Ten Things I'll Be Watching For in the Preseason OpenerPosted:Aug 10th, 2015 5:38 pm
We're about set to start the four week grind where the main aspiration is to get through them without injuries to any significant players. As we see every year, it's not possible (Bulaga and Raji are only the most recent casualties). So knowing that health is the main thing we want to see, here are ten other things I'll be focusing on in Foxborough.
1. Somebody better check the damn footballs before the game. OK, that was a bonus. Here we go.
1. Mike McCarthy on the sidelines, sans headset. This is the first game PPC (post play calling). It is bound to feel very strange for the Pack's head coach. OK, maybe he'll still wear a headset, but he won't be calling the plays. Not a big deal in the preseason, but it's the most significant storyline for this team heading into the season. I have little doubt that Tom Clements will handle the job seamlessly, particularly since Aaron Rodgers is afforded significant input as he steps up to the line before each play. But McCarthy will need to figure out what to do during the game. How much to communicate with Dom Capers and Ron Zook. The preseason should allow him to start to get comfortable in his new gamely shoes.
2. Special Teams. Speaking of Zook, he takes over a unit that finished dead last in the league last year and was singularly responsible for the loss in Seattle. Is Zook up to the challenge? I have my doubts. What I don't doubt is that each unit will look significantly different from a year ago. There's a competition at punter (update: Packers cut Mandell on Monday) and rookie Ty Montgomery will look to secure the kick returner position. The Packers are younger at key special teams positions like the secondary, LB and WR. The preseason will provide much needed reps as the four units start to come together.
3. Raji's Return. Don't know how much he'll play, but BJ Raji's return from injury should bolster the defensive line this season. He's playing for a contract and all reports out of Titletown indicate that he looks good and is hungry (I mean look at him, of course he's hungry). With a couple of line mates suspended for the first game or two, Raji will be counted on to complement Mike Daniels and fortify the defense's front line. Looking forward to watch the big man shake off the rust.
4. The wide receiver battle, after the top three. It's probably safe to say third round pick Montgomery will be the #4 receiver, but what happens after that? We all thought second year guys Janis and Abbrederis would step up and claim their roster spots, but so fat that has not happened. With the starters likely to get very little action, those two guys need to start making plays. Right now, Myles White is the #5 guy. But he plays mostly inside like Cobb and Montgomery, so Janis or one of the underrated guys has a chance to earn an outside spot. Can't see the team carrying six unless a couple of guys really step up in the next month. That means a bunch of guys could be fighting for one roster spot, barring injury.
5. Tolzien's Command. For the first time, Scott Tolzien enters a season as the unquestioned backup. Since Rodgers is no lock to get through 16 games unscathed, Tolzien needs to show that he's ready to prove he's a worthy understudy to the MVP. He's been with McCarthy for enough time that progress needs to be evident. He'll get plenty of playing time in the preseason to show us. Rookie Brett Hundley and Matt Blanchard will also see duty, but Hundley sounds like he's nowhere near ready. Blanchard will likely outplay him and earn a roster spot somewhere else.
6. The Rookie Corners. Let's face it, most of us watch preseason games to see the rookies for the first time. When the season ends, we gear up for the draft and then once the team has its new players and we hear all about what they can do, we want to see for ourselves. The Pack's first two picks are guys with not a ton of experience at cornerback, so we should get a good long look at Damarius Randall and Quentin Rollins. Randall looks like he'll step into the dime corner spot, which means he's an injury away from being on the field about half the time. Since he was drafted, we've heard he has a nose for the ball--I'm looking forward to seeing how he holds up. Rollins likely won't be counted on much this season, but these four games will be huge for a guy who two years ago played basketball only in college.
7. The Linebacker Mess. Injuries have hit the outside linebacker position. What? Nick Perry and Mike Neal are hurt? Shocking. Clay Matthews' knee is also a concern, though we should hear more about that as the week goes on. It's likely all three will miss the preseason opener, so we'll see a lot from Andy Mulumba (back from the ACL), Jayrone Elliott and Adrian Hubbard. With the starters' injury history, there's a real opportunity for one or two of them, if they can be productive. On the inside, the Packers list Sam Barrington and Nate Palmer (!) as the starters. We know Matthews will be inside a lot in base coverage as well, but they need to show something, with rookie Jake Ryan lurking behind them, along with Carl Bradford, Josh Francis and Joe Thomas. The depth chart inside could be kind of volatile over the next four weeks.
8. Brett Hundley. OK, as I said earlier, he appears to be miles away from being ready to run an offense. But the most surprising move the Pack made on draft weekend was trading up for the former UCLA QB, a guy who some thought would be a first round pick a year or two ago. I don't know how much time he'll get in the first game, but I want to see what he looks like. A couple of years of tutoring from McCarthy, Alex Van Pelt and Rodgers could do wonders. His athletic ability is off the charts and he appears to be an eager learner. A nice combination.
9. Year Two for Richard Rodgers. It's trendy to say the Pack is rock solid in 10 of the 11 offensive positions, but the tight end is a black hole. Rodgers has a chance in the preseason to remind folks that he's just getting started and is feeling a lot more comfortable in his second season. He is earning Aaron Rodgers' trust in the red zone and with Andrew Quarless' potential suspension looming, he could have a much more productive season than most predict. With defenses trying to account for Lacy, Nelson, Cobb and Adams, Rodgers will have a chance to make a lot of plays. The preseason is a good time to give him reps and get him the ball.
10. The Rise of Rip. One of the interesting roster battles may come down to Pro Bowl FB and fan favorite John Kuhn vs. rookie Aaron Ripkowski. The team could end up keeping both, if they don't keep three tailbacks. But Ripkowski has an opportunity to be on the receiving end of the passing of the torch if he can show off his blocking abilities in the preseason. He's off to a slow start, but should get ample opportunities, starting Thursday night to show he belongs.
Now, for those wondering, "Packer Preview" returns for a 20th season on KFAN on Sunday, September 13th from 7-8am (and podcastable at kfan.com and iTunes). Also we will have a Packer viewing party on Sunday, August 23rd at the Park Tavern in St. Louis Park to watch the Pack against the Steelers at noon. Hope to see some of you there.