Aaron Nagler discusses the release of cornerback LaDarius Gunter and defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois and the return of wide receiver Geronimo Allison from suspension. (Sept. 12, 2017)
GREEN BAY - Eight months ago, LaDarius Gunter was shadowing Odell Beckham Jr. in a playoff game, and more than holding his own.
Nobody knew what would happen in the coming weeks. Gunter's playoffs struggles against Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant and Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones were still in the future. With safety help over the top, Gunter held one of the NFL’s most explosive receivers to four catches and 28 yards in the Packers' wild-card win against the New York Giants.
On Tuesday, the Packers released him.
Gunter’s release clears a roster spot for the Packers to activate receiver Geronimo Allison. The Packers needed to make room on their 53-man roster with Allison’s return from a one-game suspension. Instead, they made two.
The Packers also will release defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois, a source said Tuesday. Jean Francois’ release was not reflected on the wire. Adam Schefter of ESPN was the first to report Jean Francois’ release.
Gunter made the Packers' roster as an undrafted rookie out of Miami in 2015. His lack of speed, showcased with a 4.69 40 at that year’s NFL scouting combine, always was going to be an impediment against elite NFL receivers. Yet Gunter’s solid press-man technique and knack for making plays overcame his athletic limitations.
Staying healthy in a depleted secondary, Gunter led Packers cornerbacks with 859 snaps in 2016. When they needed someone to cover Beckham, Bryant and Jones in last season’s playoffs, they turned to their former undrafted corner over 2015 first- and second-round picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.
During organized team activities this spring, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said Gunter was one of the primary reasons the Packers advanced to the NFC championship game.
“I put LaDarius in some very hard situations,” Whitt said. “The last two games I probably shouldn’t have put him in the situations that I did, but it was best for the team. Out of the 19 games that we played, he probably had as many winning performances as anybody on the team. Now, he did have some hard games. Both Dallas games were hard. That second Atlanta game was hard. But he matched up in both games and played really well. Both Chicago games he played really well. Houston, we gave him no help, he played really well against a very good receiver (DeAndre Hopkins).
“Hopefully, with the addition of the men that we add back to the room, and we can take a little bit of that stress off his play, and he doesn’t have to take some of the coverages that Sam (Shields) was taking, he’s going to play at a higher level consistently throughout the year. But the way he went out there and fought, and he did everything that we asked, you can’t ask any more from a man. And I put him in bad situations at times, but I thought it was best for the football team. And you’ve got to make a decision, what you think is best for the football team. And that’s what I did in that case.”
With Randall and Rollins healthy, Gunter quickly fell out of the rotation. He played only two snaps in Sunday’s opening win against the Seahawks.
The Packers kept seven cornerbacks on their initial 53-man roster this season. They now have six, with second-year corner Josh Hawkins and rookie Lenzy Pipkins. Like Gunter, Hawkins and Pipkins joined the Packers as undrafted corners.
There also are fewer players on the Packers' defensive line. The Packers likely will carry only four defensive linemen into Sunday’s game in Atlanta.
Jean Francois, whom the Packers had long pursued before this spring, was part of an offseason movement to bring more depth to the defensive line. There was hope Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry would emerge in their second seasons, but general manager Ted Thompson wasn’t willing to take their development for granted.
Through the Packers' offseason program and training camp, Clark and Lowry made significant strides. They, along with Mike Daniels, cemented themselves as a top three in the Packers' defensive line rotation. Jean Francois played only six snaps Sunday in the Packers' opening win against the Seattle Seahawks.
Daniels played 38 snaps, Clark played 37 and Lowry topped the backup rotation with 15.
The Packers already have Jean Francois' replacement on the defensive line. Quinton Dial, at 6-5 and 318 pounds, has the positional versatility to play inside as a tackle and outside as a defensive end, much like the Packers planned to do with Jean Francois.
Dial, who signed Sept. 5, had only one practice before Sunday’s game and was not on the 46-man game-day roster. Barring injury, he’ll be active this week against the Falcons.
“That’s the goal,” Dial said, “to be active next week. We’ll see how it goes. I ain’t too fond of watching.”
Rookie Montravius Adams was in pads last week for the first time since being drafted in the third round this spring, but he was limited to individual drills in practice. Adams, the Packers' fifth defensive linemen, likely will need at least a couple weeks before he returns in full from foot surgery.
In the past two weeks, the Packers have lost three rotational pieces to their defensive line.
They released Brian Price on cut-down weekend and planned to put him on their practice squad, but the Dallas Cowboys claimed him on waivers. Three days later, they released Christian Ringo to clear space on their 53 for Dial, but the Cincinnati Bengals claimed Ringo before the Packers could place him on the practice squad,
With their roster at 52, the Packers have an open spot if they have any interest in bringing back Ringo, who was released Tuesday by the Bengals.
Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report