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5 things to watch for in the Packers-49ers preseason matchup

We need the special teams to look competent. We need it desperately.

Green Bay Packers vs Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers will finally hit the field on Friday to play the San Francisco 49ers in Levi’s Stadium. Well, at least some of them will. The “veteran select” (virtually all the non-offensive line starters) won’t be playing and we may not see them in the preseason at all, based on how the team has treated the preseason under head coach Matt LaFleur’s tenure.

With that in mind, let’s go through five areas of the team where gains or losses could be made this preseason. Roster spots and contributing roles will be on the line on Friday, even if you have to dig a bit to unearth where they lay. As a reminder, the Packers will have to cut down their 90-man roster to an 85-man roster by Tuesday, meaning this is the only opportunity some of these players will have to showcase their talents.

#1) Receiver playing time

Between Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs and Randall Cobb, the Packers have five virtual roster locks at the wide receiver position. Lazard, Watkins and Cobb were among the players pulled aside after practice on Wednesday, the group that is thought to be LaFleur’s list of the “veteran select” who will not play against the 49ers.

If that’s the case, the focus of the preseason at the receiver position is going to be who can make it on the squad as the sixth, or maybe even seventh, receiver. On Family Night last Friday, Doubs had 16 snaps with “the ones” while Juwann Winfree and Amari Rodgers recorded seven and five, respectively. Assuming that Watson (PUP, knee) doesn’t return from injury by kickoff, that trio will be the top pass-catching group out on the field for backup quarterback Jordan Love, who will start against San Francisco.

Winfree has been practicing with the first team for most of training camp while Rodgers has been working with the second team. If Rodgers really is the team’s seventh receiver option, when everyone is healthy, and doesn’t win a job as a returner on special teams, the former third-round pick’s roster spot is at real risk when the team cuts down their roster to 53 at the end of this month.

Beyond the biggest three names, four other receivers, Malik Taylor, Samori Toure, Danny Davis and Ishmael Hyman, have an opportunity to make their case, too. Taylor, who has been dealing with a shoulder injury, and Toure, a 2022 seventh-round pick, are speedy vertical receivers who could make this year’s team as non-returning special teams players. Davis and Hyman, both new additions this offseason, have seen some reps as return men in practice.

#2) The quality of the offensive line

With starters David Bakhtiari (knee) and Elgton Jenkins (knee) still on the physically unable to perform list, the expected starting offensive line is (left to right) Yosh Nijman, Jon Runyan Jr., Josh Myers, Jake Hanson and Royce Newman. Rookie fourth-round pick Zach Tom has worked in at right tackle with the first-stringers and it’ll be interesting to see if the team elects to rotate their offensive line while the bullets are live.

The offensive line has struggled at times in camp, but had one of their best days of practice on Wednesday, their final practice leading up to the matchup against the 49ers. Keeping tabs on how well the big nasties up front hold up will be something we’re going to be able to take out of this game.

On the second team, third-round rookie Sean Rhyan and second-year player Cole Van Lanen, who is expected to make the team at this rate, are players to focus on.

#3) Edge rusher depth

It’s hard to get a feel for what the Packers have behind Rashan Gary and Preston Smith, who won’t play against San Francisco, at the outside linebacker position. Randy Ramsey (ankle) has not fully returned to practice from the injury that ended his 2021 season last August. Jonathan Garvin and La’Darius Hamilton seem to be the team’s second-string players, but that is not always the case.

On Family Night, Garvin, Hamilton and rookie fifth-rounder Kingsley Enagbare all got six snaps a piece with “the ones” while Kobe Jones, surprisingly, got four looks with the first-stringers. Still, Tipa Galeai has been practicing with “the ones” as a backup outside linebacker for most of camp, even if he was with the third-stringers on Family Night.

No one is worried about the starters, with Gary having a spectacular camp, but should one of them go down, the next man up is a pretty sizable question mark. Hopefully, these preseason games turn into opportunities for a couple of these outside linebackers to set themselves apart from the pack.

#4) Secondary rotations

None of the Packers’ starting defensive backs in their nickel formation will play against the 49ers as Jaire Alexander, Eric Stokes, Rasul Douglas, Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage appear to be on the “veteran select” list. The safety position, specifically, has developed into an interesting race for roster spots as Vernon Scott, a former Green Bay draft pick, replaced Savage following a hamstring injury on Family Night. Prior to that practice, Shawn Davis, a member of the 2021 Packers, had seen playing time as the defense’s third safety, but has seemingly been jumped on the depth chart.

Along with Davis and Scott, Dallin Leavitt also got some playing time with “the ones” on Family Night. Leavitt, like rookie draft pick Tariq Carpenter, is expected to contribute as a special teams ace if he makes the roster. If the Packers only keep four safeties, there’s a good chance that one of those spots will be allocated for a special teams player, meaning there will be only one true safety backup on the team.

At cornerback, Keisean Nixon is returning from injury and is expected to be the team’s fourth cornerback who can play inside, outside and on special teams. Prior to him returning to practice, though, Shemar Jean-Charles and Rico Gafford, two players who should also contribute on special teams if they make the 53, were the next men up. On Family Night, Jean-Charles kicked inside to the slot in the lone rep with “the ones” that he was playing in nickel personnel, as Gafford and Kiondre Thomas — who has apparently jumped Kabion Ento on the depth chart — lined up outside.

Cornerback is going to be a numbers game. If the team keeps six, they might not have to keep a seventh receiver, the special teams role that Taylor has played in the past. If the team keeps seven receivers, though, that might only leave five roster spots at cornerback, with the way the special teams snap counts work.

#5) Everything special teams

The special teams have been improving, but they aren’t perfect just yet. The long snappers have struggled, which led to the release of 2021 starter Steven Wirtel on Thursday. The team also decided to work out two long snappers late in the week. Rookie long snapper Jack Coco, by way of a rookie minicamp tryout, will be the only player at the position on Friday and will have all eyes on him on every punt and kick.

Rookie kicker Gabe Brkic has struggled as an injury replacement for Mason Crosby (PUP, knee), leading to the team also working out several kickers in the past week, too. In the return game, Rodgers, Doubs, Gafford, Hyman and Davis are expected to handle punts and kicks in Week 1 of the preseason. A starter at either position has yet to be named yet, but that group of players, sans Doubs, is made up of guys who will need to win a returning job to make the 2022 squad.