The Green Bay Packers kick off their 2017 preseason with a home matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles this Thursday night.
Several starters won’t play and it won’t count towards the standings, but that doesn’t make this game meaningless.
Here are three of the things I’ll be watching most carefully in the game.
1. Kyler Fackrell
Nick Perry and Clay Matthews earn a combined average of $25 million a year. They are unlikely to play a significant number of snaps. Vince Biegel is hurt, and Datone Jones and Julius Peppers are gone.
That means that the majority of the snaps at outside linebacker will go to Kyler Fackrell, Jayrone Elliott, and a host of young players such as Reggie Gilbert and Johnathan Calvin.
Fackrell will be the player I watch most closely.
He has every opportunity to assert himself as the Packers’ third edge defender behind Matthews and Perry. Biegel’s injury and rookie status mean that his only real competition right now is Elliott.
The biggest issue with Fackrell last year was a shortage of strength, which limited him as a pass rusher and rendered him useless against the run.
According to Fackrell, an offseason in the weight room has remedied that issue.
But against the Eagles, we’ll get a glimpse of just how much Fackrell has improved. I’ll be very curious to see how he anchors against the run and whether he has added any explosiveness or moves to his pass rushing repertoire.
The Packers have a severe vulnerability at outside linebacker. Thursday night, we’ll get a first look at whether or not Fackrell can solidify the position’s depth behind Matthews and Perry.
2. Special teams
Special teams is always crucial to watch in the preseason, because that area of the game often determines the final few spots of the 53 man roster.
But this year, every facet of special teams takes on added importance.
First: what’s up with Mason Crosby and the kicking game? He had a dismal performance on Family Night, missing six of his final seven kicks. Much of that is probably due to working with a new holder in Justin Vogel and a new long snapper in Derek Hart.
Vogel, meanwhile, needs to prove he can punt consistently well in a game situation.
If either the kicking or punting operations have any snafus, Ted Thompson will need to think about bringing in a new punter and/or long snapper.
Finally, both return spots are up for grabs.
The kick return job is less important than it used to be with the increased prevalence of touchbacks. But if Jeff Janis shows he can be relied upon, that will make him even harder to cut.
Trevor Davis and Quentin Rollins will likely field all of the punts on Thursday, because the Packers are hesitant to expose Randall Cobb to injury on returns even in regular season games.
The hope is that Davis will take that job and run (fast) with it. But if neither he nor Rollins proves capable, then Cobb will need to handle the job once the regular season gets underway.
Aaron Rodgers and the offense might value practice reps over preseason, but on the defense, there’s no substitute for live tackling in a game.
Montravius Adams and Biegel won’t play, but it will be exciting to see Josh Jones inflict big hits on opponents in a real game rather than teammates in practice.
Damarious Randall is the player that I am most eager to see attempt some tackles. It hasn’t been a strength of his in the past, but if he’s going to play the “star” position of nickel back, it will be a crucial element.
Randall will need to prove he can fill holes in the run game, shed blockers on the blitz, and bring down quarterbacks and running backs in the open field. That’s quite an ask for a player whose biggest strengths are his range and athleticism in coverage.
Quentin Rollins has been a better tackler than Randall, so if Randall can’t tackle, Rollins could take his spot in the nickel with some combination of Ladarius Gunter, Davon House and Kevin King manning the outside spots.
There are plenty of other important aspects of this game, including the backup running back and receiver battles. But as long as the Packers avoid any major injuries, it will be a successful contest.