Those who like watching starters play significant snaps should probably tune away from Thursday’s preseason finale between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs.
A vast majority of teams, including the Packers, play their starters just a few snaps—if that—before giving way to the backups and bottom of the roster players. It’s a week to rest and protect important players, while also evaluating the men who will and won’t make up the last names on the final 53-man roster.
Head coach Mike McCarthy made it clear Tuesday that roster spots can be and often are won during the final preseason game. So many factors go into evaluating a single player, but this final exhibition is clearly an important tool for McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson.
Here’s some things to watch in the finale Thursday:
1. Last chance for offseason stars
Remember when all the offseason talk centered around releasing veteran Donald Driver to pave the way for Diondre Borel and Tori Gurley, two promising but completely unproven practice squad receivers? Those screams have all but died in the August heat.
Borel has struggled in games with the second-team offense, dropping two sure first downs and fumbling away a kickoff in San Diego. Gurley missed time early with a hamstring injury and hasn’t put any real pressure on the Packers keeping more than five receivers, despite a unique frame. Thursday night is both receivers’ last chance to make an impression on the staff. Can either do enough to make the final 53-man roster?
Crazier things have happened, but it’s looking more and more like Gurley and Borel are only staying in Green Bay if Thompson can sneak them back onto the practice squad.
2. Shufflin’ secondary
The No. 2 cornerback and starting safety spot opposite Morgan Burnett have both been rotating doors, with a number of players getting a shot at proving worthy a starting job.
At this point in the race, it certainly looks like Jarrett Bush will start at corner and Jerron McMillian at safety when the Packers open up the season against the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 9. But in this race, change has been constant, and McCarthy isn’t naming a cemented starter before Thursday. A poor performance could re-open the race, especially at safety. M.D. Jennings and Anthony Levine need to make their case. Same with Sam Shields and Casey Hayward.
3. Harrell’s next look
There’s no need to re-hash the struggles Harrell has had this preseason. Most are well aware of the protection issues and Harrell’s inability to extend drives and score points. But the continued stance from up-and-down the organization has been 100 percent backing Harrell, so there’s no reason to think Thursday’s extended look against the Chiefs will be his last in a Packers uniform.
However, with Aaron Rodgers not likely to play more than a couple of plays (or less), Harrell might get his longest look of the preseason. An improved performance—not necessarily even a solid one—would help Harrell get some of the outside heat off his back.
4. Running to the roster
Second-year running back Alex Green remains on a snap count, but he should get the biggest workload of his short Packers career Thursday night. He’ll be the backup to Cedric Benson to start the season, but that doesn’t mean his role will be a small one. The Packers are expecting Green to play a role in 2012. He could use a bounce-back performance against the Chiefs after a shaky start in Cincinnati.
Brandon Saine will make his preseason debut after missing time with a hamstring injury. He’s on the roster bubble, but an encouraging performance Thursday should lock him in. The staff has always been high on Saine. And if both Green and Saine remain injury free? James Starks could be looking at a trip to IR or flat out release. His recovery from a turf toe injury has been slow, and the Packers have to be wondering if a once promising player will ever be healthy enough to play a serious role. Starks won’t play Thursday night.
5. Bubble battles
If there’s really anything to watch Thursday night, it’s how the players on the roster bubble handle a stressful environment. Some embrace the moment, some crack.
Here’s some battles to watch:
- Daniel Muir/Philip Merling: The Packers haven’t kept more than six defensive linemen in either of the last two cutdowns. As it stands currently, five are roster locks: B.J. Raji, Jerel Worthy, Ryan Pickett, Mike Daniels and C.J. Wilson. Neal is suspended for the start of the season and won’t count against the 53. Muir and Merling lead the pack to be the No. 6.
- Terrell Manning/Brad Jones: Jamari Lattimore has locked down a spot on the 53-man roster after seamlessly transitioning to inside linebacker. Robert Francois is a solid bet, too. But both are hurt ahead of Thursday’s game, so Manning and Jones will get long looks inside. Jones, because of his versatility and special teams play, is likely ahead of Manning, a fifth-rounder. Thursday will be important to decide if Manning is the third fifth-round pick to be released during final cuts in the Thompson era.
- Second-team offensive line: The five starters and Evan Dietrich-Smith are locks. The thinking here is that tackle Derek Sherrod will be back sooner rather than later, in hopes of avoiding the PUP list. That’s seven linemen. Who is No. 8, or even No. 9? Don Barclay has come on strong as of late. The rest have all had individual struggles. Thursday could be a huge factor in the final decision.