Tonight is a night of firsts for the Green Bay Packers.
Newly-hired Matt LaFleur will coach his first-ever preseason game as a head coach, showing off for the first time how he’s incorporated his reliable offensive background into a system that revolves around Aaron Rodgers.
Rashan Gary, a onetime No. 1 college recruit who was drafted 12th overall out of Michigan, will charge across lines for the first time in a live-action NFL game.
Even Rodgers will experience something new as the 14-year veteran begins a season under a coach not named Mike McCarthy for the first time since his rookie year in 2005.
But still, this is the preseason. Even clashes during the joint practices with the Texans won’t cause the Packers to be overzealous or careless with their talent. Starters will play limited snaps, or maybe none at all.
To help prioritize your focus, here are five players to watch during tonight’s 7 p.m. opening preseason game at Lambeau Field:
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One of the biggest upsides of joint practices between teams is to measure ability outside of same-squad reps, and Gary showed in Tuesday’s second and final sessions with the Texans that he’s ready to go against whoever lines up against him.
Unfortunately for new Texan offensive lineman Matt Kalil and fellow rookie Max Scharping, his display came at their expense, according to reports. The video doesn’t lie:
With his speed and athleticism, Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has Gary tooled to prioritize the pass rush this season alongside newcomer Za’Darius Smith, a veteran edge rusher who has taken Gary under his wing after he signed a monster offseason deal with the Packers in March.
Not to mention more opportunity exists Thursday with the Packers likely playing it safe with outside linebacker Preston Smith, who sat out of Tuesday’s team drills, according to reports from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jim Owczarski.
No telling how long Gary will spend on the field but expect him to make the most of his reps.
Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams have both missed more than a week of training camp and are unlikely to appear Thursday night. Whether a precautionary move or a sign that the severity of either’s injury has increased, the Packers will have to work with other weapons out of the backfield against the Texans.
One option generating buzz and drawing praise from Rodgers in training camp is Vitale, a former Northwestern fullback who counts the Packers as his third team in four seasons in the league. He caught just one pass for two yards last season but could see much more activity in a new system with a depleted stable of backs.
LaFleur seems likely to bring the fullback position for Green Bay after specifically identifying the pass-catching potential of Vitale as far back as last January, but he’ll need more than potential to rely on him in 2018.
Davante Adams had a breakout 2018 season to emerge as the top receiving target in the Packers’ offense, but Rodgers needs more than one reliable target.
Enter Valdes-Scantling, a speedy fifth-round pick out of South Florida in 2018 who recorded a 21-yard kick return in a 24-23 season-opening victory over the Chicago Bears. He caught 38 passes for 581 yards and two touchdowns, playing in every game and starting in 10.
Valdes-Scantling was listed opposite Adams in the Packers’ first unofficial depth chart, a spot many thought would go to either Geronimo Allison or Jake Kumerow. Getting the start may be a nod to his speed. He did, after all, run a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash during the 2018 NFL Draft Combine, and speedy guys complement Rodgers’ deep-ball accuracy quite well.
A strong preseason will only help solidify his role, but other receivers, including second-year Equanimeous St. Brown, will be gunning to swipe his spot.
The receivers aren’t the only ones vying for breakout roles in Green Bay’s passing game. Tonyan is a good-hands tight end capable of influencing the passing game at tight end with his speed and athleticism — particularly his hops.
He made just four catches for 77 yards during limited use last season, but he showed off plenty of his potential and even notched a memorable, 54-yard touchdown play.
While he will need to compete with undisputed No. 1 Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis for snaps, Tonyan is less known and all the more likely to be given the chance to shine during preseason action. Though, he also must show he can hold defensive lines when called upon to block.
High expectations chased Burks into his second training camp with the Packers, and he hasn’t quite done the job of living up to them just yet.
The Packers traded up to take the inside linebacker in the third round of the 2018 draft and then watched as he notched a meek 24 tackles as a rookie. While Burks has been firm on taking steps to advance his game, especially considering the Packers’ need to fill out the middle, LaFleur said last Tuesday he is still looking for more consistency from his second-year linebacker.
“He’s a really talented player, but I still think there’s a lot of room for growth there,” LaFleur said. “He’s had some really good plays and then there’s been some plays where you need better. The thing with him is consistency. He’s got the talent, he’s a great kid, he works his tail off, he’s a smart guy. It’s just about bringing it every day.”
Bringing it in the preseason opener will undoubtedly go a long way in earning more confidence from his head coach.