Without Jordan Love, even calling Saturday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Jets an “exhibition” might have been overstating it, at least from Green Bay’s side. Only three starters according to the team’s initial depth chart suited up with 32 inactive Packers, and one of them didn’t even start this game with Lucas Patrick giving way to the impressive rookie Royce Newman. But while the game had the makings of a dud, at least for a half, the Packers offense played well, the defense flashed early, and the 2021 Packers draft class shined.
Eric Stokes, who took first team reps at right cornerback with Kevin King working his way back from injury, once again showed off his first-round pedigree in getting the start. Matt LaFleur said earlier in the week the two would be competing for the second cornerback job and while Stokes lacks King’s experience in the NFL, he already boats more reps in Joe Barry’s new defense. Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, neither of whom played Saturday, targeted the rookie throughout the start of training camp but Adams said at his press conference this week he sees.
“He’s the closest thing to Jaire (Alexander) as far as mentality and ability, from what I’ve seen so far. The kid is fast as hell. He can get beat and recover kind of like how Sam Shields would do,” Adams said.
“[Stokes] came to me after one of our practices and was like, ‘Keep getting me better, bro. Like, I appreciate this. I know you’re getting after me,’ … it almost gave me the vibe of like he was saying like, ‘I can play now. I know I just haven’t really played with you guys like that and you are two of the best in the business.’ And Matt (LaFleur) reminds him of that, too, to keep his confidence high, but he can really go, so I’m excited to see how it looks when we really open this thing up.”
Against the Texans, Stokes faced just one target and called it an early night. On his first possession against the Jets, the rookie bit on a Corey Davis outside move, getting beat on a 3rd-and-8 conversion. Then, we saw what Adams meant. Just a few plays later, the former Georgia standout came back with sticky coverage on the outside and broke up a hitch to Davis on third down to end the drive. That kind of toughness, and the memory of a goldfish as Ted Lasso would say, will put Stokes in position to grab that right corner job.
After a scant two possessions, Stokes’ day once again ended surprisingly early. For a rookie supposedly “fighting” for that starting job, the coaches don’t seem to need to see much work from him in these situations. What’s more, King counted among the 32 inactive players and missing yet another game, even a preseason contest, hurts his chances to hang onto his starting job.
Cornerback isn’t the only position with a starting spot up for grabs. Rookie Royce Newman started at right guard after Lucas Patrick’s disastrous first preseason game. Newman impressed in OTA’s and training camp with his positional versatility and steady play. On the opening drive, the Packers consistently ran to Newman’s right side, opening up lanes for second-year monster back A.J. Dillon.
Newman missed a block on Kylin Hill’s 12-yard touchdown run on the Packers’ first possession, but Hill stiff-armed the Jets defender and raced to the corner, turning it with the kind of explosiveness he’s demonstrated since he landed in Green Bay. Even without Aaron Jones, this running back room impacted the game, a stark contrast from the exhibition opener. On the first drive alone, Dillon and Hill combined for 40 yards and the score.
That would be it for Dillon, who is set to be a big part of this offense in 2021. He finished with 28 yards on four carries and resembled a dump truck with a Hemi in it, bouncing off tacklers and getting upfield. He added a pair of catches for 12 yards in a crucial bit of proof-of-concept in an offense where backs feature heavily in the passing game.
On the other side of the spectrum, Lucas Patrick got hit for two holding penalties and generally played below the standard one would expect from a 2020 starter who offered consistent play for an elite offense last season. His status on the roster may not change, but his spot on the depth chart cannot be taken for granted right now.
The latter can also be said for Equanimeous St. Brown at wide receiver, with the numbers game squeezing his chances down and him missing yet another contest with injury. This was supposed to be his chance to beat out guys like Malik Taylor, Juwann Winfree, and the flashing Devin Funchess. With Funchess and Winfree hurt, EQ had the stage but couldn’t make it to curtain. His status on the 53 now stands at “tenuous at best.”
Instead, Malik Taylor, a surprise addition to the 53 last year thanks to his special teams ability, once again pushed to sneak onto the active roster for 2021. He made a beautiful adjustment on a dime from Kurt Benkert for 23 yards to extend a drive, a week after making a couple keys catches playing with Love. He finished with four receptions and 66 yards to lead the team, and with five receiver spots all but sewn up (including the rookie Amari Rodgers who put up 4 catches for 31 yards), Taylor added to his case to be the sixth.
Benkert made a case of his own, taking advantage of his start in Love’s absence. He showed command of the offense, poise under pressure, and a cannon of an arm, firing confidently around the field against the Jets’ defensive starters. On one play, he threw so quickly and accurately in the face of a free rusher, Jace Sternberger had the ball in his lap as soon as he turned around on a stop route. He dropped that one, but later hauled in a touchdown on a dime from Benkert, capping an incredible 19-play drive.
The former Falcons QB played nearly the entire game, going 18-for-25 with a touchdown and an interception, which came on a rare misfire that he threw behind running back Patrick Taylor. Keeping three quarterbacks will be a tough sell for GM Brian Gutekunst, particularly with depth elsewhere, but this extended look at Benkert and his stellar play will put him on the radar for other teams. With quality backup quarterbacks in short supply, Green Bay faces the prospect of losing him if the team tries to sneak him through final cuts onto the practice squad. He wouldn’t have as much value as QB3 in 2021 as he could in 2022 when he could be QB2 if Aaron Rodgers no longer wears the green and gold.
Benkert eventually gave way to Jake Dolegala for the Packers’ final offensive series. Unfortunately, Dolegala threw an interception on the first play, and it will be unfortunate if that goes down as his only pass in a Packers uniform.
Meanwhile, with Josh Jackson shipped to New York’s other team, new Packers cornerback Isaac Yiadom stepped in to compete with Kabion Ento for that CB4 spot. After a stout first two possessions by the defense with the Stokes PBU and a knifing third down stop by Krys Barnes, the backups (to the backups) couldn’t hold the fort. Zach Wilson, Davis, and a slew of Jets starters made easy work thanks to miscommunication and coverage busts. Ento missed a handful of tackles and the step up in competition playing more starters looked too much for him.
One of the biggest bright spots on defense while the second and third-stringers took the field? Mammoth Day 3 defensive linemen T.J. Slaton barreled into Mike White for a sack, adding another splash play to go along with a stellar performance against the Texans getting into opposing backfields. Jack Heflin showed a strong motor and a bit of flash as well, landing a pair of hits on Jets quarterbacks.
Seeing Zach Wilson side-by-side with Jordan Love would have offered a valuable measuring stick for the Packers and, to some extent, for the Jets. Still, players had plenty on the line in a game that was more entertaining than it had any right to be. Unlike the Jets, the Packers came out mostly unscathed on the injury front and two rookies served notice that they deserve to start sooner than later. By preseason game standards, that’s about as good as it gets.