GREEN BAY — After more than four months of workouts, practice and preparation, it all comes down to one last preseason game for the dozens of hopeful Packers on the roster bubble.
With Saturday’s final roster reduction upcoming, the Packers head to Kansas City for Thursday’s preseason finale with many young players and undrafted rookies looking to leave a lasting impression on the coaching staff and personnel department.
While many of Green Bay’s starters will sit, the game is far from meaningless for the players trying to earn a job and for the front office looking to solidify its final 53-man roster.
As history has proven, the players who capture the final spots on the active roster and comprise the 10-man practice squad often make a difference throughout the course of a season.
“This is a very important game,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “I’m maybe in the minority. I believe in the preseason because it’s the bottom of half of your roster that makes a championship team in my opinion. That’s what we’re trying to solidify.”
As Whitt illustrates, there’s no better example of that than in 2010, when the Packers had to dig deep into their roster after 16 players ended up on season-ending injured reserve.
The Packers, a sixth-seed in the NFC playoffs, took the long road to the Super Bowl and lost defensive backs Charles Woodson and Sam Shields during the game itself.
In their stead, special-teams stalwart Jarrett Bush stepped up to grab a critical interception in the 31-25 win over Pittsburgh to capture the Packers’ fourth Lombardi Trophy.
Undrafted players have been the lifeblood of the program General Manager Ted Thompson has created in Green Bay with Tramon Williams, John Kuhn, Shields and Bush ranking near the top of his free-agent finds.
The Packers have had at least one undrafted rookie make the roster every season since Thompson was hired in 2005, a trend that’s likely to continue this year.
“The rookies coming out of college, there is no exact science to the draft, and the way value is created is not absolute as far as the value that’s put on each and every player,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said.
“I think it gives you a chance to give guys opportunities (who) for whatever reason along the path, they did not accumulate the actual credibility that the players who were drafted in front of them (did). I think it’s the reality of our business, but in our particular case I think it’s a great reflection of the job our personnel staff does.”
It goes further than just determining which fringe players make the final 53. There’s also been opportunity for those who don’t make it to stick around on the team’s practice squad.
A year ago, four players who started the season on the practice squad – Jared Abbrederis, Justin Perillo, John Crockett and Robertson Daniel – finished the year on the active roster.
There’s a strong possibility a few jobs will be won and lost in Kansas City, but it also comes down to how players have performed in practice throughout training camp, as well.
Thompson and his scouts will have to consider the full range of production when determining who ends up on the roster for the regular-season opener in Jacksonville on Sept. 11.
Those evaluations start on the practice field.
“The reps in practice are so very important to the guys,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “We have our scouts at practice. We have the personnel guys, Ted’s down at practice. Those reps are really important.”
Outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott, an undrafted free agent out of Toledo in 2014, has survived final cuts twice to become a rotational rusher and valued special-teams contributor.
He’s one of several former undrafted players who have thrived after sweating out final cuts, along with Don Barclay, Chris Banjo, LaDarius Gunter, Mike Pennel and Lane Taylor.
Experience doesn’t make cuts any easier, though. You build lifelong friendships throughout training camp and often end up competing with the same individuals for a job.
It’s an inescapable reality and something players talk openly about within their position groups. Having ridden the roller-coaster twice before, Elliott laughs when reflecting on the unique nature of cut-down day.
“We joke a lot but it’s like reality TV, like ‘The Bachelor,’” Elliott said. “You get picked and you never know, so you’ve got to go out there and have fun.”
It has been an interesting camp for the Packers that began with the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game against Indianapolis getting canceled due to an unsafe playing surface.
The Packers hope the uneven flow of camp prepares them for a disjointed 2016 regular-season schedule. As they shift their focus toward another Super Bowl run, there are 19 undrafted rookies hoping to join them on the journey.
Six of those rookies reside in the secondary with Kentrell Brice, Marwin Evans, Josh Hawkins, Jermaine Whitehead, Warren Gatewood and Makinton Dorleant trying to distinguish themselves.
Based on how the Packers utilize their personnel, there’s a strong possibility whichever longshots make the roster could wind up weighing heavily into the team’s success this season.
“It was the bottom half of the roster that helped us win the Super Bowl,” Whitt said. “Well, the bottom half of this roster has to show they can play this week and I’m excited to see it. I really am because you never know who’s really going to shine from there.”