GREEN BAY - For Ted Thompson, there are two delicate balancing acts he has to pull off during the NFL preseason.
When it comes to the games, like Friday night's third preseason game against Oakland, the Green Bay Packers general manager has to make sure he's using those performances as affirmations of what he's already seen in certain players, and not being fooled or swept up in eye-popping performances that come under the lights. While standout showings in game action certainly have value, they can be a bit misleading.
Just ask the former Houston Oilers nickel linebacker who used to look pretty good at times in exhibition play from 1975 through 1984.
"I think sometimes, you do have to be, um, [careful]," Thompson deadpanned earlier this week, after someone asked him about watching undrafted rookie free agent outside linebacker Jayrone Ellioitt record three sacks in a four-snap span against the St. Louis Rams. "I played in the league, and I went through a lot of preseason games. And I was often times playing in the second half of preseason games, and the competition level drops quite a bit, and even I made a few plays back in the day.
"It doesn't mean that this young man hasn't done some good stuff and all that. I think you have to kind of weigh all this out."
That also means striking a balance between getting your front-line players ready for the games that count – in the Packers' case, the first one is Sept. 4 at Seattle, when they'll take on the defending Super Bowl-champion Seahawks in the league's Kickoff Game – and making sure you keep the right players on the 53-man roster and 10-man practice squad.
While coaching philosophies differ, Thompson is fortunate in that coach Mike McCarthy believes getting the roster right is paramount. He believes he can get his starters ready for the season in practice settings and with limited preseason reps, which is why Friday night's game won't be the dress rehearsal most fans expect from the third game.
Although quarterback Aaron Rodgers will see his most extensive exhibition action, he won't play into the third quarter as the starters once did. Running back Eddie Lacy's action also figures to be limited, and by the time the team's preseason finale arrives next Thursday, expect McCarthy to sit many of his starters for the entire game.
"I don't think it lines up like it used to, as far as the full-blown [dress rehearsal]," McCarthy said. "But I think it's the most important game still because of the fact that you have to cut to 75 [players] after this game.
"The importance of getting player evaluation is you try to find a balance of that and [seeing] how your team is progressing. I think we're doing a good job of that."
While McCarthy preps his guys for the Seahawks, Thompson's focus will be on the final 1/3 of his roster, as it would appear that only 15 or so roster spots are truly up for grabs. With the way the Packers develop talent, the last thing he wants to do is give up on a player who hasn't had the opportunity to shine.
"Coaches, at some point, they turn the switch and start getting ready for the season. From the talent evaluator standpoint, we're still in the middle of this stuff and we have some really important decisions to make," said Thompson, who is headed into his 10th season as the team's GM and his ninth with McCarthy as coach. "When that dilemma comes up, Mike and I have conversations and it always works itself out. He's big into the personnel part and is appreciative of the work our scouts are doing. We've been together long enough to where we understand each other's point of view."
From Thompson's point of view, two days loom: Tuesday, when the roster must be pared from 89 to 75, and Aug. 30, when the team must be down to the NFL-mandated 53-man roster limit. With that in mind, here's a subjective look at where the Packers' roster stands entering Friday night's game against the Raiders. Again, the team will have to make 14 roster moves – not necessarily all cuts, as some players can be moved to the in-season physically unable to perform list or injured reserve – by Tuesday afternoon.
QUARTERBACKS (2 or 3)
In: Aaron Rodgers.
On the bubble: Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien.
Out: Chase Rettig
Truth be told, both Flynn and Tolzien merit a roster spot. They've both been good enough in both practice and in the games to be Rodgers' backup. And on the eve of training camp, McCarthy said neither he nor Thompson would be opposed to keeping three quarterbacks, even though the team hasn't kept three on the 53-man roster since Rodgers' inaugural season as the starter in 2008. That year, Flynn, a seventh-round pick from LSU, beat out Brian Brohm, a second-round pick from Louisville, to be Rodgers' primary backup. The following year, Flynn again beat out Brohm in camp, relegating Brohm to the practice squad. (He left in November 2009 to sign on to the Buffalo Bills' 53-man roster.) After starting four quarterbacks last season – Rodgers, Seneca Wallace, Tolzien and Flynn – McCarthy does not want to relive that nightmare, and the durability of Rodgers and predecessor Brett Favre cannot be taken for granted anymore.
"The opportunity for three quarterbacks really comes down to how the third potential quarterback performs and what goes on with the rest of your football team," McCarthy said before camp. "We've never gone in and said ‘We only need to take two quarterbacks because we've been so blessed here the last 20 [years] to have had great quarterback play and start week in-and week-out.
"We all understand what happened last year. You could overreact to that. [But you have to] learn from that. What can you do better? We're better already because we've had Matt and Scott here from Day 1, so we'll see what happens."
RUNNING BACKS (4 or 5)
In: Eddie Lacy, James Starks, John Kuhn.
Looking good: DuJuan Harris.
On the bubble: Rajion Neal, Michael Hill, LaDarius Perkins
Out: Ina Liaina.
Lacy and Starks pack a formidable 1-2 punch. Lacy, coming off an NFL offensive rookie of the year performance in his first season, will only get better if he stays healthy with his bruising style. Starks averaged 5.5 yards per carry last year and appears to be right back where he was, looking sharp on cuts and explosive through creases. Kuhn, the old pro, knows the offense inside and out and is the "gold standard" for preparation, according to Rodgers. Barring injury, their spots are secure. Harris, meanwhile, did lose a fumble at St. Louis and is shaking off a year of inactivity because of last season's knee injury, but he's the Packers' best option as a kick return man right now and has proven he can carry the load at running back. Neal had the inside track for a fourth running back job but injured his knee against Tennessee in the preseason opener and now is in limbo. That opens the door for Hill and Perkins in the final two exhibition tilts.
WIDE RECEIVERS (5 or 6)
In: Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Jarrett Boykin, Davante Adams.
Looking good: Jeff Janis.
On the bubble: Kevin Dorsey, Myles White.
Out: Jared Abbrederis, Chris Harper, Alex Gillett, Gerrard Sheppard.
After Adams made an early-camp run at Boykin for the No. 3 job, he has gone quiet. That doesn't mean the pecking order won't change during the course of the season in the top four, but for now, the rookie second-round pick will be behind the hard-working Boykin. Janis is still raw – in fact, that's precisely the word McCarthy used to describe the seventh-round pick from Saginaw Valley State – but the feeling here is that another team would snap him up on the waiver wire if the Packers exposed him in an effort to put him on the practice squad. Plus, Janis is auditioning as a kickoff and punt returner, jobs that are open if the team doesn't want to risk front-line players. Dorsey has seen a lot of action on the top special-teams units, while White is the best remaining slot receiver behind Cobb following Abbrederis' season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament. Deciding between keeping five or six will be difficult, even without Abbrederis in the mix.
TIGHT ENDS (4 or 5)
In: Richard Rodgers, Brandon Bostick, Andrew Quarless.
Looking good: Ryan Taylor.
On the bubble: Jake Stoneburner, Justin Perillo.
Out: Colt Lyerla.*
Rodgers, a third-round pick, might very well be the opening-day starter, especially with Bostick's availability in doubt after he suffered a lower leg injury at St. Louis last Saturday that will sideline him for, at minimum, the rest of the preseason. Quarless received a $350,000 signing bonus as part of a two-year, $3 million to return after testing the free-agent market this March, and he's shown he can fill a starter's shoes twice after Jermichael Finley suffered season-ending injuries in 2010 and 2013. He has some shortcomings but is mostly reliable. Taylor's special-teams prowess is well-known and should keep him around, although Stoneburner's pass-catching ability is intriguing. Perillo is an interesting prospect and will likely land on the practice squad if he gets through waivers unclaimed. Lyerla was waived/injured and is now on injured reserve for the season, where he can learn the offense and get healthy.
OFFENSIVE LINE (8 or 9)
In: David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, JC Tretter, T.J. Lang, Bryan Bulaga.
Looking good: Derek Sherrod, Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley.
On the bubble: Aaron Adams, Andrew Tiller, Garth Gerhart.
Out: Don Barclay, Jeremy Vujnovich, John Fullington, Jordan McCray.
The starting five are set after a strong camp by Tretter, who left no doubt that he deserved the starting center job. It wasn't even close. Barclay's torn ACL, which he had surgically repaired on Thursday, was a big blow because he was the sixth man and could come in off the bench no matter who was injured or sidelined. Now, Sherrod is likely the swing tackle after three non-descript and injury-ravaged seasons, while Taylor looks like a safe bet to back up the interior spots. Linsley, a rookie fifth-round pick, would seem like the likely pick for the eighth spot. A ninth spot would be out of the question if a third quarterback is kept.
DEFENSIVE LINE (6 or 7)
In: B.J. Raji, Datone Jones, Mike Daniels, Josh Boyd, Khyri Thornton.
Looking good: Mike Pennel.
On the bubble: Luther Robinson, Letroy Guion.
Out: Carlos Gray.
Raji appears reborn, Jones will be given ample opportunity in both the base defense and sub packages to prove he was a worthy first-round pick, Daniels is the team's best defensive lineman and Boyd is progressing nicely. Thornton has done next to nothing in camp but as a third-round pick, he's not going anywhere. Things get interesting after that, however, as the unheralded Pennel has been one of the feel-good stories of camp. He figures to be the fifth lineman, as Guion still hasn't practiced because of a hamstring injury suffered before camp that landed him on the non-football injury list. He won't play against the Raiders but is a seventh-year vet who knows how to play. Robinson has made a greater impression than Gray to this point.
LINEBACKERS (9 or 10)
In: Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal, Nick Perry, Jamari Lattimore
Looking good: Sam Barrington, Andy Mulumba.
On the bubble: Carl Bradford, Jayrone Elliott, Adrian Hubbard, Nate Palmer.
Out: Jake Doughty, Korey Jones, Joe Thomas.
The starters are set, Neal was given a $2.5 million signing bonus to expand his pass-rushing prowess, Perry figures to get one more year after back-to-back injury-impacted seasons as a 2012 first-round pick and Lattimore is a core special teams player who was more impactful as a starter at inside linebacker last year than the guys he backed up. Barrington has had a strong camp and is likely safe, while Mulumba is getting work on top special teams units. However, both he and Palmer, who also played last season as a rookie sixth-round pick, are practice-squad eligible, which is worth remembering. The most curious case is Bradford, who has done next to nothing all camp and has been moved into the first- and second-string groups in practice in hopes of giving him a jolt. A fourth-round pick from Arizona State, there's still talk that he might be better suited inside. Whatever the case, he has observers wondering if Thompson would really cut a fourth-round pick after one training camp. The guess here is no, since it's only happened one time: To Texas Christian wide receiver Corey Rodgers, a fourth-round pick in 2005 who washed out right away. Bradford, Palmer, Elliott and Hubbard will have ample opportunity to state their cases in the final two games.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (10)
In: Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Morgan Burnett, Micah Hyde, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Casey Hayward, Davon House, Jarrett Bush.
Looking good: Sean Richardson, Jumal Rolle.
On the bubble: Chris Banjo, Demetri Goodson, Ryan White.
Out: Antonio Dennard, Charles Clay, Tanner Miller.
What could be the deepest area on the roster is set at the top, where Clinton-Dix, the first-round pick, has yet to displace Hyde in the starting lineup. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt won't call it the proverbial "good problem to have," but he does have a bevy of legit cover guys, both outside and in the slot. The intrigue comes in with the final few roster spots, where rookie sixth-round pick Goodson has been up-and-down while practice-squad holdover Rolle stands out regularly in practice. Whitt loves Rolle's potential as he tries to make the jump from little Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., and after a year on the practice squad he has stepped forward. Banjo played in all 16 games last year but has been the No. 5 safety despite his special teams work. He also became practice-squad eligible after this week's rule changes. If the team finds a spot for another safety, he's certainly deserving. Miller merits practice-squad consideration, too.
In: Mason Crosby, Tim Masthay, Brett Goode.
None of the three faced competition in camp, and all three are looking like they are keyed in, despite two unexpected misses by Crosby in practice Thursday. Crosby, who beat out challenger Giorgio Tavecchio in camp a year ago, didn't need such motivation this year. Masthay continues his rise while Goode is the definition of steady-as-she-goes while manning the league's most unappreciated position.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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