Thursday night's preseason finale at Tennessee for the Packers may not play that big a part in the decision-making process for roster spots at running back, regardless of what coaches and players have said this week.
Running back Brandon Jackson, who will sit out against the Titans, has a significant ankle sprain, according to coach Mike McCarthy. The third-year pro has missed all three practices this week and could miss time headed into the first month of the regular season.
Should that be the case, the Packers could be forced to keep an additional running back on their roster. They open the regular season in 11 days vs. the Bears. The final roster cutdown to 53 players needs to be made by Saturday.
Jackson, who was all but a lock to make the final roster and to serve as Ryan Grant's backup, could be relegated to inactive list for the first few game days if his ankle is as bad as it sounds. That means the Packers likely would keep two of the remaining three backs — DeShawn Wynn, Kregg Lumpkin, and Tyrell Sutton — on their roster. Before last Friday's game at Arizona, it seemed more logical that the Packers would keep just one from the Wynn-Lumpkin-Sutton group.
General manager Ted Thompson addressed the possibility of keeping four halfbacks while trying to balance the roster at other positions at his Monday press conference. He hinted it might be possible without really giving a clear-cut answer.
"Everything is tied together," began the fifth-year Packers' GM, "but I think you keep your best players. However many that works out, that works out."
Based on production, Sutton has clearly been one of the Packers' best players this preseason. The undrafted rookie free agent out of Northwestern leads the team in rushing (30 carries, 154 yards, one touchdown) and kickoff returns (5 returns for a 24.4-yard average). Though Sutton would appear to have done enough to earn a roster spot, he is taking nothing for granted this week.
"I think I need to stay consistent," said Sutton. "This is going to be a game designated for guys trying to make it on the squad, so I got to go out there and make sure I give it 110 percent and make sure I know what I'm doing at all times. … It's pretty much a game for the underdogs to shine."
Like Lumpkin a year ago, Sutton has been the talk of training camp in the backfield. Unlike Lumpkin, he is the type of back the Packers' crave. His short, but powerful frame (5-foot-8, 213 pounds) lends well to third-down duties if the Packers feel comfortable with his pass-catching and blitz-pickup skills. He at least has shown good football instincts, which could give him an edge on Lumpkin in the return game on special teams, as well.
For those reasons and more, Sutton has the inside track on what could be the fourth running back spot since Wynn seems like a good bet to make the roster. After surviving the last two seasons and showing game day production when given the chance (58 carries, 313 yards, 5.4-yard average and five touchdowns in 12 career games), Wynn has had a solid camp. He also has as much experience in the Packers' running system as anyone on the roster, coming a long way from his rookie year when he was a starter before giving way to Grant.
"I would just say knowing different schemes," explained Wynn of his improvement. "Knowing a lot of other people's positions as far as the line and what the line's doing. In years past, I only knew what I had to do. When you can learn other positions, you kind of know what to anticipate."
Lumpkin's opportunities, unlike last year's training camp as a rookie, have been limited (18 carries, 61 yards). If anything, he has shown poor hands out of the backfield in practice and has the only fumble among Packers running backs in preseason action. That could make him the odd man out.
Of course, it all will hinge on the health of Jackson's ankle. If Jackson is unable to go into the first few games of the regular season, the Packers would likely keep an extra back. They could actually benefit then by waiting to cut one of the backs, hoping to slip that back on the practice squad at a later date in the regular season when Jackson is ready. Until then, at least one tough decision, at one of the most competitive positions this training camp, might not have to be made.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org