Down to the wire

PackerReport.com's Todd Korth comments on the favorites in the battles for key backup positions and starting spots in the Packers' training camp

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy will need all of this week and Thursday night's preseason game at Tennessee to determine which players to keep and which to part with by Sept. 1. As it stands, the Packers have ongoing battles at a handful of positions that will go down to the 3 p.m. (CDT) deadline.

How some players perform this week in practice and against the Titans Thursday could make all the difference.

"We're trying to give every player an opportunity to win a spot on our football team," said McCarthy. "There's a lot of players that have done everything we've asked and have performed, and are showing improvement. That's part of being so young of a football team."

The Packers must reduce their roster to the NFL-mandated 53 players by this Saturday. The majority of starting positions on offense and defense have been set, though, there are still a few battles in process. Soon after Thursday's preseason finale, Thompson and McCarthy will have to decide the fate of the following players, who will serve the team as starters, reserves, practice squad invitees, or be placed on waivers:

Safety: Atari Bigby vs. Marquand Manuel
Bigby is expected to get his second straight start at strong safety Thursday against Tennessee, but that doesn't mean he has the job locked up over incumbent Marquand Manuel. However, it appears that Bigby is on his way toward starting ahead of Manuel when the Packers open the regular season Sept. 9 against Philadelphia.

Why? Bigby has provided more big plays in training camp practices than Manuel, and McCarthy likes his explosiveness as a blitzer and tackler. Bigby's interception of a pass by Brett Favre during a two-minute drill a few days after Green Bay's preseason loss to Pittsburgh stands out as does the plays he made against Seattle in an exhibition game last Thursday. On the other hand, Manuel has been quiet in the big play department.

Bigby sustained a broken hand during the Family Night scrimmage in training camp last year, then injured his hamstring shortly after he was signed off the team's practice squad in November, but McCarthy has liked his big-play ability all along.

"When he broke his hand last year a lot of people were disappointed because we felt he was making a move in training camp last year," McCarthy said about Bigby. "That was part of the reason why we got him up on special teams at the end of the year, but then he pulled a hamstring out there in San Francisco. I'm not surprised by his ability. It's really the comfort and continuity that you see him playing in that defense. His communication has gotten a lot better, and that's an important part of that position. He's definitely always showed the ability. His big-play ability is something he's done a very good job of. I wouldn't say I'm surprised. I'm very encouraged."

How well Bigby can call formations and communicate with other defensive backs may determine if he will start ahead of Manuel. If Bigby struggles to make the calls against Tennessee, Manuel probably will get the call for the season opener as the starter. If not, look for Bigby to start and Manuel to come off the bench.

Cornerback: Frank Walker vs. Patrick Dendy
The Packers are expected to keep five cornerbacks on the roster. Al Harris, Charles Woodson, Will Blackmon and Jarrett Bush are locks to make the team. That means the final spot will be up for grabs between Walker, the team's only signing in unrestricted free agency this year, and Dendy. Tramon Williams may be a darkhorse here, but the Packers probably will release him, then try to sign him to the practice squad.

Walker and Dendy have both played well in training camp, but Dendy seems to be the favorite of coaches. His experience with the Packers last season certainly plays to his advantage, and he has been stepping in with the second team defense ahead of Walker throughout camp.

Dendy probably will get the nod over Walker, but a great week of practice and solid game on defense and special teams on Thursday might allow Walker to nose out Dendy for a roster spot.

Kicker: Dave Rayner vs. Mason Crosby
Crosby has a slight advantage over Rayner, the Packers' kicker last year, but when it is time to name a kicker, Crosby will be the one. The rookie from Colorado has made a few more field goals in practice and has had deeper kickoffs overall in practice than Rayner.

Plus, Crosby was selected in the sixth round of the recent NFL Draft by the Packers. In the long run, Crosby will be a tad better for the Packers. He has kicked the past four seasons in Denver, which is no stranger to cold and snowy weather, so adjusting to the conditions in Lambeau Field when the weather gets nasty should be no problem.

Still, if Crosby misses a field goal attempt or two on Thursday, and Rayner comes through, Rayner could retain his job.

Linebacker: Spencer Havner vs. Abdul Hodge
Havner and Hodge both missed practice today because of injuries, but both are expected to return to practice either tomorrow or Tuesday. Havner has been playing with the second team defense throughout training camp and has the advantage over Hodge, who impressed many in training camp last year.

Hodge missed all of the team's offseason practices with knee tendonitis. Though he hasn't missed many practices in training camp, he hasn't done enough to get past Havner, who can play all three positions. Both Havner and Hodge play on special teams, so their performance on those units may determine their fate in Green Bay.

If both Havner and Hodge are not able to play on Thursday, it's possible that both will be released and the Packers sign a healthy linebacker released by another team.

Tight end: Zac Alcorn vs. Clark Harris
Alcorn made an impressive one-handed catch today in practice, which certainly will help his chance of making the team. Harris, a rookie seventh round pick, has caught the ball better recently in practices, so he has that going for him.

The Packers likely will go with three tight ends this season, so either Alcorn or Harris will remain with the team behind Donald Lee and Bubba Franks. Harris's ability to snap the ball for punts and field goal attempts plays in his favor, but he isn't going to beat out veteran long snapper Rob Davis at this point. Alcorn's experience with the Packers plays in his favor.

Ultimately, whichever player has the better week of practice and plays better on Thursday probably will win the backup job. For now, let's give the nod to Alcorn because of his experience in the system. The Packers will then make every attempt to sign Harris to the team's practice squad.

Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at packrepted@aol.com.

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