Football is finally here. Sort of. The Green Bay Packers open their preseason schedule Thursday night against homegrown star J.J. Watt (although he won’t play) and the Houston Texans at Lambeau Field. Although preseason football isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing brand on the gridiron (especially in Week 1), there are a few exciting storylines to watch as rookies and backup players battle it out to earn a roster spot on the green and gold. Which positions should you keep an eye on? Scroll forth:
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Backup running back
We’ll likely get to watch this position battle unfold all night long as both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, listed as the top-two options at running back, have both been battling injuries for the past week or so and likely will not suit up. Tra Carson, a holdover from the practice squad last year, has been publicly praised during training camp by Aaron Rodgers, but he missed the last two days of practice with neck spasms. Here comes rookie Dexter Williams. Selected in the sixth round (194th overall) out of Notre Dame, Williams rushed for 955 yards and 12 touchdowns last season for the Fighting Irish. He’ll get a good chunk of the carries in preseason and, if he performs well, could push Jamaal Williams for that No. 2 spot. Jamaal Williams has proven he’s a solid pass blocker and has reliable hands but is unspectacular as a ball carrier. The third-year back averaged a mere 3.7 yards per carry in his NFL career and took just 29 of 121 attempts (23.9%) last year for over five yards. With a strong performance, the rookie could rise up the depth chart. Green Bay also signed Corey Grant, Darrin Hall and Keith Ford the past couple of weeks due to all the injuries. UPDATE: The Packers terminated the contract of Grant on Thursday before the game.
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This can’t be emphasized enough. Green Bay needs a reliable option behind two-time Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams. The 2014 version of Jordy Nelson isn’t going to come knocking on that door. The Packers have a few strong candidates for the No. 2 position in Marquez Valdes-Scantling, fan-favorite Jake Kumerow and Geronimo Allison. Valdes-Scantling is currently listed as a starter opposite Adams, despite hauling in just 52.1% of his targets as a rookie last season. Kumerow caught eight passes for 103 yards and a touchdown in 2018. Although it’s a small sample size, the Wisconsin-Whitewater product has repeatedly displayed steady hands and has proven he belongs. Later in the game, the Packers will showcase receivers like J’Mon Moore, Equanimeous St. Brown and Trevor Davis, who were all on the team last year and have an uphill battle to compete for consistent time at the position. Allen Lazard, Darius Shepherd, Malik Taylor and Jawill Davis are longshots to leap up the depth chart, but they could certainly barge into the second-tier group of receivers with a strong preseason performance. They’ll have a good chance to shine Thursday night against Houston, which ranked 28th against the pass last season.
Green Bay’s roster features a young, exciting secondary in Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson and Kevin King. Alexander will certainly start on the outside, while Jackson and King will compete for the other starting job. The only problem is their ability to stay on the field. Jackson has been battling a foot injury all training camp, and King has only played 15 games over his first two campaigns and is dealing with a hamstring injury. Enter Tony Brown. Brown, a 2018 undrafted free agent, competed in 11 games and made three starts with the Packers last season. He’s the favorite to back up one of the outside corner positions, and if King and Jackson miss more time in 2019, start a bunch too. Could a solid preseason performance earn him a full-time starting gig? He’s already boosted his resume by taking an interception back for a score during family night practice at Lambeau Field. Look for more of that Thursday night.
The good news is Green Bay’s starting offensive line is set. Free-agent acquisition Billy Turner will join David Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley and Bryan Bulaga on the first team. But after that, it gets a bit hairy. The Packers waived 2016 second-round pick (and big-time bust) Jason Spriggs earlier this week, who was the backup at tackle last year and played 36 games (nine starts) the past three seasons. That leaves the backup role to undrafted players like Alex Light, Adam Pankey Yosh Nijman and Gerhard de Beer, who have a combined five games of NFL experience. Yikes. The second- and third-string offensive lines aren’t the most fun position to watch, but injuries arise during the grind of a 16-game season, so some of these backup players will likely have to start at some point and protect Aaron Rodgers.
This is more a question of how much Rashan Gary can force defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s hand in inserting him into a bigger role in the 3-4 defense. Currently, the Packers’ starters at linebacker in their 3-4 scheme are listed as free-agent acquisitions Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith on the outside and Blake Martinez and Oren Burks on the inside. But Gary has impressed in training camp. A video went viral of the 12th overall pick bullying Texans offensive tackle Matt Kalil in a one-on-one drill during a joint practice. If he can bring that to a real game, he’ll earn a starting role in one way or another. Gary is expected to play in the preseason opener Thursday, and he might be the most exciting player to watch on the roster.