GREEN BAY, Wis. — It’s one of the most difficult times of year for Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson. In the span of a week, Thompson and his staff has to whittle the roster down from 90 players to 75 and eventually decide on a final 53 by Saturday afternoon.
For a team with Super Bowl-caliber pieces in place like Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, Eddie Lacy at running back, Jordy Nelson at wide receiver and an outside linebacker duo of Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers on defense, Thompson has to get these moves right. While those five-star players — plus a couple dozen others — have nothing to worry about in the next few days, Thompson holds the fate of many in his hands.
"It weighs on you pretty good," Thompson said. "It’s important to these young guys who have done a good job, and some of them are not going to be able to survive past the weekend. That’s the hard edge of NFL football, I guess."
With titles next to his name that include executive vice president and director of football operations in addition to general manager, Thompson has a lot of power. But when he and head coach Mike McCarthy sit down to evaluate which 22 players to release and which are most deserving of sticking around for the regular season, they both have their voices heard.
"Mostly those conversations are conversations with just Mike and I," Thompson said. "He has a good feel for his staff and the likes and dislikes that they have projected. Everybody has a say, the people in the personnel group are the same way with me; they’re pretty open and sometimes demonstrative. Everybody’s trying to do the right thing, and Mike and I work pretty good together."
There has been a month’s worth of practices and three preseason games that can be used to grade players, but Thursday night’s preseason finale at home against the Kansas City Chiefs will play a big role, too. That’s especially true of the players who are on the bubble.
"This last game is important, and the young men know that," Thompson said. "This will be intersting stuff."
Thompson remembered back to 1996 when he was working under Ron Wolf as the Packers’ director of pro personnel and the team was ready to move on from Desmond Howard. However, Howard had a 77-yard punt return in the preseason and changed the mind of Green Bay’s front office. Less than six months later, Howard was the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXI as the Packers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
"So you never know," Thompson said as he concluded the story about Howard. "Somebody shows up, they can change their rating. But you obviously have to be cognizant of the fact that this is a long-term decision. You have to think this through."
This year, there are several players who could really use a good game to secure a spot on the 53-man roster.
Jayrone Elliott is tied for the NFL lead in preseason sacks with four, but the undrafted rookie could still go either way. Perhaps a less-than-stellar preseason finale disappoints Green Bay and Thompson opts to try to get Elliott onto the practice squad.
Mike Pennel is the most surefire undrafted rookie to still be with the Packers when the team travels to Seattle on Sept. 4, but one more strong performance would certainly help his case. More important for Pennel might be how his play against the Chiefs determines where he fits into the depth chart at nose tackle, where he’s competing with Josh Boyd and Letroy Guion.
Jeff Janis has wowed a lot of people with his spectacular catches in practice and with the breakaway speed that he showed on a 34-yard touchdown in St. Louis, but the seventh-round pick rookie would make himself an obvious candidate for the team with a strong game.
If Janis is the No. 5 wide receiver, that means Kevin Dorsey and Myles White will both need to play well and do something special in order to convince Green Bay to keep six receivers.
Carl Bradford isn’t guaranteed a spot just because he’s a fourth-round pick, and when given a chance at his new position of inside linebacker, the former Arizona State star will have to show something. The same is true of 2013 sixth-round pick Nate Palmer, who has joined Bradford as an outside linebacker getting a tryout at inside linebacker.
The biggest battle Thursday night could play into the decision of whether the Packers keep three quarterbacks or two. And, regardless of that aspect of it, it could affect whether it’s Matt Flynn or Scott Tolzien who is No. 2 behind Rodgers.
It’s up to Thompson and McCarthy to properly weigh everything they’ve seen. That way, when the 3 p.m. CST deadline expires Saturday, Green Bay is left with the 53 players who can best help win another Super Bowl.
"I went to see (McCarthy) this morning, just to say, ‘look, we’re going to have a tough couple days, we got to keep watching what’s in the best interest of this football team and those young men downstairs,’" Thompson said. "We have to put that at the forefront. We can’t worry about, ‘I thought this guy was going to be this kind of player or this guy is disappointing me or the coaches like this guy or scouts like this guy.’ We can’t get into that. We have to do what’s right for the Packers, and most of all what’s right for the people that are in that locker room."