It’s not over until it’s over.
Cliche? Sure, but that phrase was never truer than last year's preseason finale between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs when Graham Harrell appeared to save his bacon, completing 13-of-15 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns.
Anything less and Texas Tech's all-time leading passer might have found himself on the street after three abysmal performances prior to that, but he wound up making the roster as Aaron Rodgers' top reserve.
For that reason, the final week of training camp represents a wealth of opportunity for veterans and rookies alike trying to make a 53-man roster.
With many jobs set to be decided during the team’s final two preseason games against the Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs, we decided to take a look at 10 players who need a strong finish to camp to either cement themselves on the roster or indicate why they deserve to be among the final 53 when cuts need to be submitted to league on Aug. 31.
10. D.J. Williams
The third-year tight end’s approach this offseason has been both admirable and refreshing. Jammed inside one of the Packers’ tightest positional groups, Williams welcomed practice-squad holdover Brandon Bostick down to Arkansas to train with him despite that the two tight ends easily could be competing for one spot on the roster with Andrew Quarless, who’s trying to restart his NFL career after missing all last season with a significant knee injury. At 6-foot-2, 238 pounds, Williams is the smallest member of tight ends room, but he’s also the most versatile. Along with forging himself into one of the team’s better run blockers, he works in the posse on the first-team kickoff return team, and plays on both punt units. The issue for Williams in camp has been his hands – Pro Football Focus has him down for two drops in the preseason. It almost feels like a misnomer considering Williams’ history as Arkansas all-time leading receiving tight end and how well he's performed in previous camps, but it's an area he can't afford to fail him now. “I feel good about the run blocking, I really wanted to excel in that,” Williams said. “As far as when it comes to making catches, I’m disappointed so far through camp. Making them here and there, but I want to make the difficult catch. Those are the ones I think they’re looking for. I know there was one down the seam I had my hands on (against St. Louis) and those are the plays I have to make. I hate – it’s hard to go to sleep when you can’t go back and change them, but you have to move on and make up for it next time.”
9. Lane Taylor
Coming into camp, it seemed Taylor and second-year lineman Greg Van Roten could be competing for one spot, but there’s ample room for both given Bryan Bulaga’s ACL tear and Derek Sherrod’s slow recovery from the broken leg he sustained in 2011. They key for Taylor, who’s been working on the second-team offensive line going back to organized team activities, will be to avoid another game like Saturday’s victory over St. Louis, when he was flagged twice on 54 offensive snaps. The first came in the second quarter when he was flagged for an illegal peelback block on fourth-and-1 that pushed the Packers out of field-goal position and again in the fourth quarter on a holding call. Rookie center/guard Patrick Lewis is much in the competition as well after working 54 snaps against the Rams, but the Packers could also look to the waiver wire for help on cutdown day. That’s why it’ll be important for Taylor to show that won’t be necessary. Since his time at Oklahoma State, the 6-3, 324-pound Taylor tends to put up his best film together during games, which could work to his benefit in this situation.
8. Nate Palmer
The sixth-round rookie out of Illinois State has gone largely unnoticed during camp while Eastern Michigan’s Andy Mulumba appears well on his way to securing a spot on the 53-man roster after registering three tackles (two for a loss) and a sack against St. Louis. During meetings on Tuesday, however, Mulumba’s knee began to swell up, leaving his status for Friday’s game against Seattle in question. With Mike Neal joining the outside linebacker room, Palmer, Mulumba and second-year pro Dezman Moses could be competing for two roster spots. Moses hasn’t been nearly as dynamic as he was during last year’s camp that propelled him to making the team as an undrafted prospect out Tulane, but he maintains a role on the first-team kickoff return squad. According to PFF, Palmer has two tackles and two hurries in two preseason games, but knows the time is now to make an impression as he continues to make the conversion from a defensive end with the Redbirds to the two-point stance in Green Bay. “I have to get some technique issues squared away and I felt like once I get those squared away it will take off,” Palmer said. “I had some experience playing it, but the technique and things I’m trying to learn how is all new to me. Scheme is somewhat new to me, so it’s just honing in on those things. Once I get the ability master that, then I feel like my ability and skill set I flashed in college – I’ll be able to show those things at this level.”
7 and 7a. Terrell Manning and Sam Barrington
Both Manning and Barrington have impressed in camp, but the Packers would be stressed to keep all six of their inside linebackers at the position. Is it possible? Perhaps, but other deep positions on the roster such as cornerback, defensive line and tight end could lead the team to try sneaking one of its two young inside linebackers to the practice squad. The difficult part for Manning and Barrington trying to work their way up the depth chart lies in the team’s top reserves at the position, veterans Robert Francois and Jamari Lattimore, playing on all four special-team units. Manning is playing more physical than he did last year when a battle with colitis ruined any hopes he had for making an instant impact while Barrington has a controlled recklessness to his game that’s gained coach Mike McCarthy’s attention. The Packers will keep at least one of the two linebackers, and possibly both, but they’ll need to prove their worth it in final matchups with Seattle and Kansas City. “I always tell myself with comfort comes complacency, so I never define myself as comfortable,” said Barrington, the last of the Packers’ 11 draft choices in April. “Even if I won the starting linebacker job here someday, I still wouldn’t be comfortable because there are bigger things to chase. There’s no comfort – you just want to keep going on, keep improving as a player and keep finding ways to help this team.”
6 and 6a. Charles Johnson and Kevin Dorsey
The two seventh-round receivers in April’s draft missed a combined 31 days of practice, games and scrimmages with knee and hamstring injuries. This came after Johnson and Dorsey missed almost the entire offseason program due to various ailments. Barring a Rice-like surge up the depth chart over the last week of camp, it would be difficult to envision the pair anywhere other than the practice squad come the regular-season opener against San Francisco as they’ll have to climb Jeremy Ross, Tyrone Walker and Myles White to stay active. At the moment, Johnson isn't concerning himself with that. Instead, he's trying to stay optimistic in his bid to make up for lost time. “I try not to think too much about that,” said Johnson, who returned to practice lightly on Wednesday and is uncertain to play against Seattle. “I try to think about what I can control. What I control is getting back healthy, working hard to get back healthy. I know at the end of the day this is a business and availability is a big part of it. I’m going to be able to work as hard as I can to make sure I am on this team and work hard and do what they got me to do. At the end of the day, I’m still going to play the game that I play – football and hopefully that can touch somebody and they’ll see that I have this skill set even though I have missed time and we’ll see what happens from there.”
5. Andrew Quarless
Quarless looked like a man among boys during the offseason program. Standing 6-foot-4, 252 pounds, the fourth-year tight end looked none the worse for wear coming off a horrific knee injury he sustained near the end of the 2011 season that kept him out of the entire 2012 campaign. Since returning for training camp, however, Quarless has seemingly disappeared. He missed eight games, two practices and the team’s Family Night intrasquad scrimmage with a quad injury while a cluttered room of tight ends made the most of the extra reps. Jermichael Finley is the only one on the roster with a flight booked for the regular-season opener in San Francisco, but Quarless will need a strong finish to prove he’s worth keeping. He isn’t featured on special-teams units like blocking guru Matthew Mulligan or veterans Ryan Taylor and D.J. Williams and doesn’t possess the same intrigue as practice-squad prospect Brandon Bostick. When healthy, Quarless is as complete of a tight end as the Packers have, but time will tell if he can get back to the point he was before tearing both the anterior cruciate and medial colletaral ligaments in his right knee in December 2011. “There’s a lot of guys in this room and a lot of great talent in different aspects,” Quarless. “You really just have to go out there do whatever you can do to control yourself. You can’t really control anything else.”
4. Jeremy Ross
What does Ross need to do to be the Packers’ primary return man this year? According to special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum it’s as simple as the 25-year-old receiver making the 53-man roster. Three weeks ago, that didn’t seem to be that difficult of a task as Ross and second-year pro Jarrett Boykin seemed to be flying way ahead of the rest of the receivers vying for reserve roles behind Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb. While Boykin kept catching passes, Ross tailed off. Gifted with athleticism and the ability to break open a play at a moment’s notice, Ross has dropped too many balls and been in the vicinity of too many interceptions in practice, scrimmages and games over the past three weeks. With Ross’ future uncertain, the Packers began rotating in rookie cornerback Micah Hyde on punt return duties and rookie running back Johnathan Franklin on kickoffs. “Jeremy is a very solid returner, he’s a strong runner with the football,” Slocum said. “What we’ve done is we want to see some of these other guys in the most competitive situation we can, which is a game.” The Packers haven’t closed the door on Ross winning either of those positions, but have made it clear he’ll need to make the roster as a receiver to get the chance to lock up a special-teams role. The battle for perhaps one roster spot between Tyrone Walker, Myles White, Charles Johnson and Kevin Dorsey is fierce, but a solid week of practice would go a long way in proving the spotlight isn’t too big for the former University of California return star.
3. James Starks
The end of the road could be drawing near for the former sixth-round pick out of Buffalo whose performance in the Packers’ run to the Super Bowl in 2010 still stands as the highlight of has been a "what might have been" career to this point. Starks just hasn’t been able to tie it all together whether it be injuries, on-field consistency or reliability. The Packers rolled the dice on going into camp with Starks as their starting running back and came up snake eyes. Now, the addition of Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris have made both Starks and third-year pro Alex Green expendable. Green has more value on the market, but a careless fumble in Saturday’s game against the Rams seems to have repositioned Starks toward the bottom of the running back depth chart and left his prospects in doubt. He’ll still see carries in the team's final two preseason games, but the 27-year-old will need a sterling finish to keep his spot on the 53-man roster, and even that might not be enough.
2. Vince Young
The burden of proof remains on Young to show he’s worth developing into Aaron Rodgers’ primary backup. He’s bigger and more athletic than his competition, Graham Harrell, but is still knocking off the rust from sitting out of the NFL for nearly a full calendar year. The final verdict on the 30-year-old will be largely based on projection as Young can’t be expected to fully absorb the same Packers’ playbook in a month that Harrell has been studying for more than three years. Unlike Harrell, he’s proven he can win at the NFL level during stints with Tennessee and Philadelphia. If something should happen to Rodgers, Young’s scrambling ability could at the very least help the offense move the ball. “I definitely feel more comfortable from the first week, but I just really feel like the practicing and study time and extra work after hours, in that iPad staying on it has definitely helped me out,” Young said. “Talking to the receivers, just talking to everyone here to get a good feel for the offense and what Aaron’s doing and what Graham is doing so I’m on the same page when I come into a game.” This is as prime of an opportunity as there is in the NFL for Young to rejuvenate his career and seems to have piqued the coaching staff’s interest with his intangibles. The question remains if that unknown factor will be enough to unseat the unspectacular but steady Harrell?
1. Mason Crosby
Crosby has become the Tyler Durden of kickers. Frankly, you just don’t know what to expect from the 28-year-old anymore. At the moment you expect Crosby to kick his bout with the shanks and return to being the same kicker who made 85.7 percent of his kicks in 2011, he does something that flabbergasts you. On Wednesday – four days after going 3-of-3 on his field goals in St. Louis – Crosby missed three consecutive field goals in a special teams period, twice from 42 yards and then from 44. The performance was so frustrating, a mic’d up Shawn Slocum could easily be heard exclaiming, “Make the kick. Let’s go,” through the Packers’ PA system. Two veterans who hit the open market this week – Dan Carpenter and Rian Lindell – signed elsewhere on Wednesday, leaving the Packers to continue their battle between Crosby and Giorgio Tavecchio. That Crosby is still struggling to succeed will stand as a strike against him until he proves otherwise.