Packers lose preseason opener but gain three key players off PUP
The Packers provided a mixed bag of individual performances during Friday's preseason opener, but the return of three key players off PUP provide a jolt of optimism.
The 2022 Green Bay Packers played their first game of the preseason this past week, a 28-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Of course, the final score matters little and the player evaluation means everything. And just a few days after the game, the Packers received a jolt of good news in the form of three activations off the physically unable to perform list. We dive into it all in today's edition of The Leap.
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This weekend, the Packers activated Elgton Jenkins, Robert Tonyan, and Christian Watson off the PUP list. Assess each player's chances of suiting up for Week 1 and their potential to affect the offense.
Jason B. Hirschhorn: Based on severity of injury and the related timetable for return, Christian Watson seems like the strongest bet of the trio to suit up for Week 1. Even when the Packers first announced the rookie would open training camp on the physically unable to perform list, the coaches and players framed Watson's situation as one reasonably likely to resolve in a relatively short period of time. A little over three weeks later, he has returned to the practice field for individual drills and looks none the worse for wear.
As for Robert Tonyan and Elgton Jenkins, both have worked back from ACL tears suffered in October and November, respectively, and could realistically miss the start of the season accordingly. Head coach Matt LaFleur underscored the impressive and surprising nature of Jenkins' recovery timeline but also cautioned that he has to clear multiple steps before the team can begin to so much as consider where he might play. Perhaps LaFleur simply aims to manage expectations in the event of a setback à la David Bakhtiari's ACL recovery, but the fact remains that less than nine months have passed since Jenkins' injury as of his PUP activation.
Regardless, Jenkins' return -- whenever that occurs -- has the highest potential for impact to the offense. He can play literally any spot on the offensive line and could end up at left tackle should Bakhtiari start the regular season on the PUP list. Even if the Packers opt to line up Jenkins at right tackle for purposes of continuity, he would still massively upgrade the unit as a whole. Watson and Tonyan could and probably will add value to the passing game, but their 2022 contributions would almost certainly pale in comparison to a healthy Jenkins.
Peter Bukowski: Christian Watson’s injury stands as the least serious although he had surgery the most recently. That said, both Big Bob and Jenkins said they were ready before they came off the PUP with Jenkins insisting he could have been ready to go two weeks ago.
The team needs Jenkins the most of those group, but that might be the reason for the team to be most conservative with him. His return impacts the Packers offense more than Watson or Tonyan though Tonyan will be one of the few veteran pass-catchers Rodgers knows and can trust. Particularly given how poorly
Tyler Trevor Davis looked against the 49ers, Tonyan’s timing couldn’t be better.
Elgton Jenkins is the most important player, but Tonyan is the guy I’m most confident will be out there in Week 1 for the Packers. Watson’s draft status and the early success of Romeo Doubs mean the notoriously risk-averse medical staff might get even more conservative with Watson.
Did Jordan Love's performance in Friday's preseason game provide more cause for optimism or concern?
JBH: The box-score scouts might claim Jordan Love had a rough 2022 debut, but even a cursory viewing of the game reveals how his stat line doesn't represent his performance. Fault for the first of his three interceptions falls entirely on tight end Tyler Davis. The second pick, originally ruled a reception by Romeo Doubs, features more gray area as Love could have led the receiver to the sideline as opposed to making him twist in the air to corral the ball. The final pick falls on Love even if LaFleur absolved him of some of the responsibility by pointing out that multiple receivers ran the wrong routes. Peter did an excellent job breaking down all of Love's throws on Twitter.
Love overall looked like a more confident quarterback who played within the offense. He operated the quick game well and showcased his mobility on bootlegs and called runs, adding dimensions to the offense that a 38-year-old Aaron Rodgers cannot. And Love's finest moments of the game -- his touchdown passes to Doubs and Danny Davis -- stand out more prominently than his mistakes.
Still, Love's bad decisions highlight how much progress he has yet to make. In addition to the third interception, he forced a throw with Drake Jackson barreling down that could have resulted in a turnover. Given Love's penchant for interceptions during his final season at Utah State, those mistakes might never fully leave his game. But he still has to cut them down further, especially against a 49ers defense playing without most of its starters.
Overall, Love showed more positive than negative, and he has taken a notable leap since his last appearance on an NFL field. But he looks far from a finished product and concerns about his progress entering Year 3 remain valid.
PB: Optimism albeit somewhat muted optimism. The missed swing route throws are far more troubling than three interceptions, two of which should have been caught by Packers. The reasons for optimism are myriad: Love’s pre and post-snap identification appears better. He varied his cadences to get the 49ers to show their coverage adjustments and blitzes. It was precisely that kind of pre-snap read that helped Love find Romeo Doubs for the slot fade touchdown.
He consistently throws to the right guys. The issue currently is modulating the playmaker in the right ways. On a play with Drake Jackson right in his face, Love tried to make a throw that Jackson tipped, causing it to flutter to no one (luckily). On the Amari Rodgers interception, Love should have eschewed the rhythm throw with multiple receivers running the wrong routes, and tried to play off-schedule.
Even his own head coach said as much. Finding the spots to use his playmaking talent and when not to is the final step for him. The missed throws will happen, he’ll make way more than he misses, and that will be even more true if he can find the right balance of aggressiveness.
Besides Romeo Doubs' professional debut, what stood out most from the Packers' preseason opener?
JBH: The Packers have spent the entire offseason experimenting with numerous configurations of their offensive line. Even in recent weeks, the coaching staff has shuffled between two versions of the right side of the line: one with Jake Hanson (guard) and Royce Newman (tackle), and the other with Newman (guard) and rookie Zach Tom (tackle).
The former tandem had seemingly taken the lead during the run-up to Friday's preseason opener, but that hardly means the Packers have settled on their starters. More to the point, the staff has good reason to shift in another direction over the next week regardless of how much the newly activated Jenkins can contribute on the field.
Tom, who made his professional debut Friday, looked rock solid over 35 snaps at right tackle. He did not yield a single pressure, moved bodies in the run game, and avoided any major mistakes. Tom didn't face the 49ers' top line, though one could argue that nobody did given the number of starters held out by Kyle Shanahan and his staff. Still, Tom showed enough to merit a more serious look as a potential starter.
While Tom has alternated with Newman at right tackle recently, the latter has worked with the starters in some capacity for months and will end up playing Week 1 absent an injury or major drop-off in performance. Rather, Tom needs to perform better at tackle than Hanson does at guard. The possibility of Tom starting in a spot along the interior also exists given the positional versatility he demonstrated in college. To that end, the Packers ran Tom with the No. 1 offense at left guard on Sunday.
Hanson might still have the edge over Tom, but the gap could close quickly. The third-year pro had an uneven showing last week, drawing two penalties (one accepted). Hanson had some promising moments too, most notably while blocking on Tyler Goodson's 23-yard screen pass. Still, those penalties stand out most, opening the door for Tom to insert himself into the starting lineup more regularly.
Of course, Jenkins could return fully before Week 1 and render this conversation moot. But until that happens, Tom's progress could end up having a significant impact on how the offense looks in the regular-season opener.
PB: Weird take coming from me, but the defensive line depth! Against some expected 49ers starters, Packers backups Jack Heflin, TJ Slaton, Chris Slayton, and Jonathan Ford all showed varying degrees of success creating problems in the San Francisco backfield. Add in an impressive pro debut from Kinglsey Enagbare on the edge and this group looks like a strength when it has most recently been a sore spot for the Packers going back to Mike Daniels’ departure.
And that’s in a game Kenny Clark, Jarran Reed, Dean Lowry, and Devonte Wyatt all wore street clothes. The Packers won’t play three, much less four of these guys on the field very often, but having so many options gives Green Bay tremendous depth at a position where injuries and the physical burden of the game can be most taxing and where drop-offs in talent can be most stark.
Taking Kenny Clark off the field in years past has been a disaster. These guys aren’t as good as KC, but providing solid performances not only provides some added value relative to last year’s group but also will keep Clark fresher for later in games and later in the season when his contributions can be even more impactful.
JBH: No receiver currently on the Packers' roster can realistically replace Davante Adams, at least not in 2022. But in order for the offense to function, other pass catchers must fill Adams' shoes within the staple concepts in LaFleur's system.
That process will take more time to fully unfold. However, for at least one such concept -- the slot fade -- Green Bay might have already found a solution.
Doubs' touchdown came while lined up in Adams' spot in the "Spartan" slot fade concept. In order to work, the receiver needs to win quickly at the line of scrimmage and then create as much separation as possible behind the defender. The 49ers, in Cover 0, gave Doubs an opening, and the rookie took full advantage.
Two drops and some blocking mistakes undercut some of the optimism Doubs generated on Friday, but overall he passed his biggest test to date as an NFL receiver.
PB: We joke about the “best shape of his life” cliche this time of year and rightfully so. Often times being in “better” shape is more about a guy who was out of shape last year. That was true of Preston Smith last year coming off a disappointing 2020 season.
Amari Rodgers’ Jenny Craig story already looks to be paying dividends. According to the Family Night broadcast, Rodgers lost over 15 pounds from last season and his burst appears to be back in a big way. He had a 50-yard kickoff return, the most explosive play of his NFL career, only to be topped by a beautiful catch-and-run touchdown in which Rodgers outran most of the 49ers defense.
This is the version of Rodgers the Packers thought they were getting: get him the ball in space, make the first man miss, run through arm tackles in space and have the speed to creative explosives. He didn’t have the juice last year to make these plays.
LaFleur was quick to point out there was plenty to clean up in his game, including running the wrong wrote on the interception thrown in his direction. But physically, this is the guy we saw at Clemson. In a receiver room where guys are fighting for roles, this version of Rodgers has a role. Last year’s version? Not so much.