GREEN BAY, Wis. — The regular season has almost arrived. But before the games start to count, the Packers will host the Kansas City Chiefs in their preseason finale at 6 p.m. Thursday at Lambeau Field.
Five things to watch for in this game:
1. Which young “on the bubble” players will step up and grab a roster spot?Based on Wednesday’s roster projections, 44 of the Packers’ 53 active roster spots are locked in. That means nine players have one last opportunity to prove to general manager Ted Thompson and the coaching staff that they belong on the team this season. A year ago, linebacker Vic So’oto had such a great run late in preseason that the undrafted rookie free agent earned a spot on the roster. So’oto is on the bubble again and may need a dominant performance to make it for a second consecutive season.
Sean Richardson, a tall, athletic safety who signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent in April, is one of several rookies hoping to make a lasting impression in this game. Cornerback Brandian Ross, offensive lineman Don Barclay and linebacker Terrell Manning are just a few of the young players who would really benefit from a big game against the Chiefs.
2. Is this Graham Harrell’s final chance? Aaron Rodgers and the starting offense won’t play very much, if at all. Whether Harrell takes over after one series from Rodgers or steps on the field from the very beginning, it’s the last opportunity for the 27-year-old former practice-squad quarterback to prove he’s ready to be the next-best option behind the NFL MVP. Harrell has not had a good preseason, though coach Mike McCarthy continues to say that the criticisms are not completely justified. It’s true that the second-string offensive line protecting Harrell has not done him any favors. And yes, if Rodgers gets hurt in the regular season, Harrell will be working with the starting offensive line, not to mention star receivers like Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson.
But McCarthy seems hesitant to use this final preseason game as an opportunity to play Harrell with Jeff Saturday, Bryan Bulaga, Josh Sitton and company. This means Harrell has to make the best out of what he has with the backups and have one truly solid performance. Thompson has given no indication he’s ready to give up on Harrell as the Packers’ No. 2 quarterback, but a poor game against Kansas City could change that.
3. It’s make-or-break time for Jarrett Bush: When training camp opened, Bush was the starting cornerback opposite Tramon Williams. Soon, Bush was replaced by an emerging Davon House. When House suffered a shoulder injury in the first preseason game, McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers gave a long look to rookie Casey Hayward. With Hayward apparently not doing enough to keep that spot, Sam Shields had a short run as a starter. But after everything, Green Bay is right back where it started: Bush is the starter at outside cornerback in the Packers’ base 3-4 defense.
Bush, now in his seventh NFL season, has been mostly a dime-package cornerback in recent years, while making a name for himself as a special teams ace. But with Charles Woodson moving completely away from the outside corner spot, Bush’s always-solid tackling skills and hard-nosed, aggressive attitude have been enough to put him one game away from winning the open competition to be the Week 1 starter.
4. Can rookie Jerron McMillian secure the starting safety job in nickel packages? Like Bush, McMillian is a sure tackler. It was one of the main reasons the Packers drafted him out of the University of Maine despite his playing against a lower level of competition in college. When Green Bay is in its base defense, the safeties are Woodson and Morgan Burnett, and that will not change. However, if last season is any indication, the Packers will end up playing nickel and dime defensive packages nearly twice as much as their base 3-4 okie defense. When that happens and Woodson moves into the slot, McMillian has had a late surge in training camp to become the starter.
This spot was initially held by M.D. Jennings, who took the snaps with the first-team defense almost exclusively for the first couple weeks. Anthony Levine has been given a chance also, but McMillian’s terrific performance in the second preseason game — which McCarthy later raved about — has given him the lead. One more good game from McMillian and the spot should be his.
5. Tori Gurley, Diondre Borel or neither? Gurley could be with the Minnesota Vikings right now, having been given a chance to join the Packers’ division rival late last season when an active roster spot was offered. Gurley declined. Borel could be with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, having been given an opportunity in 2011 to leave Green Bay’s practice squad and start playing on game days. He, too, declined. Both players hoped that, if they stayed loyal to the Packers and continued improving, they could be catching passes from Rodgers once the 2012 season began. But when Thompson restructured Donald Driver’s contract this offseason to bring the 37-year-old receiver back to Green Bay, the chances of Gurley and Borel both being on the Week 1 roster were drastically reduced.
Now it’s possible that neither make it. Gurley and Borel missed time in training camp due to injuries, and neither has strung together multiple noteworthy plays or moments. Gurley offers size and would be the tallest receiver on the team if he makes it. His 6-foot-5 frame could also be an asset on special teams. Borel offers speed and precise route running with the vision of a player who was a quarterback at Utah State. However, Borel is very similar to second-year receiver Randall Cobb. It’s highly unlikely Gurley or Borel will need to spend another season on the Packers’ practice squad because if Thompson releases them in Friday’s final cutdown, the Vikings, Buccaneers and other NFL teams will start calling their agents immediately.