GREEN BAY - For all they know about the subject, you might as well have been asking the Green Bay Packers’ inside linebackers why there are 53 players on a roster.
They can’t really answer who will be the two starters come opening day Sept. 11 in Jacksonville.
Heading into the fourth and final exhibition game at Kansas City on Thursday night, theirs is the least settled position on the team. Five players are likely competing for four roster spots on that 53-man roster and not a one has been told he has made the team or will be a starter.
It’s really the only position where the top of the pecking order is up in the air.
“It’s hard to tell,” said Carl Bradford, who after two years of adjusting to a new position finally looked like he belonged this summer. “I don’t know what’s in their mind.”
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers might have an idea whom he wants, but he’s keeping an open mind given there are so many variables at work. Jobs literally could be won in a game that usually only decides who will make up the bottom third of the roster.
“You’re going to see those guys play a lot on Thursday night,” Capers said at mid-week. “We’re still trying to take advantage of all four preseason games.”
If Sam Barrington weren’t coming off a complex ankle surgery and Jake Ryan off a nagging hamstring injury, the starting lineup might be set. Last year, Barrington was a starter going into Week 1 and Ryan was a starter the final seven games.
Barrington, the old man of the bunch with three years under his belt, was on the physically unable to perform list getting his ankle ready the first nine practices of training camp. He has taken part in all but one practice since then and has played 32 snaps on defense and 17 on special teams in two exhibition games.
If the coaches were sure he was all the way back, they probably wouldn’t need to see him play against the Chiefs. As a veteran, he might get the benefit of the doubt from the coaches and be cut some slack if he’s not quite 100 percent, but he’s not thinking that way.
“Nothing is given, nothing,” Barrington, 25, said. “You might get to a certain point where you get a few mulligans, but whether or not I’m at that point is not my concern. I’m never going to get to the point where I just want a few mulligans. I just want to get better day in and day out.”
The only way the 6-1, 238-pound Barrington wouldn’t make the team is if general manager Ted Thompson thought the ankle injury had robbed him of some athletic ability. Barrington dropped around eight pounds in the offseason and worked on lowering his body fat to help him be quicker and better in coverage, so now he needs to show he’s at least as good as he was coming out of camp last year.
The 6-2½, 240-pound Ryan, a fourth-round pick last year, began camp in his starting position, lining up inside with this year’s fourth-round pick, Blake Martinez. But Ryan 24, pulled a hamstring in practice Aug. 1 and didn’t start taking team reps until this week.
He has yet to play in an exhibition game, so the odds of him being ready for a starting role Week 1 aren’t that good. The Packers like what he can do defending the run and want him to be available for early-down work, but they have to be patient.
“I have to get back into the mental aspect, seeing things and stuff like that from not being (available) the past couple of weeks,” Ryan said. “But it’s coming to me and it feels good.”
The 6-1½, 237-pound Martinez, 22, was drafted based on the solid coverage ability he showed at Stanford, but he has been put in a full-time role to see how he would react. Not only was he inserted into the lineup, he was given the radio headset and the play-calling responsibilities that go with it.
Because he kept handling the defense so well, Capers kept giving him more and more responsibility until he was basically playing a starter’s position. Martinez said he definitely felt he was consistently being put to the test and getting the radio headset was part of the exam.
“When that happened, at first I was a little nervous because that’s a lot of responsibility, but after a while I really enjoyed it,” Martinez said. “It makes it easier to communicate.
“I pride myself just before camp started in understanding the whole defense, not just what I have to do but what everybody else has to do and I think having the headset gave me an extra emphasis to know those things.”
Last year, the 6-0½, 228-pound Joe Thomas, 25, was the main cover guy, serving as the single inside linebacker in the dime defense. His role during camp has been that of an every-down linebacker and he has made some progress playing the run.
But Thomas hurt his calf in practice last week and isn’t expected to play for a second consecutive week.
His absence has helped open a door for Bradford, who was drafted in 2014 to be an outside linebacker but was moved inside at the end of his rookie training camp. Last year, he didn’t make the 53 and was on the practice squad.
In this year’s camp, the 6-1, 240-pound Bradford, 24, finally has showed some of the explosiveness that appealed to the Packers when they thought of him as an outside rusher. He has closed on the ball quickly and probably hits harder than any of the other inside linebackers.
His primary goal has been to show he can play both the run and the pass. The latter has been a challenge, but Bradford thinks he has given the coaches something to think about.
“I definitely put them in a bind where it’s not an easy decision,” Bradford said. “It will be a good one no matter which linebackers stay. I believe this camp I came and showed my work a little bit more, definitely gave them something to talk about in a positive way.
“It’s been a great competition between us.”
And soon it will be decision time.