When watching their preseason finale, with backups going against backups all night, you’re of course comparing the Green Bay Packers’ players who are in the running for the final few roster spots.
But at the same time it’s also worth taking a more panoramic view to see if any players jump out as a cut above the second- and third-stringers on the field.
In the Packers’ preseason finale at Kansas City on Thursday night, one of those was receiver Ty Montgomery, even though he didn’t have much of a night statistically (two catches for 11 yards).
Montgomery has been something of a forgotten man after undergoing extensive surgery on his ankle last year that sidelined him for the final 10 games through the offseason workout program and the crucial first two weeks of training camp.
After the long layoff, he played 107 snaps in the preseason, but a huge majority of those were with the Packers’ two undrafted rookie quarterbacks, Joe Callahan and Marquise Williams. Coach Mike McCarthy kept things simple with Callahan and Williams, so we didn’t see Montgomery used in all the ways he likely will be in the regular season. And Montgomery’s four receptions for 25 yards in those 107 snaps aren’t going to get anybody’s attention.
But he passed the eye test in his 39 snaps Thursday night.
First, there was his punt block in the first quarter. Lining up on the far right, he faked outside then exploded inside wing blocker Brock Vereen. Another backfield blocker, Tyreek Hill, didn’t see him until it was too late, and Montgomery smothered Dustin Colquitt’s punt. That play showed raw athletic ability.
Also, on the first of his two kickoff returns Montgomery slipped a couple tackles and showed that at 216 pounds he’s strong with the ball in his hands. Remember, last year he averaged 31.1 yards on seven kickoff returns before the ankle injury ended his season.
And his most impressive play Thursday actually came up empty. Montgomery (4.51-second 40 at his campus workout) isn’t a blazer, but on a first down early in the second quarter he ran past cornerback Kenneth Acker on a go route, laid out to catch Joe Callahan’s throw and had the ball in both hands before it popped free for an incompletion when he hit the ground.
If you think back to last year, Montgomery was the Packers’ most impressive rookie the first week of training camp. He leveled off after that, but it’s worth pointing out that he was an ascending, multi-dimensional threat before getting hurt.
Besides averaging 31.1 yards on seven kickoff returns before his 2015 season ended, he also caught 15 passes for a 9.1-yard average and a touchdown, and averaged 4.7 yards on three rushes. The Packers were 5-0 when he injured his ankle in the second quarter of their sixth game, against San Diego.
Now, was he a great player and the reason they were 5-0? No. But he showed enough in the first 5 1/2 games to think he was helping make up for some of the playmaking lost after Jordy Nelson’s season ended in August.
We saw at least a glimpse of that again Thursday. So even though he hasn’t done much this preseason, he still might add something to the Packers’ offense with his return this year, especially when coach Mike McCarthy starts mixing in four- and five-receiver sets with him, Randall Cobb or both lined up in the backfield, as was the case just before Montgomery was injured last year.
A look back
A good exercise at the end of preseason is to look at how some of the rookies played at the end of training camp compared with the beginning. Here’s a look at four:
Jason Spriggs: The Packers’ second-round pick and backup swing tackle definitely needs to add upper-body strength and in the preseason opener wasn’t getting the most out of his great length (6-feet-5 1/2, 34-inch arms). But his technique improved, and playing the entire game (68 snaps) against Kansas City’s second- and third-stringers you saw Spriggs consistently lock out his arms and steer pass rushers past the quarterback.
Spriggs’ improved skills showed that you don’t have to bench 500 pounds to push outside rushers wide of the quarterback.
But Spriggs still needs to get stronger, because he needs a more powerful punch to slow bull rushers like Khalil Mack, who took him to school in the second preseason game. With the way it is now, Spriggs has to give everything he has on his punch, which can leave him off balance. With more strength he’ll be able to punch hard without compromising his ability to recover.
Kyler Fackrell: The third-round pick figures to make the 53-man roster because of his draft status and ability to cover punts and kicks at 6-5, 245 and with a 4.72-second 40. But at this point he’s a liability as an outside linebacker.
At 245 pounds he’s not physical, and several times against Kansas City he was unable to hold the edge on run defense, which allowed Chiefs running backs Knile Davis and Darrin Reaves to turn the corner for nice gains. That included Reaves’ five-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
As a pass rusher Fackrell stays high as he turns the corner – watch Clay Matthews if you want to see someone get low while torqueing the corner – and he hasn’t developed any countermoves. But he did have a sack Thursday night when he showed some speed chasing down Aaron Murray in the open field.
Fackrell has great length and some quickness as an outside rusher, but he clearly has to add some body flexibility and muscle to his 245-pound frame to become an effective player at that position.
Kyle Murphy: The sixth-round pick looked a little heavy-footed at right tackle early in camp, but as the preseason went on he played too well for the Packers to cut him now. Another club very well might claim him.
Murphy’s strength is as a run blocker. He’s a mauler with a mean streak. Sometimes that aggressive mentality hurts him as a pass blocker – when outside linebacker Dadi Nicolas smoked him for a sack in the second quarter, Murphy lunged and got too far onto his toes on Nicolas’ inside fake, which allowed Nicolas to go around him untouched to the outside.
But Murphy looks like a keeper at this ear
Joe Callahan: The undrafted rookie quarterback didn’t improve as much as Brett Hundley last year in the preseason, but he made huge strides.
On Family Night, Callahan looked OK before the snap but uncomfortable and hurried after. By the end of preseason he was far more poised and throwing the ball much more accurately. His touch pass in the corner of the end zone for a five-yard touchdown on Jared Cook’s double move Thursday night was a beautiful throw.
Callahan still isn’t there yet – he’s not looking off safeties, like Hundley is this year. Callahan also looks unlikely to gain a spot on the final 53. But after a season on the Packers’ practice squad and then an offseason in coach Mike McCarthy’s quarterbacks school he just might be able to push Hundley for the backup job next year.
The one thing that still concerns you is his size. He occasionally tends to hold the ball way too long and take sacks, and some of that almost surely is because of his 6-1 height. He just can’t see over the trees, and maybe in the end that will limit him too much as a pocket passer to make it as a No. 2.
He also doesn’t have the core and arm strength of one of the league’s rare highly successful short quarterbacks, Drew Brees. Brees’ strong core allows him to quickly zip the ball on deep outs and other throws that require it. Callahan can float the touch throws well, even downfield while on the run, but he doesn’t have the big-league fastball. More core strength could help there.
But Callahan made progress over the past six weeks and showed he’s worth a shot as a developmental quarterback.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1