserve to stick around. Don Barclay has played both guard and tackle, so his versatility is a plus, while tackle Shea Allard and guard Greg Van Roten should get a lot of snaps for the second straight game. Seventh-round pick Andrew Datko will miss a second straight game with a concussion, so his status is unclear. If the opportunity to be the eighth or possibly ninth offensive linemen on the 53-man roster isn’t seized, those spots could be filled from outside the building.
Final spot on the defensive line – If the Packers keep six defensive linemen, as has been the custom in Capers’ scheme, there may be just one spot up for grabs beyond the top five of B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson, Worthy and Daniels. Daniel Muir, Phillip Merling and Lawrence Guy are the contenders (with Mike Neal suspended for the first four games), and while Muir may have the edge going in, but things could always change.
Wide receiver numbers – There’s been a lot of talk as to who might nab the sixth receiver spot, but it’s entirely possible the Packers will keep the same five as last year and use that roster spot elsewhere. Injuries slowed down Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel in camp, and Mike McCarthy said this week he needs to see them take another step. Undrafted rookie Jarrett Boykin has thrown himself into the mix, too. Whether it’s for a place on the 53 or on the practice squad, it’ll come down to who shows the most long-term potential.
Graham Harrell – The coaches have said Harrell is grading out better and improving each week, but if the Packers are committed to Harrell as Rodgers’ backup, he could ease a lot of fan angst with a TD drive or two. Harrell hasn’t led the No. 2 offense to a touchdown since the opener in San Diego, producing just two field goals in 14 possessions over the last two games. He’ll be in the game early on Thursday, and he needs to get the home crowd behind him right away.