Keeping three quarterbacks on their final roster still might be a luxury the Green Bay Packers can't afford.
Scott Tolzien tightened his battle with Matt Flynn for the No. 2 job with his play in the Packers' preseason game against the Oakland Raiders on Friday night at Lambeau Field. But unless injuries thin out one or two of the Packers' deepest positions, it still looks like they'll be best off picking between the two, finding a young developmental quarterback after final cuts for their practice squad, and keeping an extra position player at outside linebacker, safety, tight end or receiver.
We'll find out at final cuts if general manager Ted Thompson thinks the same when he reduces his roster to 53 on Aug. 30. But when a team has an elite quarterback, as the Packers do with Aaron Rodgers, it needs special circumstances to keep two backups.
Last year, for instance, of the teams with what I'd consider the top five quarterbacks — the Packers, Patriots (Tom Brady), Broncos (Peyton Manning), Saints (Drew Brees) and Colts (Andrew Luck) — only the Broncos kept three quarterbacks at the start of last season. Maybe Manning's neck injury had something to do with that.
The Patriots presumably will keep three this year, but with Brady getting older (37), they've used high draft picks on two quarterbacks in the last several years, Ryan Mallett with a third-rounder in 2011 and Jimmy Garoppolo with a second-rounder this year. The Patriots are thinking about the future in case Brady declines soon, and if he doesn't, they might be able to turn one of those backups into a high draft pick via a trade in the next couple of years.
The Packers don't have that. While they have to feel much better about backup quarterback than last year at this time, when Vince Young and Graham Harrell were playing their way out of the league, there won't be a trade market now or in the future for Flynn or Tolzien.
So there's just not enough reason to keep both. The 53 roster spots are just too valuable to back up their irreplaceable starter with two more quarterbacks. With all the injuries that hit during the regular season, the Packers are better off keeping young prospects that can fill in on special teams or have a talent that could develop into something valuable in the future.
Without breaking down the roster player by player, it comes down to this: The bare minimum of players clearly worth keeping at every position puts the Packers at 50 (two quarterbacks, four running backs, eight offensive linemen, five receivers, four tight ends, six defensive linemen, five outside linebackers, four inside linebackers, five cornerbacks, four safeties and three specialists).
Included in that count is defensive lineman Letroy Guion remaining on the non-football injury list to start the season because of his hamstring injury, which means he won't count against the 53 through at least the first six weeks. It also includes seventh-round pick Jeff Janis, undrafted rookie Mike Pennel and second-year pro Andy Mulumba making the final 53.
Among the top candidates for the final three spots then are outside linebackers Jayrone Elliott and Nate Palmer; tight ends Jake Stoneburner and Justin Perillo; safety Chris Banjo; receivers Myles White and Kevin Dorsey; and cornerback Jumal Rolle. Two other undrafted players, inside linebacker Joe Thomas and running back Rajion Neal, were in the running until sustaining knee injuries earlier in camp, and unless they return this week their chances probably are shot.
So then the question is, are there three players in that group worth keeping on the 53 because of potential or special teams that would make them more valuable than a third quarterback who likely won't play and doesn't have trade value? I'd say so.
Elliott has four sacks in the last two games, and even though three came last week against the St. Louis Rams' No. 6 tackle, that production can't be dismissed. He's shown some outside-rush ability on the practice field, too, and if the Packers cut him another team might claim him before the Packers can put him on their practice squad. Considering how critical pass rushers are in this league, he's worth keeping around.
Stoneburner might not be much of a blocker — he had at least one bad play against Oakland — but he has receiving skills and can play on most special teams. And Perillo, an undrafted rookie out of Maine, has been a mild surprise in camp for his consistent ability to get open and catch the ball in practice.
Banjo was a core special teams player last year and could be again this season. Rolle, Dorsey and White have had consistency issues in camp but look like NFL talents.
At least for now, there's a good argument for keeping, say, Elliott, Stoneburner and Banjo instead of the third quarterback.
On the whole of camp, I'd say Flynn has been a little better than Tolzien, primarily in terms of command of the offense. Last year he also showed he at least can keep the Packers competitive.
Tolzien, though, had the better night Friday playing third in the quarterback rotation. He had a 133.5 rating (8-for-11 passing, 107 yards, one touchdown), whereas Flynn had an 11.2 rating (4-for-10 for 37 yards) and threw an interception after taking over after Rodgers' six series. Flynn didn't put up any points in his four possessions, whereas Tolzien put up a touchdown in his three complete series (he also had a one-snap kneel-down series to end the game).
In a nutshell, Flynn (age 29) has worked much longer and done more in McCarthy's offense; Tolzien is younger (26), has the stronger arm and works as hard as anyone on the team. Rodgers probably won't play next week, so the backups will get extensive time to make their final arguments against Kansas City.
By the time the cut down to 53 hits in a little more than week, maybe injuries will make the decisions for Thompson and make it easy to keep Flynn and Tolzien. But if not, he should pick one or the other, and use that 53rd spot on another position.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.