The Green Bay Packers' 2014 season will officially begin with the team's prime-time kickoff against the Seattle Seahawks in September, but their preseason matchup against the Tennessee Titans Saturday holds plenty of import.
Saturday evening's matchup will provide the first opportunity to see Green Bay's rookies in game-time situations, playing at NFL speed against opponents that don't wear the same jerseys. With an exciting draft and free-agency period that included a big-name signing in Julius Peppers, a stockpiling of wide receivers and a budding battle at the safety position, there's plenty to watch for against Tennessee.
The following can't-miss storylines should factor prominently into the first game of the preseason.
Morgan Burnett's injury gives Ha Ha Clinton-Dix an opportunity
Morgan Burnett did not travel with the team to Tennessee for Saturday's matchup because of the oblique strain he suffered in practice this week, ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky reported Thursday. His absence takes a little bit of the intrigue out of the question of who will start at the safety position.
Cornerback convert Micah Hyde and Burnett have been the starting safety pairing throughout camp, but with Burnett out, Clinton-Dix should get the opportunity to start alongside Hyde against Tennessee. It's a chance for him to extend the battle with Hyde for the Week 1 starting nod opposite Burnett throughout the preseason, as well as demonstrate that the skills he displayed at Alabama can translate in an NFL game setting.
Though he's proved he has the fundamentals required to be a playmaker, Clinton-Dix is still working to get up to speed. But he insists that he is at that level.
"That's the most important thing—play fast without thinking," Clinton-Dix said at the beginning of training camp, via Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "When you think, that means you're not ready to play. I don't think about it at all. I just go out and play fast."
He'll get the chance to back up his words Saturday night.
Clinton-Dix had five interceptions, 37 tackles, a forced fumbled and four pass breakups last season at Alabama.
Who will close the gap in the competition at wide receiver?
The Packers currently have 11 receivers on their roster: veterans Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb; 2013 breakout Jarrett Boykin; rookies Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis; 2013 holdovers Chris Harper, Myles White, Kevin Dorsey and Alex Gillett; and former Baltimore Raven Gerrard Sheppard.
Though the Packers have had just five receivers on the roster in the past, they are expected to keep as many as six this season. With Abbrederis out for the season after tearing his ACL and Janis playing catchup after missing the beginning of training camp with shingles, the competition at the edge of the roster suddenly opened for the bubble players.
In their last preseason meeting against the Titans, in 2009, 11 different Packers registered at least one reception, according to Packers.com. Expect to see a similar situation Saturday with the position battles at both receiver and tight end.
Nelson, Cobb, Boykin and Adams should all be considered a lock to make the roster, but that means Harper, White, Dorsey, Gillett and Sheppard could vie for one oior two potential spots.
Realistically, the favorites in that competition are Janis, Harper and White. Despite the time he missed, Janis had a highlight-reel catch over Sam Shields in practice Aug. 6 and will get another chance to prove himself against the Titans.
White and Harper, both of whom saw game action in 2013, were impressive in early one-on-one drills in camp, as this video by Dunne shows. But Harper had a bad drop on the Family Night scrimmage, so expect Green Bay to send him on some streak routes Saturday to get a better look at his hands.
JC Tretter and Corey Linsley battle for the starting center position
Neither second-year player JC Tretter nor rookie Corey Linsley has played in an NFL game, yet one of them will be snapping the ball to Aaron Rodgers in Week 1. Saturday's game against Tennessee will be the best indication to date of which player is headed toward that position.
Tretter will start off with the No. 1 offense, per Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, including Rodgers and the first-team offensive linemen, which should help his performance. But if Linsely can stand out at center without the boost of playing with the first team, even better for him.
In the first depth chart the Packers released this season, Tretter is listed as the starting center, with Linsley backing him up. But in the first two full-pads practices, Tretter struggled. Rob Demovsky observed him get "manhandled" by B.J. Raji twice in practice. Demovsky also revealed that at the end of July, McCarthy had said Tretter "needs every rep."
But Tretter has been earning more praise recently, including from Rodgers, who said, "JC's doing a really nice job. [He] understands the offense and is a fast learner. He's holding his own, and that's important."