Packers vs. Chargers: Five (More) Things to Watch
by Mike Conklin
August 9, 2012
All eyes will be on what happens in San Diego, as the Packers kick off their exhibition season against the Chargers. During a recent stroll around the major media outlets that cover the Packers, a common theme emerged. Several of the websites offer a preview of the game, pointing out five key things to watch. In many cases, these themes are similar across the various websites...the cornerback battle, the development of Graham Harrell, an eye on top picks Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy, as well as this offseason's surprise performer, Dezman Moses.
Not to be outdone, we would also like to offer five things to watch, although we will make an effort to take a look at a few different things than what has been mentioned previously. Each of those points are certainly important, and it is no surprise that these topics are mentioned consistently by the top writers that cover the team. But if you would like to dig a little deeper, consider the following when watching tonight's game:
The Poor Man's Randall Cobb
Diondre Borel has had a pretty good camp so far by all accounts. When looking at the young guys stashed on the practice squad last year, the first player off most people's lips was Tori Gurley. Diondre Borel was the other guy...almost an afterthought. Coming into training camp, one of the bigger storylines was the Battle Royale that was brewing for the likely sixth and final wide receiver roster position. By default, most observers expected Gurley to take the lead in the position battle based on his outstanding size and a few flashes last year when he seemed to have a knack for blocking punts. Meanwhile, while Borel seemed like he might have a few skills to develop, he didn't appear to have any truly unique traits that would allow him to stand apart.
The battle for that sixth receiver spot never really got off the ground. Neither player really made many jaw-dropping plays early, yet slowly but surely within the past week several beat writers that cover the team every day started reporting that Borel now seems to have a clear edge over Gurley.
While Gurley's huge frame and advantages in the red zone can not be discounted, Borel has made advances in the weight room himself, and no longer looks like a former college quarterback who is learning a new position. From the OTA practices up through today, Aaron Rodgers has mentioned Borel favorably multiple times in interviews, sometimes even unsolicited.
The comparison between Diondre Borel and Randall Cobb is fairly easy to make. Both were college quarterbacks, so in many respects they see the field differently than many other players at their position. Standing just 6'0" and weighing under 200 pounds, Borel is built much more like Cobb and Donald Driver than Gurley and Jordy Nelson. While Borel originally learned to play outside the hashes last year, he is now able to line up in the slot and has been doing so regularly during practices. And like Cobb, Borel also lines up as a returner on special teams.
With Greg Jennings and Tori Gurley both out this week due to injury, Borel will see snaps early and often. Keep an eye not only on his production, but how he is used. Will he play a few snaps while other first team players are on the field? Will he line up more outside or in the slot? Does he go in and out of his breaks sharply and smoothly, which was one of the things he focused on during his offseason training? How will he look as a kick returner? Most importantly, does he have the look of an NFL receiver that belongs on the field? If so, Tori Gurley had better recover from his injury quickly and start making some plays.
The Inside Linebackers We Rarely Hear About
One of the players that fans often ask about is Terrell Manning. The Packers thought highly enough of him to aggressively trade up to draft him, and felt he was a great value where he was chosen in the fifth round. Yet there has been very little news about him in camp.
While it is still early, it appears that this may play out to be a "redshirt" year for Manning. There haven't been any bad reports about him, so it doesn't sound like the Packers missed on this pick. But there really haven't been any good reports about him either, other than the fact that he has occasionally lined up with the starters on special teams. Manning still has plenty of time to make a good impression now that the games are starting, and he will likely see a heavy dose of playing time.
One of the things worth watching may be how Manning is utilized when he is in the game. As a very versatile athlete in college who was used all over the field, he was adept at both rushing the passer and dropping back in coverage. Keep an eye on how Manning lines up when he is out there. Will there be any hints that the Packers may take advantage of Manning's versatility, and use him in a more non-traditional inside linebacker role? Keep in mind how Brandon Chillar was utilized when he was still on the team and healthy. Chillar's presence was an important key in Dom Capers' game planning, as his versatility allowed Capers a variety of options. While the Packers are not likely to tip their hand much during a preseason game, it will be interesting to watch exactly how Manning is used, in case there is any insight to be gained as to how he is being groomed to play in the future.
The other inside linebacker that bears watching is Jamari Lattimore. He was one of the surprises last year when he made the opening day roster, and he has an intriguing skill set as well. When the Packers first announced that they were moving Lattimore from outside to inside linebacker, it did not seem to bode well for his future employment. So far, however, it seems like the move has paid off.
“I think Jamari is a little more natural inside linebacker than outside,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I look for him to really take a step in the special teams. He’s also another individual from Year 1 to Year 2 who’s made a jump.”
While Lattimore has not received a lot of attention during the daily training camp coverage, whenever his name is mentioned it generally seems to be positive. He was one of the few defensive players that made any plays that stood out during last week's scrimmage, and he should be an interesting player to watch during the preseason as well.
How Will Casey Hayward Be Used?
One of the pleasant surprises of training camp has been the fact that Casey Hayward looks like he will be a player. He seems to be instinctive, and has the short area quickness necessary to thrive at that position. During practice, it has been noted that he often seems to line up as the slot cornerback. Is he being groomed to fill Charles Woodson's role? What sets Woodson apart is his instincts, and when he lines up as a slot cornerback he is an important chess piece when Dom Capers dials up plays. The book on Hayward coming out of Vanderbilt is that he has great instincts and a nose for the ball, and just has a knack for making plays.
So far Hayward appears to be as advertised...a smart, instinctive, gritty player who often seems to find himself around the ball. He still has a long way to go in his development, but if the Packers appear to play him regularly at the position we have become accustomed to watching Woodson play, it will be a noteworthy development. That is an important position in Capers' defense.
Whither Vic So'oto?
The last image most fans have of Vic So'oto is a masterful performance during last year's final preseason game, much of which was played against the starters for the Kansas City Chiefs. So'oto finished the game with 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a pick six.
After a performance like that, it was no wonder that fans clamored to see him more during the regular season, as the Packers had a difficult time generating any sort of pass rush outside of Clay Matthews. The Packers played So'oto sparingly on defense, and he made little impact when he actually did play.
Even so, the promise he showed in that game was enough to carry So'oto on the roster all season, and also to make fans constantly post on message boards and call talk shows, wondering why he wasn't playing more.
The Packers count heavily on the fact that players will progress greatly between their first and second years, as McCarthy noted above. So'oto seemed tailor-made for that philosophy, as he showed glimpses of great talent last preseason but still appeared to be very green as well.
Despite having a full offseason under his belt, So'oto has been largely silent so far this year. He hasn't made many splash plays during practice, and with the emergence of Dezman Moses coupled with the fact that So'oto never emerged as a special teams player last year, it seems that it may now be an uphill battle for So'oto to make the team this time around.
Some players play better in games than they do in practice, and So'oto would need to fall into that category if he still wants to maintain the roster spot he held last season. Will So'oto show up in these games more often than he has in practice? Will he give Dezman Moses a run for the money for an outside linebacker spot?
The Small School Safety
That was the response of most fans last April when Ted Thompson chose Jerron McMillian at the end of the fourth round. He wasn't listed in most of the draft guides, and even when he was it was usually as a priority free agent. In other words, undraftable.
But Thompson has had success choosing players from small schools before, and the Packers really seemed to fall in love with McMillian's size and speed. They had McMillian in for a visit during the pre-draft process, and liked what they saw. He led all safeties in several categories during testing at the scouting combine, and despite McMillian's lack of big school pedigree, the Packers took a chance on him.
So far McMillian has seemed to play fairly well, although he is undoubtedly a work in progress. Although it is still early, it appears that he may end up on several special teams units and may turn out to be a core player in that regard. As for defense, however, the Packers likely hope that he will not need to play right away. Because Charles Woodson has now moved to safety, it appears that McMillian may have some time to grow into the role before he is thrust on to the field. That's provided Woodson, Morgan Burnett, and M.D. Jennings all remain healthy, of course.
McMillian looked to be in good position most of the time during the Family Night scrimmage, and even broke up a pass intended for Jermichael Finley. And that brings us to our next question: Was McMillian drafted to cover tight ends?
In the new pass-happy NFL, the safety position is becoming more important than ever. And with the new breed of pass-catching tight ends, teams that want to stay ahead of the curve will likely have to find safeties with outstanding coverage ability.
McMillian has the measurables. At the combine he ran a 4.47, and during his pro day he notched an eye-popping 39-inch vertical leap. He packs a punch at a tightly wound 203 pounds. The only thing McMillian doesn't have is experience playing against top-notch talent, since he came from a small FCS school in Maine.
It will be worth noting how McMillian will be positioned on the field, to see if we can gain insight as to how he will be utilized. Will they play him back in the deep secondary? Will they match him up against tight ends? Or will he play up close to the line, in more of a traditional strong safety role?
McMillian had a lot of success in college near the line of scrimmage, as he tallied 11.5 tackles for losses as a senior. That seems to indicate that he is not afraid to throw his body around and support the run. But with his speed and physicality, it seems that he would be better suited to cover tight ends than Morgan Burnett, or one of the smaller cornerbacks.
Most of these questions will not be answered right away, and these will be worthwhile developments to watch not only tonight but throughout the course of the entire preseason. But this first game may offer our first clues as to how some of these young players may be utilized in the months...if not years...ahead.