All eyes will be on Packers’ rookie defenders

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Exactly one month before the Packers kick off the 2012 regular season, they will begin their preseason schedule Thursday night in San Diego against the Chargers.

With 90 players on the training camp roster and only 53 spots available for when the games start to count, plenty of jobs can be won – and lost — in exhibition contests. The preseason is also an important time for development and on-field chemistry building for the large group of players who are assured of making the Packers’ active roster.

Five things to watch for in Green Bay’s preseason opener, which begins at 7 p.m. CT and will be televised nationally on ESPN:

1. Rookie debuts: This will be the first time Packers rookies can compete against players who are not teammates. Will Nick Perry be able to get pressure on Philip Rivers and the rest of the Chargers’ quarterbacks? Perry has been handed the starting outside linebacker job opposite Clay Matthews, so Green Bay needs its first-round pick to perform well right from the start of the season. Will Jerel Worthy show the exuberance he’s had throughout training camp and use that energy to help him drive San Diego’s offensive line backward? Will offensive tackle Andrew Datko perform any better after a lackluster camp thus far? Will third-string quarterback B.J. Coleman show poise in the pocket in his first snaps since college? These are just a few of the intriguing rookies to watch closely in their preseason debuts.

2. Aaron Rodgers’ playing time: Starting left tackle Marshall Newhouse is out with a concussion, and 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod is still not back from the broken leg he suffered last season. That means journeyman Herb Taylor will be protecting Rodgers’ blind side. Or will he? Given the injuries up front, coach Mike McCarthy suggested that Rodgers’ playing time may be affected. Unless the coaching staff trusts Taylor to not get Rodgers crushed, putting the MVP in any sort of danger in a game like this is a risk. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Rodgers play very little, if at all. Rodgers could also start, hand the ball off a few times, throw a quick slant and exit after one drive. For the Packers, the goal just needs to be getting Rodgers back to Green Bay injury-free.

3. Graham Harrell’s opportunity: Even if Newhouse had been healthy, Rodgers would likely not have gotten much playing time. That means it’s Harrell’s chance to show he can be relied upon as the Packers’ No. 2 quarterback. When the Chicago Bears lost Jay Cutler last season and turned to backup Caleb Hanie, the results were disastrous. Harrell has to prove he’s not Hanie. For several years, McCarthy was able to depend on Matt Flynn to get the job done if Rodgers was hurt or resting before the playoffs. With Flynn now the projected starter in Seattle, Harrell has to show something. The Buffalo Bills wanted to sign Harrell last season but were turned down in their offer when the Packers gave him additional money to stick around. It’s time to find out whether that patience from both Harrell and the team was worthwhile, or if the Packers need to explore the possibility of adding a veteran backup quarterback.

4. The cornerback competition: With Charles Woodson no longer playing outside cornerback, Green Bay’s only lock to start is Tramon Williams. Entering training camp, Jarrett Bush was receiving snaps with the first-team defense at right outside cornerback. It was expected to be a competition between Bush and Sam Shields. However, Shields has struggled mightily throughout camp and is unable to play against the Chargers due to an elbow injury. That has left an opportunity for second-year player Davon House to take some repetitions with the first-stringers, and he has excelled. Bush was still listed as the starter on the team’s first unofficial depth chart, but as each practice passes it appears more likely that it’s House who will be starting in Week 1 of the regular season. Not to be lost in the shuffle is second-round pick Casey Hayward, who has been impressive thus far in practices but has not gotten much work with the starters. A big game from Hayward could do a lot in giving him a boost in the battle with House and Bush.

5. The running backs: If healthy, James Starks will go into this season as the Packers’ starting running back. Unlike most of last year, Starks has been the one running back in Green Bay who has stayed healthy throughout training camp. Due to injuries, the Packers will have only three healthy running backs against the Chargers. Brandon Saine (hamstring) is out, as is rookie Du’ane Bennett (knee). That means it’s Starks, Alex Green and Marc Tyler who will share the carries Thursday night. This will be Green’s first action since tearing his ACL in Week 7 last season. Green has been used in a somewhat limited capacity throughout camp but has looked good, and more important, healthy. Tyler missed several practices with a shoulder injury, but the undrafted rookie out of USC will have a big opportunity to show he belongs, especially with Saine and Bennett unavailable. It will also be interesting to see how much fullback John Kuhn is used in the backfield. Kuhn didn’t pass his initial training camp physical due to a knee injury but has practiced in recent days and is expected to play in San Diego.

After the game, check back for the five things we learned from the Packers’ preseason opener.

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