The hottest battle, however, might be at outside linebacker.
After that is where the true intrigue exists.
Throughout training camp, the No. 3 tandem has been Nate Palmer and Andy Mulumba. On Friday night, however, coach Mike McCarthy kept Palmer and Mulumba on the bench until the final series, electing instead to go with the rookie tandem of fourth-round pick Carl Bradford and ascending undrafted free agent Jayrone Elliott for most of the second half.
“As I stated early in the week, there’s going to be more people involved earlier, trying to work different combinations, different rotations,” McCarthy said. “That’s really one of those situations right there – give some of the younger players work against the opponent’s first and second group.”
Bradford has been a major disappointment but the Packers are giving him every chance to earn a roster spot. In a special-team shakeup, Bradford worked with the No. 1 punt unit and the No. 1 punt return unit. And, other than the opening kickoff, Bradford worked with the No. 1s on kickoff, too.
The problem is, Bradford simply hasn’t produced. After a quiet training camp, he tallied one tackle against the Raiders.
The Packers could release Bradford, though, given his big-play pedigree at Arizona State, it would be a surprise if he’d clear waivers and return on the practice squad. So, a tough decision might be at hand. Do the Packers keep Bradford as the 53rd player on the roster, even if he isn’t among the top 53 players, to try to make it work at outside linebacker? Do they keep him and move him to inside linebacker, like they’ve done successfully with Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore? Inside linebacker, the NFL’s head scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas said before and after the draft, would be Bradford’s best position.
“It’s more of a process with Bradford,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said this week. “If a guy doesn’t necessarily flash or make the plays that we anticipate him making, is that a sign that something is wrong? I wouldn’t go that far. He’s a guy that’s done a great job learning the defense, understanding exactly what he’s supposed to do. I think that that’s probably absorbed him. At some point in time, I think that what he can do, his skill-set, all that stuff is going to show up and we’re going to get a really good evaluation of what he can do. He’s working hard, he’s doing some good things, he’s showing his skill-set. At some point, he’s going to give us a really good understanding of what he can do.”
Elliott, who played 3-4 outside linebacker at Toledo, had another powerful performance. After producing three sacks in a span of four plays at St. Louis, Elliott had one sack and broke up a pass against the Raiders. Even though he has outperformed Bradford – and probably Palmer and Mulumba – the team might be able to bring back Elliott to the practice squad, since teams will still rely on their college grades, even with NFL tape to study.
As for Palmer and Mulumba, they’re as much on the bubble as Bradford and Elliott. Palmer was a No. 1 on three of four special teams on Friday; special teams, obviously, will be a determining factor on the fifth and sixth players on the depth chart. Mulumba brings a rugged presence against the run, though he was a No. 1 on just one special-teams unit.
Thursday’s preseason game against Kansas City will be vital, since Matthews and Peppers might not play and there’s little reason to play Neal and Perry much, if at all, either.
“I think it’s the deepest group we’ve had since I’ve been here,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said this week. “That’s kind of been a work in progress. Last year, you guys saw how fast things can change (due to injuries). We got real thin at that position to where you had Andy Mulumba as an undrafted free agent play about 400 snaps and Nate Palmer, a late draft pick, play about 200 snaps. Now those guys are back and they’ve got that experience under their belt, where a year ago, they didn’t have the experience playing but had to go out and play for us. We’ve got more guys there, which you need them because you see how fast we go through them sometimes.”
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.