Heading into Thursday night’s final preseason game, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said he and general manager Brian Gutekunst had a feel for where the roster would be going, but insisted jobs could still be won or lost in Week 4 of exhibition season. James Crawford, Raven Greene, and Robert Tonyan proved this point last year and at least two of them will be important rotation players in Green Bay in 2019.
Markus Jones, a former standout from Angelo State, made his case to be next. The D-II leader in tackles for loss last season forced a Ty Summers interception with a big hit, recovered a fumble, and battled a ball at the line. With the departure of Reggie Gilbert via trade, the Packers currently feature just four outside linebackers and could very well sneak Jones onto the 53-man roster.
On offense, Dexter Williams showed up to Lambeau Thursday in a fight for his job with Tra Carson. The sixth-round pick from Notre Dame put up his best game of his young career, including a couple nice plays in the passing game and a rushing touchdown. Carson may still be running ahead of Williams, but there was enough on the field from a talent perspective to get the former Notre Dame back on the roster. He finished with 11 touches for 64 yards and the score, and it just might have buoyed him from fringe roster guy/practice squad hopeful to legitimate guy for 2019.
Not all personnel machinations coming out of preseason Week 4 happen on the margins though. Kinglsey Keke, a fifth-round pick destined to make the team, starred against the Chiefs, finishing with a pair of tackles, a sack, and a PBU. He consistently won his matchup and looks like DL4 right now considering his positional versatility. He can play inside or outside—his sack came as a traditional DE—and has far more pass rush than someone like Tyler Lancaster. He wasn’t fighting to make the roster, but a game like this could force the Packers to put him on the field more than they originally intended.
No position battle took up more oxygen among Packers fans than the backup quarterback battle heading into Thursday night’s game. Tim Boyle, who started his second straight game, struggled amid pressure—his fatal flaw to this point in his career—and finished 3/6 for 18 yards. His touchdown pace to Jace Sternberger came on beautiful design from LaFleur on a tight end leak play across the formation. One thing we say emphatically about this offense: it’s going to scheme the tight ends open.
DeShone Kizer opened his stint heading the offense with a dime down the right sideline to Teo Redding that fell incomplete when Redding couldn’t track it. Later in the drive, miscommunication between Kizer and J’Mon Moore led to an interception. Moore settled in a soft spot of the zone, while Kizer threw it the ball like he expected Moore to continue his route across the field.
But on the next drive, Kizer came back, putting together arguably the best drive by a Packers quarterback all season. His 12-play 81-yard drive ended in a floated touchdown pass to backup tight end Evan Baylis, in because Jace Sternberger left the game briefly with an injury. Kizer converted 3rd-and-8 and 3rd-and-4 on the drive, plus hit the aforementioned Redding across the middle of the field on a laser for 20 yards.
The second-year Packer finished just 8/15 for 77 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but a handful of drops marred an otherwise impressive night. If the battle was close, Kizer won the night and perhaps the job with his performance. His ability to create with his legs, as well as his fit in this offense—Boyle would have been a better fit for Mike McCarthy’s shotgun, spread approach—may give him the slight edge. On the other hand, three quarterbacks remains very much in play if the fringe roster guys don’t impress Brian Gutekunst and company.
Questions about how many receivers and which ones make the roster percolated immediately in training camp with fringe guys like Allen Lazard and Darrius Shepherd impressing early. Lazard remains out with a concussion, missing Thursday’s game, and could end up being an IR stash. Shepherd didn’t do anything spectacular in the game (1 catch, 3 yards) and fumbled the ball on a kick return. With Equanimeous St. Brown out for the foreseeable future, Shepherd had a chance to solidify his spot and couldn’t come up with it.
Speaking of not feeling great, the Packers can’t be confident about going into the regular season with just two healthy inside linebackers. A 74-yard pick-six from Ty Summers off pressure from Jones should ease some fears about his ability to be a playmaker in the passing game, though. At 6-foot-1, 240 with a 4.51 40, Summers may not have natural feel in coverage, but he absolutely has the speed and athleticism to do something.
Meanwhile, the only starting position still up for grabs as Week 1 of the regular season approaches was left guard where rookie Elgton Jenkins played well enough to push incumbent Lane Taylor. LaFleur took any suspense out of that decision before the game even arrived, telling WMTJ radio, “It’s going to be a competition throughout the season, but right now Lane Taylor is the starter.” Green Bay could be posturing, hoping someone will send them draft assets (or an ILB perhaps?) for Taylor. On the other hand, the Packers open the season against guys like Akiem Hicks and Linval Joseph. Having a steady hand at guard, where Taylor has experience with this group and was still one of the best pass-blocking guards in football last season, provides considerable value even if Jenkins has more upside.
There will be questions about whether or not it was prudent to avoid playing Aaron Rodgers in the preseason, although Mitch Trubisky didn’t throw a pass either and four other entrenched starters didn’t play. Preseason’s final week offers a chance for fringe players to make or miss out on the roster, not a final tuneup for the regular season. Now, the wailing and gnashing of teeth should be over. They’re on to Chicago.
Before that happens though, the team must make final decisions on these players, chopping 89 guys down to 53 by Friday afternoon. In all, roughly 1,100 players will be out of work by the time happy hour specials start. Nearly 40 will have played in Green Bay and some will be back on the practice squad. Markus Jones, Teo Redding and Chandon Sullivan headline a group of players who the Packers would love to fly under the radar enough to slide onto the practice squad if they can’t make the 53.
For fringe roster guys like Jones, the hard part is over. They made their case on the field, whether it’s for LaFleur and the Packers or somewhere else. No doubt, some of these players will end up on other NFL teams, while others will end up in Canada or the arena league, with Thursday signaling their final run at an NFL career.
The end of August signals the end of summer and as the cool breeze blows through the Midwest, heralding autumn’s arrival, so too the winds of change howl at 1265 Lombardi Avenue. The lives of three dozen men will change forever, and for another 53, it will mean the chance to put on the Green and Gold in 2019.
Finally, fall is here. For some, it will feel like winter.