Michael Cohen and Aaron Nagler discuss the Packers' initial cutdown to the 53 man roster heading into the 2017 regular season. (Sept. 2, 2017)
GREEN BAY – A cursory glance at how the Green Bay Packers’ 53-man roster broke down by position might’ve induced surprise, but general manager Ted Thompson’s work finalizing the 2017 roster did not end with Saturday’s cutdown deadline.
The Packers retained only four outside linebackers on their initial 53 that was unveiled late Saturday afternoon. Ahmad Brooks, the veteran free agent who agreed to terms with the team early last week, was not among them. The Packers have yet to sign Brooks, saving them from cutting a player who otherwise would not have made their initial 53.
Brooks’ exclusion will force the Packers to make a roster move when he signs, which could happen as early as Sunday. The most likely transaction might involve rookie defensive lineman Montravius Adams. After breaking a bone in his foot early in camp, Adams has not practiced. He’s still at least a few weeks from returning after having surgery, a source said.
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Without a single padded practice, the Packers can’t expect much from Adams early in the season. The Packers prefer to give Adams, their third-round draft pick, the option of returning at some point in 2017. To use one of their two designations to return from injured reserve, NFL rules stipulate a player must start the season on the active roster.
The Packers could open a spot on their 53-man roster by placing Adams on injured reserve, preventing them from releasing a player when they sign Brooks.
Thompson has long said it does not matter to him how many players he retains at certain positions, only that he keeps the 53 best players. True to form, the Packers unveiled a lopsided roster Saturday. Among their 53 were 10 offensive linemen and five running backs. Seven cornerbacks also made it.
At quarterback, the Packers only retained starter Aaron Rodgers and backup Brett Hundley, releasing Joe Callahan and undrafted rookie Taysom Hill. Callahan was part of the Packers’ initial 53 in 2016, but Hill surpassed him in camp. The Packers want to keep one on their practice squad, and they prefer Hill. Both must first clear waivers before they can be added Sunday.
Despite being 27 years old with an extensive injury history, Hill has attributes that could intrigue teams. Hill led four scoring drives in seven attempts (three touchdowns, one field goal) and flashed both a strong arm and dynamic athleticism, especially outside the pocket. His final numbers were 14-for-20 for 149 yards and two touchdowns with a 124.8 passer rating.
Perhaps the biggest surprise Saturday was the Packers keeping an abundance of offensive linemen. Their backup offensive line struggled mightily during the preseason, leading to Hundley being sacked 11 times. Hundley occasionally held onto the football too long, but he was constantly under siege.
As the backups floundered, it would have seemed unlikely the Packers would keep their entire second unit. Entering Saturday, there could have been real concern the Packers did not have enough offensive linemen to start the season. Instead, their answer for any depth concerns was to add numbers.
In part, the Packers went heavy on the offensive line because of injury. Backup center Don Barclay won’t be available against the Seahawks, a source said. His return might not come until late September. No team enters a game with only one offensive lineman who can snap the football. Without Barclay, the Packers needed to ensure they had a backup center.
Throughout camp, it seemed one of the tightest position battles were between interior linemen Lucas Patrick and Justin McCray. Both are natural guards who the Packers broke in at center this offseason. Instead of choosing between the two, the Packers kept both. They join Barclay, along with backups tackles Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy, behind the Packers’ five starting linemen.
On the defensive line, the Packers settled another close position battle Saturday. They kept three-technique defensive tackle Christian Ringo on their 53, releasing nose tackle Brian Price. After spending most of last season on the practice squad, Price made a strong push for the 53-man roster. At 6-3, 318 pounds, Price is a strong interior run defender, but Ringo provide more pass-rush potential.
One year after major cornerback troubles, the Packers ensured they would have deep numbers at the position in 2017. They retained third-year corner LaDarius Gunter, whose lack of speed forced him to fight for a roster job after leading the position in snaps last season. Along with Gunter, second-year corner Josh Hawkins and undrafted rookie Lenzy Pipkins filled out the depth chart. The Packers released undrafted rookie corner Donatello Brown, who becomes a candidate for their practice squad.
It’s always hard to determine which player is No. 54 on the 53-man roster, but second-year outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert is one possibility. Gilbert, who spent all of last season on the Packers practice squad, was likely a casualty of the decision to sign Brooks, who was released by the San Francisco 49ers. Had Brooks not agreed to terms, it’s a virtual certainty Gilbert would have been the Packers’ fifth outside linebacker.
Instead, the Packers are hoping Gilbert clears waivers, though there could be competition for his services. Gilbert had a very good camp and played arguably his best exhibition Thursday against the Los Angeles Rams. He tallied three quarterback hits in the first half while starting opposite Kyler Fackrell.
It can be argued that Gilbert outplayed Fackrell over the course of camp. But Fackrell has the built-in safety net of being a third-round pick last season, and the Packers value his speed, length and potential.
The Packers will keep only five at outside linebacker after adding Brooks. Rookie Vince Biegel was left on the physically unable to perform list, meaning he will not be able to practice for six weeks. Biegel, a fourth-round pick, has not practiced since the second day of rookie orientation in May, when he broke a bone in his foot. His return from surgery has been slow, and this season has turned into a potential redshirt year for the rookie.
If Adams eventually finds himself on injured reserve, he won’t be the only one. The Packers placed fullback Joe Kerridge on injured reserve Saturday, ending his season with the team. Kerridge missed the preseason finale with a calf injury.
Without Kerridge, the Packers kept fullback Aaron Ripkowski among their five running backs. Rookie tailbacks Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Devante Mays each survived the cutdown, giving the Packers depth behind starting halfback Ty Montgomery.
Whatever roster move they make to add Brooks, the Packers have another decision awaiting in one week. Receiver Geronimo Allison starts the season with a one-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. He’s eligible to return after the Packers open against the Seattle Seahawks.
Among players the Packers released Saturday were fifth-round rookie receiver DeAngelo Yancey and seventh-round rookie receiver Malachi Dupre. The Packers also released second-year receiver Max McCaffrey and undrafted rookie receiver Michael Clark. Each of the four are candidates for the 10-player practice squad.
The Packers will carry five receivers into Week 1, then six after Allison’s suspension ends.
Tom Silverstein and Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed