Bruce Gaston impressive on defense, but backup tight ends fail to deliver
Bruce Gaston spent the final four games of last season on the Green Bay Packers’ roster, not that anyone noticed.
In six games – counting playoffs – Gaston never was activated onto the 46-man, game-day roster. There were expectations on the Packers’ defensive line when training camp opened this summer, but not necessarily for Gaston.
Khyri Thornton, a third-round pick last year, was back after missing all of last season with an injury. Christian Ringo was the newest draft pick. Gaston? He was under the radar.
Gaston, undrafted out of Purdue, is making people notice now.
Few luxuries are more valuable — and rarer — in today’s NFL than a defensive lineman who can consistently rush the quarterback. Over and over, Gaston has flashed his pass-rush ability this preseason. He had two quarterback hits against the Saints in Thursday night’s preseason finale, increasing his total to four in the past three games.
That’s more than any other Packers defender.
Gaston, who also has one preseason sack, could help a defensive line that will be lacking depth early this season. The Packers will be without Letroy Guion and Datone Jones when they travel to play the Chicago Bears in their opener Sept. 13. Guion won’t return until Week 4.
Even with the team low on numbers, Gaston isn’t among the Packers’ first-team defensive linemen. But he might’ve shown enough to not only make the 53-man roster, but to be activated for the first time next week.
There was one job that was absolutely available for the taking when the Packers entered their final preseason game.
With a thin tight end group, the Packers were searching for depth behind Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless. There probably was only one spot available, an opening to be No. 3 on the depth chart. But it appeared the job was indeed available, if only someone would take it.
Instead, the trio of Kennard Backman, Justin Perillo and Mitchell Henry combined for two catches and 31 yards. The big play of the night came with three minutes left, against the bottom of the Saints’ roster, when Backman got wide open for a 20-yard grab. No, this wasn’t exactly grabbing the opportunity by the horns.
So Packers general manager Ted Thompson will have a difficult decision to make. Perillo probably is the most complete player of the group. Backman, a sixth-round pick in May, has the highest upside of the three. Henry, last in line entering the night, didn’t really do anything to force himself into the third spot.
Thompson usually prefers his own draft picks, and it’s hard to pass on potential. The best guess is Backman still has the slight edge he held entering the night. With no clear winner Thursday, this battle could go any direction.
DID YOU NOTICE?
• Jayrone Elliot will make the Packers’ 53-man roster because he’s arguably their best special teams player, but he’s showing potential to help on defense. Elliott quietly has put together a terrific preseason, and he capped it Thursday with three tackles, a quarterback hit and a defended pass. With Clay Matthews playing more at inside linebacker, the Packers could use all the edge rush they can get. Elliott could become a decent rotational defender, adding to the value he has on the Packers’ special teams.
• Rajion Neal entered Thursday’s preseason finale with a strong grip on the Packers’ third tailback job, and he did nothing to change that against the Saints. Neal capped a terrific two-game, five-day stretch with a team-high four catches for 20 yards and five carries for 20 yards. In the final two preseason games, Neal has nine catches for 81 yards and a touchdown, and he’s average 5.3 yards per carry. That versatility should earn him a job.
• After a slow start to training camp, the game appears to be slowing down for Packers rookie inside linebacker JakeRyan. Two plays were especially impressive in the second half. On the opening series, Ryan shot a gap and tackled Saints running back Marcus Murphy for a 2-yard loss. On the next series, Ryan scraped down the right side of the line of scrimmage and tackled tailback Edwin Baker for a 2-yard gain. It’s worth noting former Packers linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones showed little sideline-to-sideline range last season, and neither played much behind the line of scrimmage.
• Special teams coordinator Ron Zook has thought punter Tim Masthay was pulling himself out of his slump for more than a week. On Thursday, Masthay showed his coach might be right. Masthay had a dandy night, averaging 43 yards on four punts with two inside the 20-yard line, one inside the 10, and a long of 52 yards. This is the kind of punting the Packers need when their regular season begins.
• Think the New York Jets, or another quarterback-starved team, are kicking themselves for not drafting Packers rookie quarterback Brett Hundley in the third or fourth round? Hundley, the Packers’ fifth-round pick, had another terrific night against the Saints. He completed 16-of-23 passes for 236 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. It’s worth noting Saints third-string quarterback Garrett Grayson – drafted two rounds higher than Hundley in May – completed 8-of-19 passes for 65 yards and two interceptions. It’s understandable why Thompson jumped at the chance to move up and draft Hundley when nobody else did in the first four rounds.