Countdown to 53: Opportunity costs
As he stared at the 90 names on the big board on the third floor of Lambeau Field last weekend, Mike McCarthy couldn’t take it.
The Green Bay Packers coach knew cuts were looming – to 75 players by 3 p.m. Tuesday and to 53 players by 5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31 – and he realized that, like seemingly every year, it won’t be easy. And entering Friday night’s third preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field, entirely too many questions remain unanswered for his liking.
“I really don’t want to sit here and try to pick the team today,” McCarthy replied earlier this week when asked if any of the young wide receiver vying for the fifth (and perhaps sixth) spots on the roster had gotten a leg up. “I started doing that on Sunday a little bit and it’s nerve wracking to me personally.
“We've got to make sure we have enough information on all these players. We don't do lip service to our players – ‘Hey, we're only going to coach the ones we think are going to be here.’ That's not the case. It's very evident from the first day together in the spring, and I feel very confident if you ask each one of the men in that locker room, they feel like they've been given an opportunity.
“Going through the board on Sunday really for the first time (was) to make sure that we're trying to get all these guys opportunities. As you know, we had 17 players miss the first game, 15 miss the second game, so everybody (wasn't) able to play. The third game is really a challenge for a lot of guys to play in. What happens (when) a guy doesn't play in (Friday’s) game? What's going to happen at the 75,? Is he going to get an opportunity in Week 4? That's what I'm trying to avoid.”
As a result, McCarthy suggested on multiple occasions during the week that the game against the Seahawks won’t be the traditional dress rehearsal for the starters the way previous third preseason games have been. With the Sept. 8 regular-season opener at San Francisco 16 days away, McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson not only want their starters to be ready for the 49ers, they also want to make sure the team keeps the right guys as role players and backups.
“You get attached to the guys. They all can’t make it, so it’s a tough time,” Thompson said. “We have different thought processes. No. 1, how do you see the whole thing ending up in terms of the 53? But sometimes we have the thoughts about, how do we play the fourth preseason game? Just substitutions and that sort of thing. You kind of have to work the two.
“I think you always get surprised in training camp and the offseason stuff. Things surprise you. You can kind of look out into the future and think, “This is what’s going to happen, this guy’s going to take over for this guy,’ and it’s sort of fantasy football. And (then) you start playing it for real and it changes. So there are always changes, surprises.”
With that in mind, here’s a subjective look at where the Packers’ roster stands entering Friday night’s game against the Seahawks. Again, the team will have to make 15 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.
In: Aaron Rodgers.
Too close to call: Vince Young, Graham Harrell.
Out: B.J. Coleman.
Things might very well be different had the Packers signed Young in March, when he was working out at the University of Texas’ college pro day, and given him a chance to actually learn their offense and spend time in the world famous Mike McCarthy-Tom Clements-Ben McAdoo Quarterback School, relearning some of the fundamentals the 2006 No. 3 overall pick has let slide. Instead, they waited until Aug. 5, after seven of the eight installations of the offensive playbook had been completely.
“As long as he has snaps, he has a chance,” quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo said. “We’ll learn more on Friday night. We’re going to let it play out on the field. We’re not going to make that decision; the tape’s going to make that decision.”
Asked if he wished the Packers had called sooner, Young replied, “Anybody would wish (that). I’m pretty much used to it. I had the lockout year (in 2011) going into Philly that year and didn’t have an offseason. These type of things happen, so you have to be a professional and learn to go in and put in some extra work so that you can catch up with the guys.”
Truth is, he hasn’t caught up. McCarthy’s remark during the week that Harrell and Coleman elevated their games was telling. While Harrell hasn’t set the world on fire, he was better against the Rams and the guess here is that he’ll ultimately be the choice. That said, the very signing of Young indicated the team’s feeling that it could do better. Coleman is ticketed for another year on the practice squad.
RUNNING BACKS (4 or 5)
In: Eddie Lacy, DuJuan Harris, Johnathan Franklin, John Kuhn.
Too close to call: James Starks, Alex Green.
Out: Angelo Pease, Jonathan Amosa.
Lacy and Harris will deliver an appealing 1-2 punch if both can stay healthy, and Kuhn was all but guaranteed a roster spot by running backs coach Alex Van Pelt in a conversation on Tuesday. Lacy gives the Packers a talent they haven’t seen since Ahman Green’s prime, but Harris is no slouch. Franklin hasn’t done much to get excited about at this point, but he’s a fourth-round pick, and Thompson’s track record would indicate that the odds of him giving up on such a high pick are virtually nil. Since taking over as GM in 2005, the highest draft picks fail to make the roster coming out of their first training camps were TCU wide receiver Cory Rodgers (fourth round) in 2006 and South Carolina tackle Jamon Meredith (fifth round) in 2009. It’s unfathomable to think Franklin wouldn’t make the roster, especially since Kuhn is in the last year of his contract and the coaches would love nothing more than to have an actual offensive threat as the third-down back and not just a pass protector.
“Johnathan just hasn’t been fortunate enough to get any of those good, clean looks yet,” Van Pelt said of Franklin’s 2.6-yard preseason average. “When they come, you’ll see his explosiveness, his ability to make guys miss.”
Choosing between Starks and Green could come down to which player has trade value. Or, neither could make the roster. Starks looked good early in camp but his fumble in St. Louis got him benched and left him in the depth chart dungeon. If the Packers keep one of them on merit, Green probably gets the nod.
WIDE RECEIVERS (5 or 6)
In: Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Jarrett Boykin.
Too close to call: Tyrone Walker, Jeremy Ross, Myles White.
Out: Kevin Dorsey, Alex Gillett, Omarius Hines, Justin Wilson, Charles Johnson.
The top three are set, although Cobb and Nelson had yet to see action in a preseason game entering Friday night. Boykin is a solid No. 4 and the coaches believe he’s headed for bigger things. That leaves one or perhaps two more roster spots. Last year, Boykin forced the Packers to keep a sixth receiver, which they hadn’t done under Thompson, with an impressive camp that saw him lead the team in receiving in preseason games. Entering the third game, none of the competitors has done that. Ross, who seemed headed for the fifth spot a week and a half ago, has been inconsistent catching the ball and has hurt his cause. He’s hardly a sure thing anymore. Walker and White, both undrafted players, have been impressive while Dorsey and Johnson, both seventh-round picks, have been in the training room with injuries. It seems unlikely either player will do enough in the final two weeks to merit anything more than a practice-squad slot.
“Time will tell,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. “Again, this Seattle game is an important game for a lot of people. When (a receiver) gets his opportunities, he’s got to make the most of them. I can say that about all our receivers.”
TIGHT ENDS (4 or 5)
In: Jermichael Finley.
Too close to call: Andrew Quarless, D.J. Williams, Matthew Mulligan, Ryan Taylor, Brandon Bostick.
Out: Jake Stoneburner.
What a mess. Quarless, who missed all of last season recovering from a December 2011 knee injury, finally returned to practice after a quadriceps strain. Williams has been inconsistent, having improved as a blocker but having dropped too many passes, including a big one against the Rams. Mulligan is supposed to be a big-time blocker but was just so-so before an elbow injury in St. Louis ended his night after three snaps. Taylor will make his preseason debut after a knee injury on Family Night. And Bostick, a Finley clone without the bravado, has flashed but probably could use another year on the practice squad. Stoneburner’s TD catch was a highlight but was also the first time he did something of note.
“I’d say that these next two games are going to be vital and as much playing time as we can get these guys, as much information as we can get on each and every one of them,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “That’s what we need to do.”
OFFENSIVE LINE (8 or 9)
In: David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Evan Dietrich-Smith, T.J. Lang, Don Barclay, Marshall Newhouse.
Too close to call: Lane Taylor, Greg Van Roten.
Out: Bryan Bulaga, Andrew Datko, Kevin Hughes, Derek Sherrod, JC Tretter, Garth Gerhart, Patrick Lewis.
Even though the coaches have been reluctant to say so definitively, the starting five appears set. Newhouse, a 28-game starter at left tackle the last two years, figures to be the swing tackle. Taylor, an undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State, and Van Roten, a practice-squad call-up last year, are good bets but haven’t completely solidified themselves. That would give the group eight linemen, which is actually one more than the seven the team kept coming out of camp last year. But it’s also a realistic possibility that a waiver claim could be made at the final cutdown.
Bulaga (injured reserve) and Tretter (injured reserve or PUP) will make two of the decisions for the club. Sherrod appears headed for the PUP yet again, as he’s yet to make it back onto the practice field after that December 2011 broken leg. Thompson said he believes Sherrod will play this year, and maybe he will – in the second half of the year. Datko, a seventh-round pick a year ago, has improved but not immensely. He could land on the practice squad again.
“When you’re a young guy and you get your opportunity, you’re learning a whole scheme, you understand why things are called and, then, ultimately, if you’re flexible, you’re the first off the bench, let’s go,” offensive line coach James Campen said when asked if versatility will decide the last few spots. “You like to have guys like that that can handle that type of role from a standpoint where you’re not moving three or four guys to accomplish something. So, that helps you.”
DEFENSIVE LINE (6)
In: B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Datone Jones, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels.
Too close to call: C.J. Wilson, Johnny Jolly, Josh Boyd.
Out: Jerel Worthy, Jordan Miller, Gilbert Peña.
Part of the decision here is whether Neal is even a defensive lineman anymore. If he is truly an outside linebacker, then move him to that group and give Wilson a spot for the fourth straight season. But if Neal is still a lineman, then there would seemingly be only one more spot to be had. Wilson is an unsung run-stuffer like Pickett and seems like a good bet to stick. Then again, with what Jolly did against the Rams, deflecting one pass into a Jarrett Bush interception before intercepting a tipped pass himself later in the game, he’s closing in fast on a roster spot after his three-year layoff. The guess here is that Neal is a linebacker now and listing him as a defensive end, which the Packers do on their official roster, is a misnomer.
Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac loves Boyd, a fifth-round pick, but at this point, he’d be making the 53-man roster on potential alone. The best Worthy, who hasn’t practiced after blowing out his knee in the Dec. 30 regular-season finale at Minnesota, can hope for is the PUP list. Miller has improved and has a future, according to Trgovac. The most interesting aspect of the unit is that Raji, Pickett, Neal, Wilson and Jolly will all be free agents in the spring.
LINEBACKERS (8 or 9)
In: Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Robert Francois, Jamari Lattimore, Andy Mulumba.
Too close to call: Dezman Moses, Terrell Manning, Sam Barrington, Nate Palmer.
Out: Jarvis Reed, Donte Savage.
While the starters are set, things are most interesting inside, where it’s conceivable that the Packers will try to keep all six players – Hawk, Jones, Francois, Lattimore, Manning and Barrington – and keep only three or four outside guys, knowing that Lattimore and Francois can play there in a pinch. Mulumba has been the most impressive undrafted rookie in camp and has been working ahead of Moses, who held that title last year. The guess here is that Moses still sticks, but it’s no sure thing. Palmer, like Boyd, might have potential in the scheme but just isn’t 53-man roster ready. A sixth-round pick, he makes sense to put on the practice squad. Barrington has been impressive and is on two of the first-string special teams units (kickoff return and punt return). Manning, a sixth-round pick a year ago, basically redshirted last year on defense and has made a push of late.
“We’ve (traditionally) had maybe four or five (inside linebackers),” inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “Remember, the first part of last season, Brad and Jamari were still going back and forth, I didn’t get Brad full-time until D.J. (Smith) got hurt. We’ll see. I don’t make those decisions. I just take the guys they give me and coach the hell out of them.”
DEFENSIVE BACKS (10)
In: Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings, Casey Hayward, Davon House, Jerron McMillian, Micah Hyde, Jarrett Bush.
Too close to call: Chris Banjo, Chaz Powell, Loyce Means, James Nixon.
Out: Brandon Smith, David Fulton, Sean Richardson.
Banjo has the edge on Powell for the fourth safety spot, although special-teams ace Bush could fill that role, too. The bone bruise in Williams’ knee remains an issue, meaning the Packers could keep an extra corner for protection. Hyde, a fifth-round pick, has been a revelation. House has been up-and-down but the coaches like his physical nature. Jennings vs. McMillian for the starting safety job will likely go down to the wire.
“It’s on them. One guy doesn’t want to let the other one have it, and that’s expected because competition continues to bring the best out of all of us,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “We’re in a competitive business. I love it. It’s a good situation.”
Smith is a fascinating prospect but is green as grass as a converted wide receiver and probably will develop on the practice squad. Richardson’s surgically repaired neck still hasn’t been cleared for action.
“I hope after this game we can start solidifying some things. But I’m pretty close to knowing who’s going to be where in my own head,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “This game is going to be big for a lot of guys, and after this game, I’m going to pretty much have my mind set on who we’re going to go with and we’re going to go with that.
In: Tim Masthay, Brett Goode.
Too close to call: Giorgio Tavecchio, Mason Crosby.
After making all three of his field goals in St. Louis, it appeared Crosby was within a chip-shot field goal of retaining his job, especially after Tavecchio missed a 49-yarder in the climate-controlled Edward Jones Dome. Then came Wednesday’s practice, when Crosby missed three straight kicks and reminded everyone why he’s no sure thing. The Packers reportedly made a run at ex-Miami Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter after he was released, but he chose Arizona, where he has a good chance of winning the job. The feeling has always been that the Packers, down deep, want the strong-legged Crosby to get himself right and keep the job. But as their interest in Carpenter shows, they just can’t be certain about him anymore.
“We’re going to play Game No. 3 this week and we’ll continue as we see fit,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said of the kicking competition. “We’ll take the whole body of work. That’s the only way I know how to do it. And make an honest evaluation. We’ll just look at the big picture once we get to the point where we say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make a decision now.’”
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.