GREEN BAY – It was an imbalanced 53-man roster the Green Bay Packers unveiled at the end of training camp one year ago.
The Packers were the only team in the NFL to keep seven receivers on their active roster in 2016. They had 12 defensive backs: six corners, six safeties. They even managed to fit three quarterbacks.
Those surpluses indicated deficiencies at other positions, especially running back and inside linebacker. General manager Ted Thompson spent the offseason adding players to positions he found scarce in 2016. As a result, the Packers figure to have a more traditional positional allotment in 2017.
“Everything you do on a personnel side, especially on the 53 cut,” Thompson said, “is you have to sacrifice somewhere else. So that’s the common denominator in all these releases and cuts – whatever you want to call them – that we have to go through. In order to get this piece of cake, then you have to get this (other) piece of cake thrown away. So those are the things you have to weigh, and it doesn’t matter what position.”
There are multiple positions where numbers alone will present difficult decisions. Will the Packers keep six or seven receivers? Will it be two or three quarterbacks? Three or four inside linebackers?
The Packers, like 31 other NFL teams, will make their critical roster decisions under much more stress than past years. For the first time, the league eliminated what had been preseason’s initial cut date, trimming rosters to 75 players. Now teams are allowed to carry their 90-man roster through their preseason finale.
In a 72-hour span following next week’s preseason finale, the Packers will cut almost 40 players and add 10 to their practice squad. Certainly, they have already considered what their initial 53-man roster will look like as the team prepares for its third preseason exhibition Saturday night at the Denver Broncos.
ROSTER BUILDER: Create your own Packers roster
For all teams, final rosters must be trimmed to 53 players by 3 p.m. Sept. 2. Teams may being signing players to their practice squad at 11 a.m. Sept. 3.
QUARTERBACKS (2 or 3)
Locks: Aaron Rodgers
Good bets: Brett Hundley
On the bubble: Taysom Hill
Long shots: Joe Callahan
The Packers have to be pleased with Hundley’s preseason. After getting minimal snaps last preseason because of an ankle injury, he has posted a 101.6 passer rating. He still holds onto the football too long at times, but he has been accurate. Hundley has completed 17 of 25 passes (68 percent).
The question is more whether the Packers will keep three quarterbacks on the 53 than who it will be. After an impressive preseason led to a spot on the active roster spot last year, Callahan figured to have a real shot at the roster this season. Instead, he has been outshined this preseason by undrafted rookie Hill, who despite being 27 years old is a better overall prospect at the position. Hill led a pair of touchdown drives this preseason, his second ending with a 23-yard touchdown run in Washington that showed his 4.4-second 40 speed.
RUNNING BACKS (5)
Locks: Ty Montgomery
Good bets: Jamaal Williams
On the bubble: Aaron Jones, Devante Mays, Aaron Ripkowski, Joe Kerridge
Long shots: Kalif Phillips, William Stanback
None of the three rookies have broken out in an exhibition, but Williams consistently has gotten reps ahead of Jones and Mays. Williams started Saturday night in Washington when Montgomery was unable to play, sharing the backfield with Rodgers for the first time. He’s a better pass blocker than his rookie peers, and has cemented himself as Montgomery’s top backup.
The Packers’ need for backfield depth could entice them to keep each of their three drafted rookies this season. Little separates Jones and Mays at this point. Of course, neither has been given many opportunities this preseason. Both have carried the football only five times in two weeks, and Mays did not receive a carry in the Packers' preseason opener. Jones showed some receiving ability in Washington, catching four passes including a 5-yard touchdown.
If the Packers keep four halfbacks, they’ll presumably release one of their two fullbacks. As a total body of work, this preseason has been close to a wash between Ripkowski and Kerridge. The Packers’ sixth-round investment in Ripkowski probably breaks the tie, but Kerridge is a good practice-squad candidate if he clears waivers.
Locks: Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb
Good bets: Jeff Janis, Trevor Davis
On the bubble: Malachi Dupre, DeAngelo Yancey, Max McCaffrey
Long shots: Michael Clark, Montay Crockett, Colby Pearson
Suspended: Geronimo Allison
In a year when the Packers restocked their receiver depth chart with youth through the draft, their incumbents are holding strong. Janis and Davis – in some order – look like the fourth and fifth receivers on the initial 53. Both contribute solid special-teams value.
Allison has come on as of late and should return as the fourth receiver after he serves his one-game suspension.
From there, it’s whether to keep a seventh after Allison returns from suspension. Rookies Dupre and Yancey are raw, but both have shown potential to be NFL receivers. Same for McCaffrey, who the Packers have worked in more and more on special teams. The Packers could leave one of the three on their active roster for one week, then try to sneak him through waivers when Allison returns.
Each of the three should be on the practice squad if they clear waivers. Dupre, especially, could benefit from a year on the practice squad to get stronger.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
Locks: Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks, Richard Rodgers
Long shots: Aaron Peck, Emanuel Byrd
Maybe the easiest position on the roster to call. Bennett and Kendricks played often together in double-tight ends formations in the first two preseason weeks. Rodgers is the clear No. 3. There’s a big gap from there.
OFFENSIVE LINE (8 or 9)
Locks: LT David Bakhtiari, LG Lane Taylor, C Corey Linsley, RG Jahri Evans, RT Bryan Bulaga
Good bets: RT Kyle Murphy, LT Jason Spriggs
On the bubble: C-G Don Barclay, C-G Lucas Patrick, C-G Justin McCray, G Geoff Gray
Long shots: G Kofi Amichia, T Robert Leff, G-T Adam Pankey, G Thomas Evans
Right guard Evans has been a good addition, so it’s possible the Packers will miss departed free agent JC Tretter more than T.J. Lang. Lang was a Pro Bowler, but Tretter gave the Packers a solid backup at each of the three interior positions. Depth along the interior offensive line is shaky.
Barclay figures to be the Packers' backup center, but his return from an ankle injury is unlikely before the opener. If Barclay can’t return until late September, the Packers would be forced to carry either Patrick or McCray as backup center on their initial 53. The battle between Patrick and McCray may be the closest in camp. Neither has grabbed the job. Patrick has been with the Packers one year longer than McCray, but McCray has presented more value on special teams.
The Packers have more depth at tackle. Of any of their backups, Murphy has had the best camp. Spriggs has been a disappointment after the Packers traded up in the second round to draft him a year ago.
DEFENSIVE LINE (5 or 6)
Locks: Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry
Good bets: Ricky Jean Francois, Montravius Adams
On the bubble: Brian Price, Christian Ringo
Long shots: Izaah Lunsford, Calvin Heurtelou
Lowry’s knee injury doesn’t appear severe, but it’s unclear whether he’ll return before the opener. Adams practiced through the entire offseason program, but a broken foot has forced him to miss every padded practice in camp.
The Packers will carry Lowry and Adams on their 53, but they may need to supplement the depth chart if either is unavailable to start the season. If they add a sixth defensive lineman, the decision comes down to Price and Ringo. Price, a nose tackle, is stronger against the run. Ringo is a better pass rusher, but there are more players ahead of him at the three-tech defensive tackle. The path to the 53 appears clearer for Price.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS (3 or 4)
Locks: Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez
Good bets: Joe Thomas
On the bubble: Jordan Tripp
Long shots: Cody Heiman, Derrick Mathews,
Ryan and Martinez remain the Packers' top two traditional linebackers against the run. Thomas figures to be the Packers' dime linebacker to start the season, but his role could be usurped by hybrid safety Josh Jones. Thomas played more snaps than Ryan or Martinez last season.
If not for a concussion, Tripp might be a good bet to make the roster. Tripp is among the handful of players on all four primary special-teams units, often an indicator of a player making the 53.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (5 or 6)
Locks: Clay Matthews, Nick Perry
Good bets: Kyler Fackrell, Jayrone Elliott, Vince Biegel
On the bubble: Reggie Gilbert, Johnathan Calvin
Long shots: Josh Letuligasenoa, David Talley,
Fackrell and Elliott will play out of necessity, but neither has shown much midway through the preseason. Biegel should return from foot surgery soon, perhaps as early as next week, but the Packers can’t expect much from him on defense through the season’s first month, at the earliest.
Biegel’s injury might open the door for the Packers to keep a sixth outside linebacker. Gilbert likely would be the leader for that job. Gilbert, who spent last season on the Packers' practice squad, has shown significant improvement in his second camp. He had a sack later in the fourth quarter at Washington.
CORNERBACKS (5 or 6)
Locks: Davon House, Kevin King, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins
Good bets: Josh Hawkins
On the bubble: LaDarius Gunter, Lenzy Pipkins, Donatello Brown
Long shots: Daquan Holmes, Raysean Pringle
House’s hamstring injury has become a concern. He’s a veteran addition who has played in the Packers' scheme before, but preseason snaps are important for him.
Initially struggling with the learning curve after missing almost all of the Packers' offseason program, King has shown a good feel for the game. He’s a tall athlete (6-3) who moves well for his size and should provide early snaps.
It’s early, but Rollins has shown the improvements he needed to make after a miserable sophomore season. Rollins is better in the slot than perimeter, but has gotten starter reps at both spots in camp. He has played with more confidence, a sign last season’s struggles may have been mostly because of poor health playing through a groin injury.
Randall missed almost two weeks with a concussion, but he returned to practice this week and should play in Denver. Randall has made it clear he wants to play the Packers’ “star” position in the slot, but his size (5-11, 196) and speed (4.46 40) are suited for the perimeter.
Hawkins likely played his way onto the 53 with a strong showing last week, grading out as the Packers' top corner in Washington. He’s a good athlete who looks much more comfortable than last season, when he was an undrafted rookie.
After leading the cornerback position with snaps last season, Gunter is fighting for his job this season. Gunter’s lack of speed (4.69 40) has been a hindrance. It would not be a surprise for Pipkins, a better athlete, to make the roster over Gunter. Pipkins sometimes struggles in practice, but he has flashed in the exhibitions.
Fellow undrafted rookie corner Brown is also a player to watch.
Locks: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, Kentrell Brice, Josh Jones
Good bets: Marwin Evans
On the bubble: Jermaine Whitehead
Long shots: Aaron Taylor
Safety may be the Packers’ best position. Clinton-Dix, a second-team All-Pro last season, is having his best camp. Burnett, entering a contract year, has become one of the Packers' most important players. His versatility between the nickel linebacker and strong safety positions makes the Packers’ “nitro” package possible.
Another important component to the Packers’ “nitro” package is the emergence of second-year safety Brice. After being undrafted last year, Brice should get a lot of snaps this fall.
Jones, a second-round pick, also could provide snaps early in his career. Many will come as a sub-package linebacker. If the Packers want to become even more dynamic, you wonder if Jones eventually will assume the dime linebacker role from Thomas.
Evans gives the Packers a solid fifth safety, as well as special-teams value. It could be difficult for the Packers to keep six safeties like a year ago, but Jermaine Whitehead can contribute on special teams.
Locks: K Mason Crosby
On the bubble: P Justin Vogel, LS Brett Goode, LS Derek Hart
Vogel has shown a powerful leg in camp, but has been inconsistent. When Vogel is off, it isn’t pretty. The rookie stands a good chance to be the Packers' starting punter, but there’s no security for punters. If the Packers like someone from another team better, there’s nothing that will prevent them from making a swap.
The competition for long snapper isn’t over, but Hart had his chance to win the job outright. That the Packers added Goode is a sign he’s the likely favorite to win the job.