Bubble Series: Manning Needs to 'Show Up'

Maybe more than any other player, tonight's game against Kansas City means everything to linebacker Terrell Manning, the team's fifth-round draft pick. Even Manning knows the coaching staff's big question. "Am I a playmaker?"

The Green Bay Packers' preseason finale against Kansas City is all about the bubble.

By our estimation, there are six positions where roster spots are at stake: running back, wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, inside linebacker and safety.

"Make a statement," was coach Mike McCarthy's advice to those bubble players. "Define yourself, answer a question that's out there about you. Is it consistency? Is it big-play ability? There's different categories you use when you grade and evaluate players, and obviously some players do things better than others. If you can show improvement and show growth and more value, that's what you look for in these game environments."

Inside linebacker

The situation: There's little doubt who the top nine players are at linebacker.

On the outside, it's Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Dezman Moses and Erik Walden. On the inside, it's A.J. Hawk, D.J. Smith and Robert Francois. Swing players Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore are core players on special teams and would be surprise cuts.

Standing at No. 10 is Terrell Manning, a fifth-round pick who the Packers aggressively selected by dealing away three draft picks.

Manning is the supreme bubble player heading into tonight's game. He's not going to dislodge Francois or Lattimore for one of the backup slots on the inside. To make the team, he'll have to show he's more important than, say, a ninth or 10th offensive lineman, a fifth back or a sixth receiver.

"The big one would probably be: Am I playmaker? Am I still that playmaker I was at NC State?" Manning said when relayed McCarthy's "answer a question" comment. "That's what everyone's wondering, but I've had a lot to learn."

For Manning, the challenge has been as much mental as physical. The Packers placed him at A.J. Hawk's position, meaning Manning is in charge of running the huddle and calling the checks.

"I've got to make sure all of my guys know what they're doing," he said. "I'm also the first person to know the call, so I'm in charge of getting everyone lined up. It's definitely accelerated my (learning) curve as well as getting me adjusted to just about anything. There's nothing that they can throw at me that I don't really know."

In limited action, Manning has three tackles on defense and two on special teams. At North Carolina State, he was one of the top playmaking linebackers in the nation. In 24 stars as a sophomore in 2010 and a junior in 2011, Manning recorded 10.5 sacks, four interceptions, four forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. That's an intriguing skill-set for an inside linebacker group that lost its best playmaker, Desmond Bishop, to a season-ending hamstring injury.

Of course, Manning was a focal point of the Wolfpack's scheme, just like Bishop was a focal point of the Packers' scheme. Manning is a long way from earning that kind of freedom.

"It comes down to knowing exactly what you've got to do and knowing your role on the defense," he said. "At State, I was able to make those plays but I also knew exactly what I was doing. It's hard to hold back that temptation, but you know what? On Thursday, if it's in my area, I plan on going and getting it. If I mess up, I'm going to mess up full speed."

Making a play is exactly what inside linebackers coach Winston Moss needs to see.

"I want to see him give a supreme effort (and) attack the line of scrimmage," Moss said. "When opportunity presents itself, tackle with impact. When opportunity presents itself with the rush or pass principles, be impactful. Make some plays if the opportunity presents itself. He hasn't had a lot of plays (in the first three games). So, based upon an increased number of plays, we've got to see some production. Show up."

The prediction: The Packers likely keep six defensive linemen and 10 defensive backs. If they release Manning and keep nine linebackers, they'd have a perfect 25-25 defense-offense split. Keeping Manning would make it 26 on defense and 24 on offense, which certainly isn't out of balance. The Packers love linebackers and tight ends because their size, speed and comfort in space make them excellent special teams players. A job is Manning's to win on Thursday.

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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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