Green Bay Packers undrafted rookie outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott is making an already tough year for roster cutdowns even more difficult, but that's not a bad position for head coach Mike McCarthy.
"When he's been given a chance, he's stepped up,” coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky. "Obviously, he played a lot more this past week against Oakland, and he'll play more than he ever has against Kansas City, both on special teams and defense."
That increased playing time in Thursday's final preseason game against Kansas City will give Elliott the opportunity to leave it all on the field in his quest to earn a surprise spot on the Packers 53-man roster.
An already deep group at outside linebacker, that includes veteran Clay Matthews, 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry and recently re-signed hybrid player Mike Neal, got even deeper this offseason when Ted Thompson signed Julius Peppers in free agency and drafted Arizona State's Carl Bradford in the fourth round.
So when Green Bay signed undrafted free agents Adrian Hubbard and Elliott, the two entered a competition for a backup spot with returning experienced players Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer as well as rookie Bradford. In some organizations, an undrafted rookie attempting to beat out a fourth-round pick for a spot on the 53-man roster would be considered more than a long shot, but in Green Bay, the odds improve.
The Packers' demonstrated active commitment to recruiting potential undrafted free agents means that Elliott has a legitimate chance of making the roster. He's taking it upon himself to improve that chance every week this preseason as he continues to flash on defense and special teams.
Heading into Thursday's matchup against Kansas City, Elliott is tied for the NFL lead in preseason sacks.
Of course, Elliott's four sacks all came in late-game situations (all three against St. Louis were in the fourth quarter and his one sack versus Oakland was in the late third quarter) against second- or third-string offenses. As Elliott himself even acknowledged, his real worth will be tested not by how many sacks he can rack up in clear pass-rushing situations, but by his meaningful contributions against the run and on special teams.
"It's easy to go out there and get a couple of sacks when you know you've got to pass rush," Elliott told Demovsky. "But you've got to go out there and play real football now."
Elliott has been making an impression on the players he could be sitting behind this season if he keeps it up. "I heard he's starting this weekend in front of me," Matthews joked after the win over St. Louis, per Demovsky. The other linebackers have taken to calling the rookie "Sackmaster."
The 6'3", 255-pound University of Toledo product earned first-team All-Mid-American Conference honors in 2013 after leading the Rockets in sacks, with nine, and tackles for a loss, with 14. He's an explosive developmental talent who could benefit Green Bay's front seven for seasons to come.
But for him to make the squad, something's got to give elsewhere on the roster before final cuts on Saturday Aug. 30. While these are by no means indications of players who should be cut to give someone like Elliott a spot, they are certainly players who could be.
LB Carl Bradford
Beginning with Elliott's own position, fourth-rounder Bradford could be a casualty of Elliott's fast development and production given the opportunities he's gotten this preseason. In Rob Demovsky's most recent roster projection, that's exactly what happens, with Elliott and Mulumba rounding out the linebackers group while Bradford and Hubbard don't make the cut.
Is cutting a fourth-round draft pick coming out of camp unusual? Sure. The Packers haven't done it since receiver Cory Rodgers in 2006, as Demovsky points out. But Elliott is proving to be a talent who they need to explore further, while Bradford has struggled to make an impact this preseason in the limited reps he's been given, with just one tackle over three games.
Is there a world in which both Bradford and Elliott make the final roster? Perhaps if Bradford's recent work at inside linebacker sticks. Per Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bradford got work on the inside for the first time since he was drafted at practice Wednesday.
It's a position many thought was a natural fit for the rookie when he was drafted, due to both his size (6'1", 252 pounds) and instincts. There's precedent for the Packers converting edge-rushers to the inside, as well.
"I can't judge what position he's going to be playing, I'll leave it at that," linebackers coach Winston Moss said Tuesday, via Demovsky. "He's working hard. I think we've done well in the past being able to convert outside 'backers to the inside, but we'll see what happens."
Thursday's game against the Chiefs represents an important opportunity for both rookie linebackers to make their final push for a spot on the roster. Bradford's recent work on the inside suggests the Packers aren't ready to give up on him yet, but Elliott is a pass-rushing talent they couldn't hope to stash on the practice squad.
QB Matt Flynn or QB Scott Tolzien
If the Packers want the luxury of keeping three quarterbacks on the roster, the sacrifice will be made at another position. But of course it works both ways: To allocate a spot on the 53-man roster for a player like Elliott, it's possible Green Bay wouldn't keep Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien behind Aaron Rodgers.
2013 represented the worst-case scenario and completely exposed the Packers' unpreparedness to deal with losing Rodgers for multiple games. Ted Thompson learned a valuable lesson, and he must ensure that the Packers are never left in that kind of a lurch again.
On the other hand, it's unusual for teams with franchise quarterbacks at the helm to keep three on the 53-man roster. As Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette points out, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck each had just one quarterback behind him to start the 2013 season.
Peyton Manning had two backups heading into the 2013 season, but he was less than two years out from multiple neck surgeries.
The problem with cutting either Flynn or Tolzien is that both offer the Packers a different set of skills and a different time frame for utility. Flynn is a game-ready backup who could be counted on to start at any point next season should the unthinkable happen again. He has demonstrated an ability to manage the offense and knows it inside and out, which makes up for his average mechanics.
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Tolzien, however, is still a young developmental prospect at 26 who hasn't even spent a full season in the Packers system, having been signed to the active roster in November 2013. While he hasn't yet proven he has the ability to manage the offense to a win consistently, he boasts a huge arm—recall the 2013 Week 11 matchup against the Giants, in which he went 5-of-5 on pass attempts over 20 yards .
A potential solution here that allows the Packers to keep Flynn on deck for an emergency while continuing to develop Tolzien is to place the latter on the practice squad. Despite what many think, Tolzien is in fact eligible, as Demovsky confirmed with a league official Wednesday. Though he has three accrued seasons, he hasn't been on an active roster for nine or more games in any of them.
With that, the Packers would take the risk of Tolzien being poached, but so too could Elliott.
TE Jake Stoneburner
Tight end was a deep group for the Packers in training camp until injuries took hold. At one point, seven players were competing for what will probably be four spots: Andrew Quarless, Brandon Bostick, third-round draft pick Richard Rodgers, Ryan Taylor, Jake Stoneburner and undrafted rookies Colt Lyerla and Justin Perillo.
Now, Lyerla was waived off injured reserve after the Packers reached an injury settlement with him, and the earliest he could return to the team is after Week 14. Bostick's fibula fracture could keep him out until Week 3—or longer, as Bob McGinn reported.
There's no way the Packers keep the remaining five tight ends on the roster when the extra spot could be used for players like Elliott at outside linebacker, or on the defensive line or in the secondary. But can they afford to cut Stoneburner when they're down two of their four projected tight ends?
With Bostick out, Jake Stoneburner continues to get more work with the starters. Caught the first pass from Rodgers in team.— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) August 19, 2014
The toss-up between Stoneburner and Taylor is this: The former has the pass-catching skills Green Bay may need to rely on in the early part of the season when Bostick is injured, while Taylor's special teams acumen gives him an edge.
Count on seeing both featured on offense and special teams Thursday against Kansas City as the Packers attempt to make a decision by Saturday.
"I feel like we’ve all played well enough to earn a spot on a team," Stoneburner told Dunne. "It’s just going to come down to numbers."
It's all about numbers and the give-and-take. Every decision to keep an extra player at one position group impacts another. Surprise players like Elliott who emerge during the preseason make that process more difficult.
Elliott will get a final chance Thursday to prove he's earned the opportunity to wear the green and gold this season. But even if roster cuts were today, there's a good chance he'd make it. The question now becomes: who doesn't?