Roster Builder 2019 has some tough decisions on defense for the armchair GMs out there. Give it a try at packersnews.com/rosterbuilder. Packers News
GREEN BAY - Other than battles at backup quarterback, second running back and third receiver, the decisions that will shape the Green Bay Packers 2019 roster aren't at the top of the depth chart.
They're in the trenches, where four young blockers compete for the final spots on the offensive line. They're in the defensive backfield, where two former Houston Texans compete for the final safety spot. And there at wide receiver, where a former SEC standout tries to hold off a small-college alumnus who wasn't drafted.
Here are some of the questions facing rookie head coach Matt LaFleur, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and other Packers officials as they build the roster.
YOU'RE THE GM: Build a Packers roster, but don't exceed the cap!
A GOOD READ: Matt LaFleur: A perfect pedigree for the Packers
O-line: Five candidates for three jobs
How often do we hear that offensive line is the place where players' ability to work as a unit is just as important as talent? That’s why the ninth and final guy on this unit truly must be the final piece of the puzzle.
The top six are set: veteran Bryan Bulaga and all-pro David Bakhtiari at tackle. The oft-underappreciated Corey Linsley at center. Veteran Lane Taylor, free-agent signee Billy Turner and rookie second-round draft pick Elgton Jenkins at guard.
The greatest needs, just like last year: a third tackle and a backup center.
Five young guys should battle for three spots. Tackle Alex Light enters his second year. So does Adam Pankey, who can play guard and both tackle spots. Rookie Cole Madison is a college tackle drafted as a guard who’s working at center. Justin McCray and Lucas Patrick are undrafted free-agent guards who’ve gotten work at center.
A backup tackle job opened last week when the Packers waived Jason Spriggs. Pankey's versatility likely wins him a spot. Madison has too much versatility and potential upside; even if he trails the others in camp, I think he makes the 53 so he can't be signed off the practice squad.
That leaves two third-year players for one spot.
McCray played 12 games last year, starting five. Patrick played 14, starting four. Patrick played more on special teams, but McCray wins by a nose. The team's depth chart lists him as the backup center, ahead of Madison. With three starting-caliber guards, McCray or Madison can slide into the fourth spot.
A potential upset: If the coaches have enough faith in Jenkins and the backups to release Taylor and his hefty contract. If that happens, Patrick snags the final spot.
Last DB: A fighting chance for Tyson?
The battle for the 10th defensive back spot was nearly a coin-flip. I’m going with Michael Tyson; former Badger Natrell Jamerson lands on the practice squad. Keeping Jamerson would mean three of the four safeties are undersized, and the Packers periodically bring a safety near the line of scrimmage as a linebacker-lite. (For this exercise, I'm assuming disgruntled safety Josh Jones will be cut or traded.)
Tyson, at 6-1, 210, makes more sense than Jamerson, who's 5-11, 201.
Both guys make the roster if the team keeps a fifth safety, though the fact that a couple cornerbacks are capable of sliding to safety limits that chance.
Sixth WR: Time to say ‘no Moore?’
I came into this exercise wanting to keep J’Mon Moore because of his speed, fourth-round pedigree and special-teams contributions, but he continues to have difficulty catching the ball. Jake Kumerow, meanwhile, does everything he's asked.
Because this team probably doesn’t need seven wideouts — it can stash one or two on the practice squad, there's, well, no Moore room.
If Moore, a 2018 fourth-round draft choice, lands on the practice squad, he's probably be signed by a team with a shallower receiving corps.
Last man standing: He's probably a defender
There might be debate about the offensive players who'll make the 53-man roster, but there seems to be little uncertainty about how many guys will be kept at each position.
Ages and roles virtually guarantee the team will keep four tight ends. That probably limits the wide-receiver corps to six. The lack of experience behind Aaron Rodgers, and the team's reluctance to risk losing Tim Boyle off the practice squad, points, for now, to three QBs rather than two. There might have been an outside chance the team would try to stash running back Dexter Williams on the PS, but his play so far seems to have made that unlikely. Three ball carriers and a fullback get kept.
Which brings us to the defense, and the question of what's more important: a fifth safety, a sixth defensive lineman, a fourth inside linebacker or a fifth outside linebacker.
This decision was so difficult that I changed my mind while writing the explanation.
One consequence of the dramatic improvement in defensive talent is how it changes the landscape for the former undrafted free agents. Instead of competing with fellow UFA Kentrell Brice, second-year safety Raven Greene now must battle guys with stronger backgrounds who can possibly pinch hit at corner: Natrell Jamerson and Mike Tyson.
Reggie Gilbert is in a similar boat. A year ago, he was an overachiever paying off the Packers free-agent gamble. This year, he's fifth on a depth chart that might only go four-deep; the only way he was moving up was if someone else got hurt.
Gilbert worked his way from undrafted free agent to guy who played 16 games last year and played the team's fifth most special teams snaps. But rookie inside ‘backer Ty Summers has the speed and strength to maybe be better than Gilbert on "specials."
Summers plays at a position of greater need. He makes it as a special-teamer and a backup ILB.
Next, teams other than the Rams, Chargers, Eagles and Panthers need more than five d-linemen; a lack of depth reduces the ability to stop the run in the fourth quarter.
With the Packers' increase in talent with the signings of edge rushers Za'darius and Preston Smith to replace Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the selection of Rashaan Gary and the willingness to try inside linebacker James Crawford on the outside too, this team needs a sixth lineman more than an outside linebacker.
Meet defensive lineman Fadol Brown, the 53rd and last member of the Packers roster — provided he's healthy. If not, Gilbert or Jamerson could be the guy.
Practice squad: Light, Lazard could land here
The practice squad serves two purposes. It’s a farm club of potential replacements should a member of the 53-man roster get hurt. And it’s a place to develop young players who have NFL potential but lack the polish to make the 53-man roster yet.
Caveat: We don’t know how LaFleur likes to build his practice squad.
Also, being on the PS means a player can be signed by any of the NFL’s other teams. We’ll head that off and say the Packers deal Gilbert for a draft choice near the end of camp, and Moore is signed by a team that needs a receiver.
Offensive depth: QB Manny Wilkins (or a QB cut by another team), WR Allen Lazard, OT Matt Light, WR Darrius Shepherd.
Raw-talent types who need polish: OT Yosh Nijman, CB Kabion Ento. Ento has the speed and athleticism of an NFL corner, and great size. But as a wide receiver throughout college, he needs time to learn the position.
Contact Doug Schneider at DSchneid@gannett.com or (920) 431-8333. Follow him on Twitter at @PGDougSchneider