Breaking Down the Remaining Roster Battles

We take a look at five positions in light of Thursday's preseason finale and Saturday's final cuts. We lead off with the big battle at outside linebacker. Frank So'oto figures to make the team, but who will join him on the depth chart with Clay Matthews and Erik Walden?

The Green Bay Packers closed the preseason with a 20-19 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. The result, however, was of secondary importance for coach Mike McCarthy. With the roster needing to be trimmed from 80 players to 53 by Saturday, he was all too happy to see his reserves battle the Chiefs' starters for most of the night.

"I think it's exactly what you want," McCarthy said after Thursday's game at Lambeau Field. "I mean, you see the younger players play against the more experienced units of the opponent. With that, it'll give us as good an evaluation that we've ever had, frankly. The number of plays that the younger players played throughout this preseason, would be safe to say, is the highest in my time here in Green Bay. As I stated over and over again, the No. 1 priority is to pick the right 53, and I feel we've hit the targets of trying to create as much information and create enough opportunities for these younger and newer players to be a part of our football team. So, we've got a lot of work to do over these next 24 hours."

Who stays and who goes? Here's a look at the top remaining roster battles.

Outside linebackers: The Packers desperately need another playmaker to line up with Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji in their defensive front seven. Incredibly, after finding Frank Zombo last year, general manager Ted Thompson might have hit the undrafted jackpot again with Frank So'oto. So'oto wasn't perfect — he got pinned to the inside on a couple of running plays and said he should have had at least another sack — but with 2.5 sacks against starting offensive tackles the last two games, his preseason performance appears be the real deal.

"Oh, man, I bet you it would feel like being drafted in the first round, I guess," So'oto said of his reaction if he makes the roster. "Being able to be a part of a team — and especially a storied tradition over here with all of the Super Bowl championships and especially last year's Super Bowl championship — it would be great to be out here. It would be great to be a part of the city and going to more farmers markets that we went to a couple of days ago. It was a blast."

The question is, who joins Matthews, starter Erik Walden and So'oto on the 45-man gameday roster with Zombo out with a broken shoulder blade? All along, I've thought it would be Brad Jones simply because he's a veteran who's proven he can play when the games count. However, So'oto has thoroughly outplayed Jones the last two weeks. Based on special teams, if the Packers keep another outside linebacker, Jamari Lattimore appears to have a leg up on Jones — meaning the Packers would go into the season with two undrafted rookies backing up Matthews and Walden. That's kind of a scary proposition. Then again, so was going with Zombo as a starter after Jones went down last year.

Secondary: The Packers will keep nine or 10, with cornerbacks Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, safeties Nick Collins and Morgan Burnett, and cornerback/safety/special teams ace Jarrett Bush the locks. Veteran safety Charlie Peprah probably is, too. Fourth-round pick Davon House, despite a sprained ankle, probably makes it as a fourth-round pick who has shown some cover ability. That's eight. The other choices are cornerbacks Pat Lee, Josh Gordy and Brandian Ross and safeties Brandon Underwood and M.D. Jennings. The physical Lee has been a No. 1 on all four special teams throughout camp and came up big in the Super Bowl when Woodson and Shields were injured.

"In this defense, our corners have got to tackle," Lee said. "Making plays like that and being physical, that's a big thing in this defense."

Problem is, as far as cornerbacks go, his weakness is coverage — which is no small matter. Gordy has more potential but offers less on special teams. None of the safeties deserve it, so Lee is No. 9 and, if they keep 10 because of House's injury, Gordy is No. 10.

Offensive line: The starting lineup looks like a strength but the depth is a tremendous liability. After the No. 1 offense went 56 yards for a touchdown, the backups managed a woeful 66 yards and four first downs in the final 10 possessions. Take Ryan Grant's strong performance with the first team out of the equation, and the running backs gained 42 yards on 14 carries. Quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Graham Harrell were under constant pressure.

"When a defensive lineman runs right through to the quarterback, that's not the way it's supposed to go," McCarthy said.

First-round pick Derek Sherrod struggled at left guard and hasn't performed well at left tackle since losing the guard battle to T.J. Lang, due in part to a knee injury he's battling through. Second-year center/guard Nick McDonald cost the team a safety with a bad shotgun snap and was flagged for a false start. Sixth-round pick Caleb Schlauderaff has been demoted to the third team.

At this point, it would be a surprise if the Packers didn't sign or acquire a lineman or two.

Tight ends: Jermichael Finley is the starter but who joins him on the depth chart? Seventh-round pick Ryan Taylor looks like a lock because of his play on special teams — which is why they drafted him — and his surprisingly strong play on offense. Tom Crabtree is a gritty blocker and special teams demon who barely played in the second half — a sign that he, too, isn't going anywhere. After a slow start to camp, Andrew Quarless finished with a flourish at practice and played well on Thursday. But what about fifth-round pick D.J. Williams? The Mackey Award winner started camp with a bang but has been so-so the last few weeks. While he's a capable receiver, he's a major liability as a blocker. If the Packers need to keep an extra wide receiver or outside linebacker to cover some injuries, Williams might be the odd man out as the Packers keep "only" four tight ends.

Fullback: In each of the past two years, McCarthy took the unconventional route of keeping three fullbacks. This year, he'll possibly only keep versatile John Kuhn. Korey Hall signed with New Orleans in the offseason and Quinn Johnson has done little to distinguish himself as a lead blocker or on special teams. Twice on Thursday, the Packers went with their inverted wishbone with one of the tight ends serving as a fullback.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.


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