Packers' practice-squad players provide important flexibility
GREEN BAY - Ask any team builder in the NFL, and it isn’t the 53 names that comprise an active roster that shape a season.
Coaches and executives frequently talk about the 63: the active roster, plus 10 players on the practice squad. If cutdown Saturday is all about finding the 53 players that could matter on game day, practice-squad Sunday is about retaining prospects who fit in the long-term context of a team’s success.
General manager Brian Gutekunst announced eight players were signed to the Green Bay Packers' practice squad Sunday. Two spots on their practice squad remained unfilled Sunday night, though that will likely change by Monday when the Packers begin their first game week.
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“We always have some minimum numbers at positions that we want to make sure we’re covered for because we do obviously have to play games,” Gutekunst said. “But after that I think we’re just trying to look for the best players, the guys that have really good upsides to develop, and the guys who are wired kind of the way we want them to be. There’s obviously a lot of discussions and opinions, and at the end of the day I have to make decisions.
“You try to just get the best 10 you can.”
Gutekunst said he expects each of the 53 players on the Packers' roster to play for the team at some point this season. That isn’t the case with practice-squad players, but they’re still significant. Just ask Reggie Gilbert, who spent the past two years on the practice squad before being elevated to the 53-man roster this season, how time off the active roster can still be invaluable.
Here’s a look at how each player the Packers added to their practice squad Sunday fits into the larger context.
Joe Bouagnon, RB
It may only be a piece of trivia in a few years, but the very first player Gutekunst added to his roster after being hired in January was Bouagnon. Gutekunst said the Packers' running back depth chart is an “evolving” position, suggesting they could enter their opener against Chicago with someone joining Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery in the backfield. Perhaps the Packers' third running back will be Bouagnon, who was undrafted out of Northern Illinois last season. At the very least, he provides depth at a position that has none. He led the Packers with 34 carries in the preseason, though he only produced 95 yards and 2.79 yards behind a struggling offensive line.
Austin Davis, C
Effectively, he’s the Packers' backup center. He isn’t the only offensive lineman taking snaps behind Corey Linsley, but Justin McCray and Lucas Patrick have shown center is not their best position. Not to mention McCray is the starting right guard, and it’s unlikely the Packers would slide him over if something happened to Linsley. Is Davis ready to get starter snaps? That’s the question. But Davis was a priority free agent after the draft, and he started 25 games at center at Duke. Linsley played every snap last season, but don’t be surprised if you see Davis should a backup be needed.
Kendall Donnerson, LB
He’s practically a sixth outside linebacker (just behind fellow rookie inside linebacker James Crawford), allowing the Packers to meet what has been a positional minimum of sorts, though in an unconventional way. A seventh-round pick this spring, Donnerson was really raw coming out of Southeast Missouri State – defensively and on special teams. That’s why the Packers fit him on their practice squad because he’ll need at least one year to develop before he’s ready to play. But at 6-3, 249 pounds and a 4.48-second 40, Donnerson has the physical tools that are worth developing. He won't have to contend with Vince Biegel, the Packers' fourth-round draft pick in 2017 who has moved on and signed with the New Orleans Saints practice squad.
Joe Kerridge, FB
With Aaron Ripkowski’s release, Kerridge is the Packers' fullback. It’s certainly possible Ripkowski returns, but there hasn’t been much separating him in the past from Kerridge, who retained practice-squad eligibility but has played 12 games with the Packers over the past two seasons. Kerridge’s presence probably made the Packers more willing to release Ripkowski, who was not claimed Sunday. Gutekunst said the Packers considered analytics in their evaluation of the fullback position, how little snaps a fullback plays and how much tight ends can duplicate their responsibilities. So perhaps the practice squad is the preferable place to stash a fullback, and this becomes a new norm.
Tyler Lancaster, DL
Through the entire offseason, it was apparent the Packers would keep five defensive linemen on their 53. Lancaster was an odd man out. He probably won’t elevate to the active roster unless there’s an injury, but at 6-3, 313 pounds, Lancaster has the size to play three-technique in the Packers' base 3-4 defense. He had just 3.5 sacks over three seasons at Northwestern, but his 18.5 tackles for loss were impressive.
James Looney, DL
A bit undersized at 6-3 and 287 pounds, the Packers drafted Looney for his burst as an interior pass rusher. The rookie had 5.5 sacks the past two seasons at Cal – along with 17 tackles for loss – and showed some of that ability during one-on-one drills in camp. He profiles differently than Lancaster, weighing almost 30 pounds lighter, giving the Packers a different kind of interior defensive lineman. Like any late-round pick, Looney needs to develop. He might have a chance to take the Reggie Gilbert track to an eventual spot on the Packers 53-man roster from the practice squad.
Greer Martini, ILB
It was surprising Martini lost a spot on the 53 to another undrafted rookie inside linebacker (Crawford), who made the active roster for his special-teams ability. Martini played all the special teams in camp, which seemed to be his pathway to make the team. But Martini won the battle for a practice squad spot over Ahmad Thomas, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts. Thomas preferred to stick with the Packers and thought he would have a spot, a source said Sunday but was turned away. Martini, who played college football at Notre Dame, has a chance to factor into the Packers’ long-term plans.
Adam Pankey, OL
If Pankey could play tackle serviceably, he probably would’ve been on the 53. But he’s better at guard than tackle, where he had a rough outing in the Packers' preseason finale at Kansas City. Pankey spent 16 weeks on the active roster as an undrafted rookie last season but appeared in only one game. The Packers have nine offensive linemen, so injuries would have to hit the group for Pankey to be a factor on the active roster.