Packers-Patriots: Who to watch tonight
As the media huddle begins to form around Casey Hayward, Chris Banjo smiles as he squeezes against his locker to make room for his teammate's attention.
Such is life when you're an undrafted free agent trying to make an NFL roster.
Banjo, iPad playbook in hand, is used to this underdog role. Two years ago, the Packers' second-year safety pulled off an improbable run onto the 53-man roster despite not arriving in Green Bay until the fourth day of training camp.
Lightning didn't strike twice, however. Depth at the position grew immensely last summer when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (draft), Micah Hyde (position switch) and Sean Richardson (return from injury) joined the competition. Banjo was left on the outside looking in on cutdown day.
It was a disappointing development, but all was not lost. The NFL's introduction of the veteran-exemption designation to the practice squad presented Banjo with a new opportunity.
"It's tough. I can't lie about it," said Banjo, who played in all 16 regular-season games as a rookie in 2013. "But at the end of the day, whenever I see tough situations like that or things may get under my skin or I may get tired in a situation like that, I always go back to the year I was out of football completely.
"I just remind myself of how blessed and fortunate I am to even have an opportunity to be a part of any football organization, especially one like Green Bay."
Making Banjo's NFL journey even more unlikely was that he went undrafted and unsigned after the 2012 NFL draft. He received invitations to camps in Oakland and Pittsburgh, but wasn't tendered a contract until the following year.
After his release from the Packers, Banjo had offers to join other NFL practice squads, but he re-signed with Green Bay, where spent the first 3½ months of the season before receiving a December call-up.
When the season ended, the Packers extended the exclusive-rights free agent a contract and another chance at competing for a roster spot. The positional landscape remains treacherous for the 5-foot-10, 207-pound Banjo with Morgan Burnett, Clinton-Dix and Hyde all back.
Another reserve safety, Sean Richardson, has a fully guaranteed one-year, $2.55 million contract after the Packers matched a restricted offer sheet from the Oakland Raiders in April. Practice-squad holdover Jean Fanor also flashed during the offseason program.
Banjo's ticket onto the roster will come on special teams, where he's a fixture on all of the Packers' first-team units. While the Packers are loaded at safety, there's plenty of opportunity on special teams after the Packers overhauled their personnel this offseason.
During his rookie season, Banjo finished second with 10 coverage tackles.
"I think part of me in terms of what makes me want to thrive on special teams is just competition period," Banjo said. "Wherever I'm placed whether that's special teams or defense, I'm going to try to do my best to compete at the highest level I possibly can. I definitely challenge myself in every phase of the game whether that be offense or defense to just compete at a very high level. I'm glad I able to have that carry over to special teams.
It's hard to say where Banjo would be right now if the NFL hadn't added the veteran-exemption designation to the practice squad last season. Historically, he would have lost his eligibility when he was active in 16 regular-season games as a rookie.
In Green Bay, he sees opportunity.
"I feel like every experience is definitely an opportunity to grow as an individual whether it is a good or bad experience," Banjo said. "I definitely have higher expectations this year. I just have to go day-by-day, but my faith is definitely what I'd say got me through it in terms of staying optimistic and staying healthy and staying motivation.
"I feel like in a situation like that, it can be easy for a lot of guys to shut down, but I thank God he was able to see me through it."
The Packers have two cornerbacks who'll strictly be working on the boundary this season – Pro Bowl player Sam Shields and 2014 sixth-round pick Demetri Goodson.
"He has the skill set to control verticals," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said of Goodson. "He has very quick feet. … He has quick burst. He's shown some long speed. Those (traits) fit well for outside guys."
A former Sweet 16 point guard at Gonzaga, Goodson faced a steep learning curve coming into the NFL from Baylor. Four years ago, he made the decision to put away his jump shot and transition back to football.
Goodson will be the first to tell you he was raw last preseason, struggling in man-to-man situations, but the Packers still bet on his upside. On cut-down day, they stuck with Goodson over Jumal Rolle, who then had 19 tackles and three interceptions after signing with the Houston Texans.
Whitt has implored being patient with Goodson. Even when he struggled to finish to the ball, he never saw him quit on a play. Although Goodson dropped out of Tuesday's practice with a calf injury, Whitt likes what he's seen from his 5-foot-11, 197-pound pupil so far.
"He's probably improved more than anybody from Day 1 to right now," Whitt said. "I hate that he had to come out (Tuesday), but he's really improved. I want to see him up under the lights, how he tracks the ball and does those things. I know he's a willing tackler. He plays with great energy. I'm excited to see what he can do."
A new-and-improved Scott Tolzien will make his debut in Thursday night's preseason opener against New England.
Head coach Mike McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt have raved about the progress the fifth-year quarterback has made in refining throwing motion and footwork over the past year.
The Packers felt so strongly about his improvement that they let Matt Flynn walk in free agency and re-signed Tolzien to a one-year, $1.35 million contract. Judging by the first 10 practices, it's looked like the right move.
Since the start of the offseason program, Tolzien has been efficient in running the two-minute offense. He likely would've led another touchdown-producing drive during Saturday night's Family Night practice if it hadn't been for a dropped pass in the end zone.
Assuming Aaron Rodgers plays at all against the Patriots, he'll likely will only see a series or two with Tolzien replacing him. During Thursday's practice, Tolzien took a handful of snaps with the starting offensive line.
Tolzien played well in the preseason a year ago – 38-of-56 for 477 yards and three touchdowns – but feels more comfortable entering his third season in McCarthy's offense.
"It is difficult because when you first get somewhere, you have to learn the playbook," Tolzien said. "You have to really know what everyone is doing first of all. Tying in the feet is a whole other element. That did take some time, but I do feel more comfortable with all the reps since I first got here.
"Just being able to sit behind Aaron and watch him do his thing. That's the best teaching you can get. I feel much more comfortable now."
There will be a new coach holding the offensive play chart against the Patriots.
Associate head coach Tom Clements has taken over those responsibilities from McCarthy, who relinquished those duties in February to take on more of an overseer role with the team.
Play-calling isn't foreign to Clements. Before joining the Packers' staff, Clements previously called plays while serving as the Buffalo Bills' offensive coordinator in 2005. He's also been wearing a headset during practices in camp, relaying calls to the quarterback.
"I enjoyed it when I've done it in the past and I'm looking forward to it," Clements said.
Clements will be returning to the sideline after spending last season in the coaches' box. Although his vision of the field narrows, the change ensures communication won't get in the way of maintaining the Packers' high-tempo offense.
Van Pelt will serve as the offense's eyes from the box. Although Clements previously has called the Packers' last preseason game, the next four games gives him plenty of opportunity to ready for the regular season.
"As far as the mechanics and having a 'dry run,' I don't know if we necessarily need that," Clements said. "But everyone has to get ready for the season, and just like with the players, maybe their first time out they're knocking off the rust and things like that. That's different, but I don't think it's a huge concern."
Waiting on Janis
One player who could use a strong showing in the preseason is second-year receiver Jeff Janis.
A human highlight reel last summer, Janis has been quiet since training camp began. He's made a few plays, but consistency has been an issue. He's in a tight race for a potential fifth receiver job with Myles White, who has looked good in his third camp with the Packers.
The 6-foot-3, 219-pound Janis is one of the fastest players on the team, which allows him to gain separation on go-routes. It was enough to keep him on the 53-man roster all of last season, but he'll need to hone his route-running to stay there.
He started camp on many of the first-team special-team units, including at gunner on punt coverage. Rookie Damarious Randall appeared to be on the verge of usurping him for that spot before his groin injury flared up again this week in practice.
With Jordy Nelson recovering from hip surgery, Janis received a lot of work with the starting offense this spring. He's had opportunities even with Nelson back in the lineup, including in Tuesday's practice, when he beat rookie Quinten Rollins in the seam. However, he couldn't hit the fourth gear as Tolzien's pass fluttered just out of his grasp.
Nelson and Randall Cobb likely won't see much action against New England, so Janis should have ample opportunities to show what he can do in Thursday's opener with the Packers banged up at receiver.
"Just to do it on a consistent day-to-day basis," Van Pelt said of what he needs to see from Janis. "Obviously, you see the ability, the size, the speed, but just to do it daily. Not be 85 percent. Be 98 percent every day in your assignments and your route-running techniques."
Barring injury, it's difficult to envision a scenario where the Packers keep nine offensive linemen on their opening roster.
That means there will be at least one odd man out among reserves Don Barclay, JC Tretter, Lane Taylor and Garth Gerhart, who all have spent at least one full season on the Packers' roster. The Packers also appear high on the potential of practice-squad returnees Josh Walker and Jeremy Vujnovich.
Whoever prevails will need to be versatile. Barclay, who's returning from a torn ACL, is best suited at right tackle, but can play either guard position. Tretter has played every position for the Packers, though assistant coach Mike Solari agrees center is his position.
The 6-foot-5, 328-pound Walker is 15-2 in one-on-one pass-rush drills in camp, and worked at both right guard and tackle. The group's level of experience is why McCarthy and Rodgers have been so vocal about this being the best backup offensive line during their time in Green Bay.
"It brings the best out of all of them," said assistant offensive line coach Mike Solari, who handled the offensive linemen this week with James Campen absent for a personal matter.
"We're excited as coaches to see now when they go into a preseason game, they take their skills and fundamentals into a game environment. So we're really excited to see them perform. They've done a beautiful job in their communication."
In the club
If Nate Palmer is going to seize a role in the Packers' defense, he'll likely need to grab it with only one hand.
Palmer has been practicing with a club on his left hand with no set date on when he'll be able to play without it. He injured it during the first week of camp. When Clay Matthews moves to outside linebacker, it's mostly been Palmer and rookie Jake Ryan stepping in next to Sam Barrington.
The Packers listed Palmer as a starter in their first depth chart earlier this week, but he'll need to be effective despite his limitations to stay there. He got off to a good start in practice this week when he picked off a pass off a deflection.
"He just needs to keep working," assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley said. "It's tough. Hands is so much as an inside linebacker, shedding off and getting off blocks. He just needs to fight through it and find a way – use the off hand. I don't really need him to get too crazy with it in practice. We don't need to anything else to it right now."
Packing the pounds
When the 2014 season was over, tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot challenged Justin Perillo to get stronger.
The former Maine standout added about 10 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame and it's shown earely in camp. Perillo had a chance to step in with the first-team offense early in camp when Andrew Quarless was away from the team. Perillo should get plenty of work against the Patriots.
The Packers are looking for a third-string tight end to emerge from the group of sixth-round pick Kennard Backman, Perillo, and undrafted rookies Mitchell Henry and Harold Spears, a June addition who made some plays in practice this week.
"His primary thing was to get bigger and stronger this offseason," Fontenot said of Perillo last week. "We felt like he did a good job of that. Whenever he came back, the added reps he took in practice were good for him. The more experience that you can get as a young player, the better opportunity you're going to have to earn a role."
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