GREEN BAY – Formulating a 53-man roster is all about making tough decisions, and Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst will have some doozies before the weekend is through.
A combination of youth and experience – more roster diversity than most years – will force the first-time GM to consider short-term success and long-term development. Special teams always factor into final roster spots, but the Packers have a handful of players whose value on the 53 would almost entirely be that phase of the game.
Then there are the draft picks to consider. The Packers welcomed a large haul of 11 drafted players this spring, and Gutekunst will want to keep them in the system – whether on the active roster or practice squad.
There are plenty of tough decisions ahead. The Packers have until 3 p.m. Saturday to finalize their initial 53-man roster. Following is a projection of what that roster will look like, along with a big question that will be answered at each position.
QUARTERBACK (3): Aaron Rodgers, DeShone Kizer, Tim Boyle.
The big question: Would a win-now, Super Bowl-or-bust team like the Packers really take away from another position that could contribute on the field for a developmental quarterback that won’t factor into the team’s success this season?
Remember when it was such tragedy that the Packers lost Taysom Hill on waivers last season? Well, Boyle is playing the same role this summer, and Hill’s tenure in New Orleans is on thin ice after the Saints traded for Teddy Bridgewater. Boyle probably won’t be the last intriguing quarterback prospect the Packers find. So does it make sense to put him on the 53 when it removes a spot at another position? The Packers seemed to give their answer Thursday night. Hard to imagine they’re intent to put Boyle on the practice squad after playing him all but two possessions. For his part, Boyle had a shaky night. The undrafted rookie showed the bad decisions that led to interception problems in college. But his arm strength is pro caliber, and that’s hard to find. Boyle can really drive the ball downfield, a necessary skill to win at the highest level. Ultimately, there just isn’t much that separates Boyle from Kizer, a dynamic athlete who is also raw, especially in the Packers' system. That might be why the Packers keep both.
RUNNING BACK (3): Jamaal Williams, Ty Montgomery, Aaron Ripkowski.
The big question: Do the Packers need to beef up their backfield to start the season while Aaron Jones serves his two-game suspension?
Williams hasn’t played since injuring his ankle against Pittsburgh, though he has practiced. Montgomery injured his foot in Oakland. Each year, it seems a position is decimated by injury, and this year it’s running backs. Add Jones’ suspension, and it would make sense to beef up the backfield early in the season but, you guessed it, injuries obscure that possibility. Devante Mays, a seventh-round pick last year, missed the entire preseason and hasn’t practiced since Aug. 3. He was one of my last cuts. If healthy, it makes sense to keep him on the 53, at least until Jones returns. Just don’t know where he is in his recovery from the hamstring injury. The fact he’s fighting for a roster spot but was unable to dress Thursday night probably isn’t a good sign.
RECEIVER (7):Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, J’Mon Moore, Trevor Davis, Equanimeous St. Brown.
The big question: How do you evaluate Jake Kumerow’s status?
It’s possible the play that sealed Jake Kumerow’s spot on the 53 also knocked him off it. One of the most impressive moments for any receiver this month came when Kumerow caught a shallow pass and broke it into an 82-yard touchdown, making a Steelers safety miss in the open field on his way into the end zone. Once there, Kumerow somersaulted across the goal line and hasn’t been seen since, because the impact against the ground injured his shoulder. Rodgers pushed hard for Kumerow to make the team early in camp, but his absence has been a problem with a receiver depth chart so full of young, developmental prospects. Davis’ value to the 53 is clear because of special teams. The rookie receivers are investments for the future. Kumerow is … injured. It’s a lousy way to get cut, but that can happen this time of year.
TIGHT ENDS (3): Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis, Lance Kendricks.
The big question: Can Robert Tonyan challenge the status quo and make tight end a four-man depth chart?
Tonyan gave the Packers something to think about in Kansas City, ending his preseason with four catches for 31 yards and a touchdown. Though his blocking remains nonexistent, he has shown his athleticism in the passing game throughout the preseason, with eight catches for 61 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Meanwhile, Kendricks hasn’t shown much production this month, but he’s a veteran who seems to have his quarterback’s trust. (Rodgers was sure to include Kendricks in the group of players practicing the right way earlier this month.) The Packers probably prefer to keep Tonyan on their practice squad – keeping more than three tight ends might not be feasible – but the 6-5, 237-pound tight end could get snatched up on waivers.
OFFENSIVE LINE (9): David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga, Corey Linsley, Lane Taylor, Justin McCray, Jason Spriggs, Kyle Murphy, Byron Bell, Lucas Patrick.
The big question: Which backups do you trust?
It was a pretty dismal preseason for the Packers' backup offensive line. Their starters should form one of the better units in the NFL, but injuries are common in the trenches. Spriggs built on an OK outing in Oakland with a decent outing in Kansas City, which is probably enough to seal his spot. Murphy is injured and had a brutal showing in Oakland, both of which make his spot less tenable – but when healthy his body of work makes him the team’s third-best offensive tackle. Bell is a veteran and has positional versatility, two things the Packers like. Patrick, too, has positional versatility with the ability to play all three interior spots, though he’s much better at guard. Pankey could entice the Packers to keep 10 offensive linemen, something they did last season, but he narrowly misses the cut in this projection.
DEFENSIVE LINE (5): Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Muhammad Wilkerson, Dean Lowry, Montravius Adams.
The biggest question: Is this really the only position without a big question?
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This is the easiest position to call – by far. The Packers will keep five defensive linemen, and collectively it should be the strength of their defense. Of course, that’s on paper. Often, what looks good in August can crumble by December. Will the Packers' seemingly strong defensive line hold up through the season or become fool’s gold? That’s the big question with this group.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (5): Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Reggie Gilbert, Kyler Fackrell, Vince Biegel.
The big question: Are the Packers putting too much emphasis on their draft investments?
Fackrell’s spot on the 53 seems likely, and despite a quiet preseason – just 1.5 sacks, none in the final two weeks – he brings value to the special teams. Biegel had a lot of tackles – following his five tackles in Oakland with seven in Kansas City – but showed almost no pass-rush ability, the true mark of the position. He’s a run-and-chase tackler who, at an ultralight 6-3 and 246 pounds, gets pushed around when setting the edge. The biggest question at this position is why Chris Odom didn’t get more exposure, given the light production from Fackrell and Biegel. Odom, undrafted out of Arkansas State last year, spent his entire rookie season on the active roster after the Packers claimed him off waivers from the Atlanta Falcons. He hardly played, just 59 snaps while appearing in seven games, but his inclusion on the roster was seen as an investment for the future. It’s strange, then, that Odom played so little in the preseason, only reaching 20 snaps in a game once (22 against the Steelers). That’s the sign of a team that’s either moved on from a prospect or, perhaps more likely in this case, intends to stash a player on their practice squad. That would make sense if the Packers were brimming with depth at outside linebacker, but they most certainly are not. If Fackrell and Biegel can’t give them more, the Packers’ decision to not give Odom a full look this preseason will come back to hurt them.
INSIDE LINEBACKER (4): Blake Martinez, Oren Burks, Antonio Morrison, Greer Martini.
The big question: Greer Martini or Ahmad Thomas?
Martini or Thomas? Thomas or Martini? This might be the toughest call on the roster. On one hand, Thomas seems to give this particular group more of what it needs. The Packers traded for Morrison to play him on early, run downs. Thomas, a college safety at Oklahoma, could give the Packers more athleticism in pass coverage than Martini. That’s significant. It’s just impossible to ignore the Packers playing Martini on all their special teams, not to mention their history with keeping undrafted rookies on the 53. It’s a complete guess here, but special teams usually decide final roster spots. It probably didn’t hurt that Martini had five tackles and a defended pass in Kansas City (Thomas had one tackle).
CORNERBACK (6): Kevin King, Tramon Williams, Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, Davon House, Demetri Goodson.
The big question: Which cornerback gets the final spot(s)?
In theory, the Packers could keep only five cornerbacks, but the team has stocked up in their defensive backfield in the past couple years. If they keep an extra corner, Goodson would bring the most clear-defined value, but it wouldn’t be as a corner. Goodson is among the team’s best special-teams players, a favorite of special teams coordinator Ron Zook. Josh Hawkins, who has spent the past two seasons on the Packers' roster after being undrafted out of East Carolina, could also make a run at a spot. But the Packers enter this season expecting to have a deeper group of corners, giving them the flexibility to keep a special teams player at this position, and Goodson is one of their best.
SAFETY (5): Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Kentrell Brice, Josh Jones, Jermaine Whitehead, Quinten Rollins.
The big question: Did Quinten Rollins’ move to safety salvage his career?
Rollins is listed as a cornerback on the Packers' roster, but in effect he has been moved to safety. That’s where he has repped in practice and played in games, manning either the slot, dime linebacker or playing on the back end. Rolling did not figure to have a great shot at the roster entering camp, because his diminished speed after tearing his Achilles last year was not conducive to playing the field’s perimeter. He can still do some things closer to the line of scrimmage, though, and has versatility to play multiple spots in the secondary.
SPECIALISTS (3): Mason Crosby, JK Scott, Hunter Bradley.
The big question: Would Gutekunst cut a long snapper he drafted?
It’s possible the Packers keep no long snapper on their initial 53 and turn to old reliable, the trusted veteran Brett Goode. Such has become a yearly tradition of late. It’s also possible the Packers keep Zach Triner, who has been more consistent than Bradley in camp. Is it possible Gutekunst cuts Bradley? Sure, but it would look pretty silly. He drafted Bradley in the seventh round. So if Bradley were cut, the question would become, why not take a flyer late in the draft at a position of infinitely more value, such as another outside linebacker. It’s never good to compound a mistake with keeping the wrong player, but the difference between Bradley and Triner just isn’t that great. Bradley was drafted to be the Packers' long snapper of the future, and the guess here is he gets more of an opportunity than one camp.