5 Things to Watch when Packers play Chiefs

Here are five things to watch for in Thursday night’s preseason finale between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs:

1. Determining the final few roster spots

The fourth preseason game is most important to young players who are trying to make the 53-man roster. With kickoff happening only 46 hours before roster cuts are due and the Packers are forced to release 22 players, this is a significant evaluation opportunity for coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson.

How many players are actually on the bubble and will be playing for their NFL lives? Based on my preliminary roster predictions (final predictions will be posted Friday morning), there are 24 players currently with Green Bay whose fate could be decided in this game.

Can safety Chris Banjo put together one more quality performance and earn his spot on the team? Or do safeties Chaz Powell or David Fulton step up and steal Banjo’s momentum? Are wide receivers Charles Johnson and Myles White able to do enough to convince the Packers that they are more valuable to the team this season than Tyrone Walker? Aside from Jermichael Finley, which tight ends are worth keeping? Can Johnny Jolly have one more impactful game and make his improbable comeback complete? These are just a few of the questions that could be answered in Kansas City.

2. Many opportunities for Vince Young to shine or crumble

Practices this week would suggest that Aaron Rodgers will not play against the Chiefs. Rodgers only ran the scout-team offense, allowing Vince Young to get on the field with the rest of the starting offense.

It was widely assumed that Young was immediately given the No. 2 quarterback job this week after the Packers released Graham Harrell, but McCarthy doesn’t see it that way. Or, at least he wants Young and B.J. Coleman to think that the top spot behind Rodgers is still open.

Perhaps coincidentally, Coleman is coming off his best week of practice since being drafted by Green Bay in the seventh round last year. Coleman successfully led a two-minute drive Tuesday and had far fewer of the wobbled passes that plagued him throughout much of training camp.

Realistically, it’s Young’s job to lose. Still just 23 days removed from signing with the Packers, Young has been getting more comfortable with the playbook each day. Will that translate into on-field success? The chance for Young to get some time behind the starting offensive line and with a couple of the starting wide receivers should help him. But he’ll need to perform at a high level to put to rest any doubts that he’d be ready to take over in a regular season game should Rodgers be out.

3. Any Mason Crosby field-goal attempt will be an important one

Giorgio Tavecchio and Zach Ramirez have been released, so it would appear that Mason Crosby has won the Packers’ kicking battle. But it’s not over yet. Crosby hasn’t just been competing against Tavecchio and Ramirez. Any kicker who gets released Saturday could still be considered by Green Bay’s front office. Also, McCarthy and Thompson told Tavecchio when they cut him that there’s a scenario in which they bring him back.

If Crosby misses a field goal in Kansas City, it will be interesting to see how Packers management reacts the next day. Does an in-game miss undo all of Crosby’s positive practice work in recent days? If Crosby connects on all of his field-goal attempts against the Chiefs, is that all he needs to officially secure the job? Has Crosby already earned his spot back no matter what happens in this game?

Any appearance by Crosby will be a must-see moment.

4. The search begins for a running back to play behind (or with) Eddie Lacy

McCarthy promised that Green Bay’s running game would be better this season. However, he made that promise long before finding out that DuJuan Harris would be placed on injured reserve with a patellar tendon injury in his right knee.

McCarthy’s plan was to use Harris and rookie Eddie Lacy as a one-two punch. Harris would technically have been the starter, but Lacy would have taken over in short-yardage and goal-line situations, and also likely in games in which the Packers had taken a lead. With Harris out for the season, it may have bought another year for James Starks and Alex Green to prove themselves.

Lacy could now become Green Bay’s every-down featured running back. He was by far the team’s best blocking running back (not including fullback John Kuhn) in training camp, so he’s not a liability in that very important area.

If Johnathan Franklin, Green or Starks play well in Kansas City, perhaps McCarthy considers one of them for a new version of the one-two punch. The opportunities will be there against the Chiefs for those three running backs to show the coaching staff if they deserve to be part of the game plan heading into the regular season.

5. Starting battles to finally be determined

Don Barclay or Marshall Newhouse? It seems obvious that Barclay will emerge the winner — after all, he’s been the starting right tackle in nearly every situation in recent weeks, but McCarthy has yet to announce him as the starter for a reason. Before the third preseason game, McCarthy said that his hope was to declare a winner after the matchup with the Seattle Seahawks, but it didn’t happen. The usually good run-blocking Barclay did not perform well in that area against the Seahawks, which may have factored into McCarthy waiting another week.

Jerron McMillian or M.D. Jennings? With Morgan Burnett out with a hamstring injury, McMillian and Jennings will both start in Kansas City. A week ago, safeties coach Darren Perry said the battle was “neck and neck.” McMillian’s interception against Seattle was definitely a positive for him, but he’ll need to follow it up in this game if he’s going to beat out Jennings.

Tramon Williams, Davon House or Micah Hyde? The veteran Williams will likely emerge as the starting cornerback opposite Sam Shields, but he’ll first need to prove that he’s healthy after missing 16 practices and three preseason games. With Casey Hayward reinjuring the same hamstring that had kept him out of 15 training camp practices already, the 2012 third-place finisher in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year race may not be available to begin the regular season. If that’s the case, who becomes the nickel back? It’s between Hyde and House, unless Hayward can recover quickly.

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