With one preseason game left and the starters expected to play only a series or two, the focus of Thursday night's contest against Tennessee will be the battles for the last handful of spots on the 53-man roster.
Final cuts must be made by Saturday afternoon, and perhaps this year more than any other in the Ted Thompson-Mike McCarthy era, the Packers will be forced to let go some quality football players who may end up on other teams' rosters before too long.
Here's a quick look at the positions where many of the final roster decisions are unsettled heading into Thursday's game:
[ul]Beyond the top four of Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, Brady Poppinga and Brandon Chillar, the Packers have three other linebackers - Desmond Bishop, Abdul Hodge and Tracy White - who have proven they're NFL-caliber players.
But how many linebackers the Packers will keep is the key question. Keeping all seven would be a significant departure from the norm, but not out of the question. If the final number is six, it becomes a difficult choice.
Bishop missed the first two preseason games with an Achilles injury but made an impact against Denver, recording three tackles, including one for loss. He and Hodge, who is finally healthy after battling knee problems his first two years, both back up Barnett in the middle, but Bishop has been taking snaps at outside linebacker lately in an effort to test his versatility.
"I think the linebacker position is a position where you can move guys around fairly easily, quite frankly," General Manager Ted Thompson said. "There are certain strengths each player has, but we think both those guys are good players and should factor somewhere."
Meanwhile White is the most veteran player of the bunch and the most accomplished on special teams, which all backup linebackers must be able to play. From scrimmage, he's also played in the goal-line package in the past.[/ul]
[ul]The team's deepest position a year ago has been the one most hit by injuries this year. With Justin Harrell now on the reserve/physically unable to perform list and out for at least the first six weeks, it's imperative that Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly get fully healthy.
Those two, along with Colin Cole, seem to be the only veteran locks to make the roster, but more depth is needed. Will Daniel Muir, Conrad Bolston, Alfred Malone or new arrival Rodney Allen make a big statement on Thursday night and lay claim to a backup role? None has stood out statistically in the first three preseason games. Or will this position become last year's running back spot, where Thompson traded for halfback Ryan Grant and claimed fullback John Kuhn off waivers right after the final cutdown?[/ul]
[ul]The No. 4 spot, behind Nick Collins, Atari Bigby and Aaron Rouse, remains unsettled here. Charlie Peprah was off to a great start in camp, throwing his weight around with some big hits, before a hamstring injury sidelined him. He hasn't played in any preseason games and won't play this week, so he'll have to hope his accomplishments on special teams and as a fill-in safety last year hold his spot.
Tyrone Culver came back from spending all of last year in injured reserve with a shoulder injury and has one final opportunity on Thursday to overtake Peprah.
For additional depth, cornerback Jarrett Bush has taken several snaps at safety both in practice and during games, increasing his chances of holding a spot in a talented defensive backfield that includes five virtual roster locks (Al Harris, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Will Blackmon and Pat Lee) who play strictly cornerback on defense.[/ul]
[ul]James Jones' sprained knee and uncertain status for the start of the season leave open the possibility that the Packers might keep a sixth receiver as insurance behind Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Jones, Ruvell Martin and rookie Jordy Nelson.
But there's really no front-runner right now among the rookie group of Brett Swain, Johnny Quinn, Taj Smith and Jake Allen, creating an opportunity for someone to step forward on Thursday.
"All these young guys are going to play quite a bit," receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said. "It's competitive, obviously, between the final positions and practice squad. I don't think any final decisions have been made on anything."
Statistically, it's been a wash thus far, with Quinn and Allen catching three passes apiece in the preseason, and Swain and Smith two each. The longest reception by any of them went for 13 yards, by Quinn.
Special teams contributions are always a factor in these final decisions, but with this rookie group in particular, there's also a need to see who's ready to contribute consistently at this level.
"We just want to see guys come out and make plays, and have a minimum of mistakes," Robinson said. "We're looking to see who can do it, under the big lights, and make plays under the pressure of that situation."[/ul]
[ul]Like many of the positions mentioned here, this is a numbers question. After Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson, the Packers feel they have quality depth in Vernand Morency, Noah Herron and Kregg Lumpkin, but is there room for five halfbacks? All have shown flashes of productivity in camp and in the preseason games, prompting the release of DeShawn Wynn in the first round of cuts on Monday.
Unlike last year, Morency and Herron are fully healthy, and as fourth-year players they're the elder statesmen in this crew. Lumpkin is the only one who's eligible for the practice squad, but as the team's leading rusher this preseason (28 carries, 126 yards, 1 TD), there's no telling whether he'd clear waivers, and whether the Packers are willing to risk losing him.
"The positive thing is they're all healthy," McCarthy said. "I think a number of them have played as well as I've ever seen them. It's a really good group top to bottom."[/ul]
I think WR is pretty much set with Driver, Jennings, Jones, Martin and Nelson.