August football. We’ve been conditioned to know what to expect: a few relatively meaningless games where the biggest win is coming out of them with the team intact, no major injuries to derail the season before it starts.
But this preseason is different from any in the last 30 years in Titletown. It’s the summer of Love, where we will all finally get to see the presumptive heir to the Pack’s QB throne, leading an offense. It’s not exactly fair to him, but Jordan Love’s performance in these three games will provide the only hard data for the Pack’s front office and coaches to use to decide whether he’s ready to take over in 2022, barring an injury to #12, of course.
For me, that makes this Packers preseason must see TV. By all accounts, the offense will for the most part be without its top two running backs, as well as Davante Adams. So Love won’t have a full complement of weapons in his arsenal. But just seeing how he leads the team, his body language, his composure, his ability to change things up at the line, to find his third or fourth option, to run a two-minute offense and most importantly, to see that arm in action is going to be fascinating.
While we’re fixed on Love’s performance, there are some fun roster battles to watch when that unit is on the field. In the run game, three guys are battling for likely on spot and rookie Kylin Hill seems to have the edge as preseason starts. He’s getting the first shot on kick returns, which means they want to see if he can increase his value on special teams. I’m excited to see him out there–Packer reporters are raving about his skills–now we need to see him in pass protection situations. Patrick Taylor and Dexter Williams will try to knock him off his perch. Taylor’s size and raw potential might make him a candidate for the practice squad, if he can’t crack the 53.
The wide receiver race is also really interesting. There are five guys locked in: last year’s top three, plus Randall Cobb and rookie Amari Rodgers. I can’t see the Pack keeping more than six, which means one spot is up for grabs between ESB, Devin Funchess, Malik Taylor, Juwann Winfree, Reggie Begelton, DeAndre Thompkins and Chris Blair.
Funchess didn’t help himself with his asinine attempt at humor following Family Night. And he doesn’t figure to be a special teams guy, so he’ll need to really show out in the preseason to claim a spot. St. Brown needs a strong summer to stick around–he’s in the last year of his rookie deal. Winfree has drawn the most attention from those watching day to day, and the team really likes Taylor and Begelton. Maybe they keep seven, but I’d be surprised.
There’s strong competition at tight end and on the offensive line. I’ll be watching to see whether Jace Sternberger can state his case during the preseason. He needs to: he’ll miss the first two games and the Pack has a bunch of guys they like behind Tonyan, Lewis and Deguara: Dominique Dafney looked really good at the end of last season, and they think they found something in Lions castoff Isaac Nauta.
Elgton Jenkins has been turning heads at left tackle and if Bakhtiari isn’t ready Week 1, the Pack will have either Jon Runyan or Ben Braden starting at left guard. They’ll battle it out in the preseason. Rookie center Josh Myers has been inked into the starting lineup, and caught Rodgers’ eye immediately in training camp. Looking forward to seeing him in action. I think the right side is set with Lucas Patrick and Billy Turner, but I’ll be watching Dennis Kelly, who started at RT for the Titans last season. Love that pickup–love having a solid swing tackle on the bench–could have used that in the title game. Or maybe Jenkins should have been at LT, instead of Turner.
One more note on the offense: I can’t wait to see how LaFleur uses Amari Rodgers in the offense. Cobb’s presence figures to lighten his load, but he’s looked so good this summer, I think the Pack knows they need to get the ball in his hands. He’ll get a few carries and play that Tyler Ervin role for sure. And let’s see if he can finally give us some reason for hope as a punt returner.
On defense, the #1 thing to watch, obviously, will be the play of first rounder Eric Stokes, who will start opposite Jaire Alexander on the outside, with Kevin King yet to practice with a hamstring injury (I’m shocked. Shocked!). Teams will not throw at Jaire, so Stokes will be tested early and often. We’ll see how facing Davante day in and day out has prepared him. If Stokes is up to the challenge, this defense will take a big step. The competition after the top three corners will be strong, with rookie Shemar Jean-Charles and converted WR Kabio Ento looking to have the early lead–it’s the last hurrah for Josh Jackson. I think he’ll end up getting cut or traded.
This rookie class has gotten rave reviews from the beat reporters: Stokes, Myers, Rodgers, Hill. And then there’s TJ Slaton, the fifth round pick from Florida. I was in the camp that hoped the Pack might address this position earlier in the draft or via free agency. But they waited till day three with the selection of Slaton and he’s turning heads, too. Without a lot of competition (Keke’s been out injured), Slaton has stood out and figures to get a ton of action in the preseason. Dean Lowry got nicked up in practice on Thursday, so keep an eye on Slaton, as well as a couple of free agents. One of them might have a chance to stick: Jack Heflin, a former walk-on at Northern Illinois, who finished at Iowa, has made a strong case in camp.
The Pack’s top three pass rushers will likely see little action in the preseason. And with the fourth guy, Randy Ramsey, lost perhaps for the season, there’s an opportunity for Jonathan Garvin, Tipa Galeai and Chauncey Rivers to earn a spot, especially if they can compensate for Ramsey’s loss on special teams. Let’s see if Kamal Martin gets some run too–the team is checking to see if he’s better suited on the outside.
We probably won’t learn a lot about Joe Barry’s defensive tendencies in the preseason, but his personality and the way the players talk about him has me more intrigued about what this defense can do in 2021. I wasn’t thrilled with his selection, but his players seem to be on board.
So all in all, it should be a very interesting three weeks. As always, we’ll pray for no major injuries. And while there are some fun roster battles and intriguing rookies to watch, it will mostly be the summer of Love.