With the Green Bay Packers taking the field for a real game for the first time on Thursday night, the 2015 season finally feels like it is upon us. The matchup against the New England Patriots provides the first game action with which Ted Thompson and company can begin to sift through the roster and identify the players who will go from the 90-man roster (which currently sits at 87 players) down to 75 and eventually 53 on September 5th.
We have identified five positions which we will be keenly watching on Thursday night, as players on the lower rungs of the depth chart prepare for extended looks and opportunities to prove that they belong on the regular season roster.
After the Packers struggles at backup quarterback in 2013, the team brought Matt Flynn back for 2014 to help Scott Tolzien back up Aaron Rodgers last season. Now, Flynn is gone and Tolzien is expected to be the #2 man, and by all accounts his command of the offense and mechanics have improved drastically since his two starts in 2013 and even since last preseason.
Meanwhile, rookie Brett Hundley had two very good practices this week and has been showing the signs of improvement that you look for in a young rookie quarterback. If his improvement carries over into this week's game and through the rest of the preseason, it will likely take a superstar effort from Matt Blanchard in his game action to make the Packers even consider cutting Hundley loose.
The top four already appear to be locked in, but Packers fans should be excited to see what rookie Ty Montgomery can do in his first live action on Thursday night. Look for him to be involved early and often on both offense and special teams; we expect that the coaching staff will want to expose him to lots of different scenarios to see if his success in practice will translate into the game.
Behind Montgomery, we continue to look for another young receiver or two to truly break out as a 5th or 6th option. Myles White has arguably had the most consistent camp of the rest of the wideouts, with Jeff Janis showing flashes but also some inconsistent hands. Jared Abbrederis continues to sit as he goes through the concussion protocol, so if one of those two (or someone else) can impress against the Patriots, that will give them the early edge for a roster spot.
The pass rushers will be fascinating to watch not just because of the young talent at the position but also because of the stream of injuries that has affected the depth there early in camp. Yes, several players were able to return to practice this week, but the Packers are traditionally very cautious with injuries in the preseason, especially to veterans.
Beyond the veterans, an intriguing group of youngsters is looking for a breakout like Jayrone Elliott's last year. Adrian Hubbard, Jermauria Rasco, and James Vaughters each bring different qualities to the position, but all will be given opportunities to show off their skills and make people take notice of them.
This is an easy one to identify, as the Clay Matthews experiment inside continues. Dom Capers certainly won't give much away, though, and with Matthews missing practice time last week with a sore knee, he probably won't play more than a series or two on Thursday. Instead, watching to see which players take first team reps in his place (probably Nate Palmer) and how they perform in that role will be fun to watch.
Personally, I will be keeping a close eye on the expected second-team unit of Carl Bradford and Jake Ryan. Both fourth-round picks should see extensive snaps, and we will be curious to see how they hold up in coverage.
First-round pick Damarious Randall has had a nice start to camp, but a groin injury has his availability for Thursday in question. Between the trio of Randall, second-round pick Quinten Rollins, and undrafted free agent LaDarius Gunter, the Packers have intriguing options at every cornerback position. Watching where each player is used (both what positions and what sub packages) will be interesting in and of itself, and they will finally have the chance to test themselves under the lights.
So far, Randall and Gunter have been working primarily on the outside, with Rollins mainly in the slot. We'll follow along with that as Thursday's game goes along.