GREEN BAY - It’s not that the Green Bay Packers have never entered a game with only two tailbacks. As injuries hit over the past several years, coach Mike McCarthy has chosen sporadically to have only two full-time ball carriers in his backfield on game days.
It happened late in 2017, when Aaron Jones’ sprained MCL left him inactive. It happened in 2016, when the Packers chose to ride with Eddie Lacy and James Starks early in the season. But on those occasions, the Packers' backfield always had an emergency solution.
Because McCarthy’s offense almost always had a fullback.
So the biggest surprise with Brian Gutekunst’s first 53-man roster as Packers general manager wasn’t that he kept only two tailbacks, though that is fewer than usual. The most surprising casualty of cutdown Saturday was that the Packers released fullback Aaron Ripkowski.
No, fullback isn’t considered a necessary position in today’s league, except it’s been that way in Green Bay. Since 2010, the Packers have entered a game without a fullback only three times. It hasn’t happened since 2014.
RELATED: Packers' 53-man roster, list of cuts
LIVE BLOG: Updates, analysis, Q&A from roster cutdown day
Without Ripkowski, a sixth-round pick in 2015 who has played in all but one game in his career, the Packers kept only two running backs on their initial 53-man roster. Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery will likely get a heavy workload when the Packers host the Chicago Bears next Sunday night, but it stands to reason Gutekunst’s work is undone.
A source indicated the Packers might bring Ripkowski back in the next few days. If he is claimed on waivers, the Packers could perhaps sign Joe Kerridge. Either way, if history is any metric, the Packers are likely to carry a fullback in 2018.
A confluence of factors made the Packers' backfield especially light. Jones was placed on the reserve/suspended list and won’t be activated until Week 3 at Washington after violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. The Packers also reached an injury settlement with running back Devante Mays, a seventh-round pick in 2017.
Mays missed almost all of camp after tearing his hamstring Aug. 3. A source said the Packers expressed interest in Mays rejoining them later this season, but the injury settlement complicates a reunion. It prevents the Packers from adding Mays to their practice squad, and also makes possible the opportunity for another team to sign him before he’s eligible to return to Green Bay.
Because of the physical toll it takes to play running back in the NFL, teams like to ensure they’re well stocked with bodies in their backfield. With only two running backs, the Packers are one injury away from relying on one tailback to carry the workload through an entire game. McCarthy has used receivers in the backfield in the past, but only in limited roles.
Williams and Montgomery have both dealt with injury this preseason. Williams sprained his ankle Week 2 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, though he has practiced since. Montgomery injured his foot Week 3 at the Oakland Raiders.
For Montgomery, injuries have been common. Two of his three seasons have ended prematurely on injured reserve, needing ankle surgery as a rookie in 2015 and wrist surgery in 2017. He also broke his ribs last season.
If the Packers add a running back to protect the position against injury, receiver would be the easiest place to steal an extra spot. The Packers kept eight wideouts Saturday, including Jake Kumerow, Trevor Davis and each of their three drafted rookies.
Kumerow injured his shoulder somersaulting into the end zone while scoring a touchdown in Week 2 of the preseason against the Pittsburgh Steelers and hasn’t played since. The Packers could end up placing him on injured reserve. Because he was on their initial 53-man roster, they would retain his rights through the season and have the option of bringing Kumerow back after eight weeks.
The Packers were also trying to find a trade partner for Davis, a source said. It’s possible they kept Davis, their top punt and kick return, on their roster instead of releasing him in order to facilitate a trade Sunday. Davis ranks second in the NFL with 12.2 yards per punt return over the past two years, but he missed almost the entire camp with a nagging hamstring injury before returning for the Packers' preseason finale in Kansas City.
The defense also isn’t immune to change. On the day the Packers lost the Khalil Mack sweepstakes to their NFC North rival Bears, a source said they remained in the hunt for outside linebackers. The Packers released former Wisconsin edge rusher Vince Biegel along with Chris Odom, two outside linebackers who spent last season on their roster, as well as seventh-round rookie Kendall Donnerson.
A year ago, the Packers added veteran Ahmad Brooks before their opener after the San Francisco 49ers released him.
It was a mild surprise the Packers released Biegel, the first pick in the fourth round in 2017. He missed half of his rookie season — and almost all of his first offseason — last year with a broken foot placing him on the physically unable to perform list. Biegel followed a five-tackle performance in Oakland with seven tackles in the preseason finale at Kansas City, but at a listed 246 pounds he was undersized for the position. Despite his tackle production, Biegel showed little pass-rush ability and was mostly a run-and-chase tackler.
Gutekunst continued predecessor Ted Thompson’s affinity for undrafted rookies. He kept four on the Packers' roster: quarterback Tim Boyle, tackle Alex Light, inside linebacker James Crawford and safety Raven Greene. Light’s spot on the roster opened when Packers backup tackle Kyle Murphy was waived injured (meaning he'll be released with an injury settlement), just as Green’s spot opened when defensive back Quinten Rollins was given the same designation.
Robert Tonyan, an undrafted rookie last year who was added to the practice squad midway through 2017, also was retained as a fourth tight end, joining veterans Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis and Lance Kendricks.
The question is whether the Packers will retain four tight ends — or four undrafted rookies — by Monday. Don’t be surprised if the Packers add another running back for Week 1.
And don’t be surprised if there’s a fullback.
Tom Silverstein and Jim Owczarski of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed.