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John Kuhn's spot with Green Bay Packers appears safe

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Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
August 31, 2013

GREEN BAY—The Green Bay Packers drafted a pair of running backs in the first four rounds this year for the first time since 1979.

They also declared their admiration for DuJuan Harris, and spoke optimistically that Alex Green and James Starks would put injuries behind them.

Oh, and fullback John Kuhn was allowed to return for the final year of his contract.

But come next Sunday in San Francisco, don't be a bit surprised if the slowest runner yet easily the best pass blocker of the group is lined up next to Aaron Rodgers as the Packers' third-down back.

That would be Kuhn, who performed capably in that role last season and down the stretch in 2010, when the Packers won the Super Bowl.

Coach Mike McCarthy ran his controlled no-huddle or the hurry-up packages near the close of almost every practice this summer. Funny, but it's possible Kuhn might never have participated.

He played merely 19 snaps in the four exhibition games. Jonathan Amosa, his rookie understudy, saw double that.

With Kuhn, it doesn't really matter. McCarthy, and more importantly Rodgers, both know Kuhn will read a defense, respond to an audible and block the pass rusher he's supposed to block.

Yes, the Packers would like a more dynamic threat on third downs. It's a big part of the reason why they selected Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round and prepared Harris for that spot.

But with Franklin coming off an awful night in pass protection Thursday in Kansas City, and Harris out for the season with a knee injury, the Packers figure to use Kuhn on most third downs.

The wild card would be wide receiver Randall Cobb, who played 20 snaps at running back in the opener last year against the 49ers and 61 there overall. With Cobb on the field, however, the focus of the third-down offense dramatically changes.

McCarthy won't ask the 192-pound Cobb to pick up a crashing linebacker. Instead, he'll hand him the ball or release him into the flats and middle check-down area, taking advantage of what he does best.

With Cobb finally back from a biceps injury, it might be a while before he's seen in the backfield.

Against the Chiefs, Franklin had five prime blitz pickups and didn't get the job done on four.

It's strange, because the 205-pound Franklin isn't afraid to stick his face in there. He did just that against inside linebacker Darin Drakeford and stopped him dead in his tracks.

His problems in protection have come more in technique, positioning and recognition. His size certainly doesn't help, but when he's not getting his hands inside, is late or lunging, the quarterback gets blasted.

Starks did some good things with the ball in his hand. With the middle jammed with defenders, he instinctively bounced wide right and made a 10-yard gain out of nothing.

Nevertheless, even after four years, he's still more of a liability both as a pass blocker and receiver. Despite his ideal size, he just can't see to take rushers on down the middle.

One time, Starks didn't even try to use his hands against 256-pound Ridge Wilson. He tried some kind of shoulder-block cut block to which Wilson said “thank you” and went right through to the quarterback.

Rookie Eddie Lacy will be the featured back. Given how much the Packers are expected to be in no-huddle in the midst of a series, he will have much to prepare each week.

The Packers can't afford to wear Lacy down on third downs. Plus, his blitz pickup has been no better than adequate.

Green isn't bad in protection but might not make the team. He and Starks are better players from scrimmage than Franklin at this point, but the rookie showed some ability covering kicks against the Chiefs. Stranger things have happened, but it's unlikely general manager Ted Thompson would give up on a fourth-round pick so soon.

Former Jet Joe McKnight (5-11, 205) says he will audition Saturday in Green Bay. It's possible that could affect what happens at the position before the Packers must reduce their 75-man roster to the final 53 by 5 p.m.

Here's how an AFC personnel man described McKnight Friday night: “Not very good in pass pro. He has been a good kickoff returner, not a punt returner. Screens, draws, spread offense, catch from backfield. Not a physical runner, but can work in space.”

In some ways, McKnight, 25, is an older Franklin.

It's hard to judge Green because it seems like somebody has missed a block on two-thirds of his 21 carries.

It all depends: Vince Young looked worse on tape than he did live in Kansas City.

On a night when he wasn't calling plays, McCarthy saw it all from 25 yards away. Based on his words and demeanor afterward, it would appear the Packers are having serious reservations.

No matter what Young can do with his legs, no quarterback can last in Green Bay unless he pays close attention to detail and executes.

On Thursday night, 31/2 weeks after his signing, Young couldn't execute the offense. Period.

Will the Packers release Young and start over with the best of Saturday's retreads?

“They have to,” one NFL personnel director said Friday night after reviewing the Kansas City tape. “He stinks. Looks like he can't retain the plays. He freelances.”

The other question is if McCarthy even would want mistake-prone B.J. Coleman on the practice squad.

Extra thin

In the offensive line, the starters plus Marshall Newhouse make six. Beyond them, the Packers can't be feeling great about anyone.

The edge for the No. 7 berth probably goes to Greg Van Roten. He had only three minus plays in his 50-play stint at center Friday. It represented improvement from Seattle.

Making a team, however, should be more about what a player does well than what he does poorly. The best centers in protection have their head on a swivel when uncovered, and when their responsibility becomes clear they get their shots in and punish rushers already engaged with a guard.

Other than improving frequent slow-motion shotgun snaps, Van Roten has to play with more energy and aggression.

Left tackle Kevin Hughes probably is too soft to keep, and Andrew Datko can't play. The ability of Van Roten to finish off a game as the emergency No. 4 tackle weighs in his favor.

Patrick Lewis played 50 snaps at left guard, including the last 14 at center, and had nine minus plays. He was more competitive as the game wore on, but his first-half performance might have been more than the Packers can abide.

His 6-1 frame is a problem. So is his 5.30 speed in the 40-yard dash, which manifests itself on second-level run blocks and the screen game.

Lane Taylor, like Lewis a rookie free agent, took 50 snaps at right guard and the last 14 at left guard. He had four minus plays.

Taylor is even stronger than Lewis but also lacks speed (5.35) and athleticism for a zone-blocking scheme. In protection, he can anchor against most bull rushers after two steps. He also is capable of burying people in the run game more than Van Roten and Lewis.

It remains to be seen if the Packers thinking his fairly slow feet and somewhat plodding style are worthy of their roster.

Ted Thompson won his enormous gamble a year ago by keeping just seven offensive linemen. Looks like he might roll those dice again.

Taking advantage

Rob Francois had another excellent game with a pair of quarterback knockdowns, a great read to foil a screen pass and a terrific open-field tackle of ultra-athletic Knile Davis for no gain on a third-and-2 swing pass.

Francois was far and away the best backup linebacker in camp.

Assuming the Packers keep two from among Jamari Lattimore, Terrell Manning and Sam Barrington after A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Francois at inside linebacker, it certainly would seem Lattimore locked up a berth in Kansas City with probably the best performance of his three-year career.

He shot gaps effectively in the run game. He shed blocks. He charged hard on the pass rush.

His reads weren't perfect by any means, but for a player whose instincts were questioned by some personnel people, it was a dramatic turn in the right direction.

Manning and Barrington played side-by-side for the entire second half. In 94 snaps this summer, Manning made 10 tackles. Barrington made 12 in 87.

Barrington overran a running play early that gained 15 yards. He also was a step slow to the sideline on an 18-yard carry.

However, he also played with a fiery tempo, showed body snap on his tackles and blitzed effectively. Scouts liked his instincts more with each passing game.

Manning, according to one scout, guesses too much. He chose to run through the line a few times, and more than once the back was out the gate because he failed to make the tackle in the backfield.

Both players made their share of miscues on special teams.

The guess is Barrington over Manning, but that call won't be easy to make.

On the outside, Mike Neal registered three knockdowns in only 12 snaps. Given the fact Datone Jones didn't come closing to handling Kansas City's 2s and 3s, it would seem that it'll be Neal and B.J. Raji taking the first snaps inside in sub defenses.

The Packers seem content with Neal as the first man off the bench in the 3-4 or nickel if Clay Matthews or Nick Perry were injured. If so, that would mean Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer, Dezman Moses and Donte Savage are left for one job.

On Thursday night, Mulumba was slightly better than Palmer and Savage but none of them did much. Moses played six snaps on special teams but not from scrimmage.

Dom Capers acknowledged last week that Moses' month-long battle with turf toe has cost him speed, and with a 40 time of 4.93 it's speed he cannot afford to lose.

Savage is physical at the point of attack. Mulumba has ideal size but needs more mass. Palmer looks the part but didn't take the bit Thursday night.

Short shots

NFL sources said the Packers are trying to trade tight end Brandon Bostick. “Bostick's value would be so much better if he had special-teams value,” one scout said. He had several terrible plays on special teams in Kansas City.

My guess at tight end would be Matthew Mulligan, Ryan Taylor and D.J. Williams behind Jermichael Finley. Bostick hasn't put it all together, and Andrew Quarless has shown little or no punch blocking in his 25 post-surgical snaps. That was a brutal knee injury.

Rookie Charles Johnson played 54 snaps and didn't catch a pass. If the Packers can't figure him out, the rest of the league can't, either. The only way he gets claimed would be based on some GM's collegiate scouting report.

Johnny Jolly was just OK in the finale. His encroachment penalty on the field-goal block and undisciplined penalty for roughing damaged his chances.

He's 30, and battling rookie end Josh Boyd, 24, and multi-dimensional Jordan Miller, 25, for one and maybe two job. It seems unlikely Boyd would make it through waivers onto the practice squad. He moves too well for a 310-pounder.



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