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