GREEN BAY, Wis. – On Jan. 22, the Green Bay Packers’ drive to the Super Bowl crashed, burned and froze at Lambeau Field. Jimmy Garoppolo dashed through the snow triumphantly while Aaron Rodgers trudged off the field, contemplating his football future.
Exactly 202 days later, the teams will square off in their preseason openers on Friday night in Santa Clara, Calif. With Rodgers getting the day off and Garoppolo’s career on hold, the quarterbacking battle will be Green Bay’s Jordan Love against San Francisco’s Trey Lance.
Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst will break down the game in depth on film afterward, but what will he be focusing on live?
“How especially the new guys, how they handle the sidelines and just kind of some game management stuff with the quarterback,” he said. “I’ll probably stand on the sidelines and see how guys interact with the coaches and just handle the game-time environment, which they haven’t had. So, I think it’s really the young guys more than anything.”
For the Packers, here are 11 players to watch – one in each position group.
Quarterback: Jordan Love
Jordan Love (USA Today Sports Images)
Jordan Love’s had a good training camp. Can he have a good preseason? The one thing that has stuck out is Love’s ability to make plays while under duress. That was one area where he really struggled last year, going just 6-of-19 under pressure in regular-season action. How will Love handle “real” pressure, when the defensive guys can hit him rather than run past him?
“I think he’s done a great job of keeping his eyes down the field, and there’s been a lot of pressure around him,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “It’s been a little leaky up front, but he’s doing a good job of being able to manage that and really playing as real as you can in those situations, where he’s not just a sitting duck in there. He’s trying to move and get out of the way, or escape the pocket or throw the ball away. So, he truly is playing the play, which I think is an improvement from maybe his first two years.”
Running back: Tyler Goodson
Tyler Goodson (USA Today Sports Images)
Goodson’s made a handful of big plays over the last several days, including juking his way into the clear for a big run and catching a touchdown on Wednesday. Here is more on Goodson.
Receiver: Romeo Doubs
Romeo Doubs on Family Night (USA Today Sports Images)
Having gotten a taste of Jaire Alexander, fourth-round pick Romeo Doubs will get his first taste of an NFL opponent. He’s been the most productive of the Packers’ receivers through training camp and has flashed the potential of being a legit playmaker opposite Allen Lazard.
“Romeo, he’s showing some great signs of great hands,” Alexander said. “Great hands, he finishes through every catch. I haven’t been able to go against him the whole camp so, the other day, I was like, ‘Hold on now. You’ve got to go against the best before you can celebrate when you get a touchdown.’ But, no, Romeo’s doing a great job. I like him and I think he works really hard.”
What’s happened on the practice field is really important. Now, can Doubs – and any rookie at any position – deliver in a real setting?
“The difference between what you do out there on that practice field and then when the lights come on and there’s no coach behind you telling you what’s coming and being able to communicate and perform at the same time, that’s what this game is,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “The guys that make it in this league and play a long time at a high level, they’re able to handle that environment and those atmospheres. This will be the first and best test to really see these guys.”
Tight end: Tyler Davis
Tyler Davis (USA Today Sports Images)
In Green Bay’s tight end corps, Marcedes Lewis is the physical blocker and Josiah Deguara is the versatile, movable weapon.
If Robert Tonyan isn’t cleared from his torn ACL in time for the start of the regular season, can Tyler Davis pick up the slack as the playmaking threat? A former college quarterback, he is the top receiving threat among the rest of the tight ends.
“Certainly, he can run,” Gutekunst said. “You guys have seen him out there. He’s got really good speed. He was a position conversion and that takes time. He’s still very raw in some ways with the position, but I think you see him consistently make plays and he’s got the kind of speed that I think defenses need to take notice of.”
Offensive line: Royce Newman
Jake Hanson (67) will start at right guard and Royce Newman (70) will start at right tackle at San Francisco. (USA Today Sports Images)
As a rookie last year, Newman started 16 games at right guard. With David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins coming back from torn ACLs, there is a massive hole at right tackle. Is Newman capable of playing that position and blocking, say, the Vikings’ Za’Darius Smith in Week 1 if David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins remain out of action?
“Some good moments and some not so good moments,” LaFleur said on Monday. “It’s just been inconsistent, I would say. But he is a guy that we have a lot of confidence in, in terms of he’s played a lot of ball for us. And he’s going up against a pretty good front, so there’s going to be times where the defense is going to get the better of him.”
Defensive line: T.J. Slaton
T.J. Slaton has made a lot of noise at camp. (USA Today Sports Images)
With the starting trio of Kenny Clark, Jarran Reed and Dean Lowry not expected to play, Slaton will be the leader of the defensive line. A fifth-round pick last year who got inconsistent playing time, Slaton has had a terrific training camp. Run or pass, he’s been a consistent menace.
Outside linebacker: Everybody
Randy Ramsey (USA Today Sports Images)
The starting duo of Rashan Gary and Preston Smith won’t play on Friday. What if one of them was out for a game that mattered?
Jonathan Garvin seems to have moved in front of the race to be the No. 3 outside linebacker. Tipa Galeai and La’Darius Hamilton are the top challengers, while Randy Ramsey and fifth-round rookie Kingsley Enagbare have some catching up to do. There is a lot on the line on Friday as well as the joint practices and game against the Saints next week.
“I’ve been put in that situation since 2019, always having to compete for a spot,” Ramsey said. “I’ve learned that you really do have to just focus on yourself. I think what helped me make the team (in 2020) and gave me this opportunity, I just focus on myself when I’m out there. That’s the only thing you can really control. Eventually, if you start making consecutive plays in a row, you build that confidence, and the next thing you know, shoot, you’re making the team.”
Inside linebacker: Quay Walker
Quay Walker (USA Today Sports Images)
Other than the No. 1 offensive line, first-round pick Quay Walker might be the only starter on the field against San Francisco. He’s had a really good training camp alongside All-Pro De’Vondre Campbell. His speed has stood out throughout camp, whether it’s almost intercepting Aaron Rodgers on Family Night or closing the gap to eliminate Josiah Deguar’s run-after-catch options earlier in the week.
“He’s a really talented player,” running back AJ Dillon said. “You see it all the time during camp when it’s open. He’s a very talented player and he’s picking it up fast.”
Cornerback: Shemar Jean-Charles
Shemar Jean-Charles (USA Today Sports Images)
When Jaire Alexander got some time off last week, it was Shemar Jean-Charles who joined the No. 1 defense. His grasp on being the fourth corner and next man up seems to have slipped a bit, with Keisean Nixon and Rico Gafford getting a couple first-team reps this week.
Jean-Charles is an interesting player. “He was a favorite of a bunch of our scouts,” Gutekunst said upon picking him in the fifth round in 2021. Jean-Charles had big-time production at Appalachian State, meaning a lot of great film. But he has neither an abundance of height (5-10 3/8) nor speed (4.52 in the 40). The 49ers no doubt are going to want new starting quarterback Trey Lance to fire away, so this will be a big night for Jean-Charles and the other corners.
Safety: Vernon Scott and Shawn Davis
Vernon Scott (USA Today Sports Images)
Vernon Scott had worked with the No. 1 defense all week with Darnell Savage nursing his hamstring. He’s done well, including a big-time interception of Aaron Rodgers during a two-minute drill on Wednesday. Not to be outdone, Shawn Davis had two interceptions on Wednesday.
Entering camp, safety appeared to be one of the weakest positions from a depth perspective. Perhaps not anymore.
“I feel there’s no pressure between us,” Davis said of the competition between him and Scott. “At this point, we’re just playing ball. We’re not letting that get to us. We’re not really worried about who’s going to be the third safety, who’s going to be whatever safety. We’re just playing ball and making plays and doing what we’ve got to do when we called on the field.”
Special teams: Jack Coco
Jack Coco (USA Today Sports Images)
There are two realities at long snapper. One, Jack Coco beat out incumbent Steven Wirtel and will be the only snapper against the 49ers. Two, a day before the release of Wirtel, the Packers worked out two snappers. So, Coco understands being No. 1 on the depth chart on Friday doesn’t mean he’ll be No. 1 on the depth chart on Sept. 11 at Minnesota.
“You’re always competing with someone,” Coco said. “No matter what, no matter where you are, I know that there’s always competition. People are always looking for someone to replace you.”