Packers outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith discusses the defense's challenge against the Broncos and Joe Flacco, his former teammate in Baltimore. Olivia Reiner, PackersNews
GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers did not practice Wednesday with head coach Matt LaFleur electing to give his players' bodies time to rest – and when the injury report was released later that afternoon it was revealed that tight end Jimmy Graham would not have practiced due to a groin injury.
On Thursday, the club brought tight end Evan Baylis up from the practice squad to help bolster that position in advance of Sunday’s game against Denver. Graham did not practice.
"Evan does everything the right way," LaFleur said. "It's awesome when you get a chance to reward someone that's worked so hard and has done such a great job and we see it every day in practice. For him to get that opportunity, I'm excited for him."
Baylis impressed during training camp, especially with his blocking ability. He caught three passes for 23 yards and a touchdown in the preseason.
“Evan Baylis had done a really, really good job,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said at the end of August. “I love his energy with us. I think he’s been, in the most respectful way, very pleasantly surprising with his versatility. He’s been great at the point of attack blocking and he’s made a lot of plays downfield.”
Baylis is 6-5 and 250 pounds and will wear No. 88.
The Packers re-signed wide receiver Keon Hatcher to the practice squad to fill Baylis’ spot. Hatcher was a free agent who was cut by Oakland at the start of the regular season. He had spent about a month in Green Bay on the practice squad last season.
The Packers opened up a spot on their 53-man active roster Wednesday by trading wide receiver Trevor Davis to Oakland for a sixth-round pick.
New look to return game
Darrius Shepherd was one of the feel-good stories of training camp for the Green Bay Packers, going from a tryout player during the May rookie minicamp to earning a spot on the 53-man roster at the end of August. Now, he may be in the spotlight as the team’s primary punt returner.
The rookie out of North Dakota State just returned to practice after missing the first two weeks with a hamstring injury, but with the trade of returns specialist Trevor Davis to Oakland there are now punts to be returned.
Shepherd did it in the preseason and handled 44 in his college career, averaging 13.1 yards per return with one touchdown.
“Very comfortable,” Shepherd said of returning punts. “I’ve been doing it since high school. It’s actually one of the things I enjoy most about football is going back there and having those people running down at you. It’s a thrill and a really fun play where you can change the tone of the game.”
Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga wouldn’t name a kick returner or punt returner specifically Thursday night but did allow that recently acquired Tremon Smith and Shepherd were the primary options. He also said he had no issue having two players handle the duties as opposed to just one.
Smith has not returned punts in the NFL but did at Central Arkansas, and Mennenga feels he’s a smooth catch on punts. The second-year player claimed off waivers from Kansas City was one of the league’s better kick returners in 2018.
“Excited to see what they can do,” Mennenga said. “I think they each have their strengths and things we’re going to try to accentuate. It’s been a busy 24 hours but coming from Kansas City, we’re kind of in the same family of special teams. Even a lot of our terminology is the same and stuff. So even as we’re going through things with him, you could see kind of a smile on his face like, ‘OK, that’s what we called it there and stuff.’ He’s probably going to be able to hit the ground a little bit faster than coming from somewhere else.
“Obviously, Darrius and those guys have been here and stuff. It’s been busy but again that’s the nature of the job. Those guys will be ready to go because they’re good pros and they’re hungry.”
Meanwhile, the Davis trade is official and the Packers will receive an unconditional 2020 sixth-round pick from the Raiders.
The Packers now have two sixth-round picks and two-seventh round picks next year.
Through the first two games, receivers Davis (23), Jake Kumerow (7), Allen Lazard (zero) and Shepherd (zero) combined for 30 snaps.
Assuming two-receiver sets on every down, the foursome accounted for just 10.9% of the receiver snaps.
Davis is gone via a trade to Oakland, but LaFleur said he would like to get more receivers involved in the offense rather than rely solely on Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison.
“I think we’ve got to do a better job of rotating those guys in. just to keep the starters fresh,” LaFleur said. “I think it’s hard to play 60-plus plays at receiver with what we expect in terms of the effort on each and every play.”
In addition to running routes, receivers must block in the run game because the outside zone scheme often means the ball is coming their way. And even when it’s not, they must shield off defenders on the backside.
LaFleur said continuity is important as he implements his new offense, but not so much that he can’t get guys like Kumerow on the field.
“In the critical situations, I’d say more in your red zone and your third down is where you want that continuity but first and second down we feel pretty comfortable with rolling in those guys,” LaFleur said.
Dinner’s on me
Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith had already been elected as a year-long captain, but he didn’t do anything to hurt his standing by announcing to the defense that he was taking them out for dinner.
“Guys was like, ‘Z, what’s the limit?’” Smith said.
There is no limit. Don’t shed a tear for Smith. He’s pulling in $22.5 million this year.
“Just me being me,” he said. “I want to take the guys out and just get to know everybody outside of football. I feel like we’re in Green Bay and that’s one thing we can do is get together more after work. That will be good for the defense.”
In addition to Graham (groin) missing practice, defensive end Montravious Adams (shoulder) and inside linebacker Oren Burks (pec) did not take part in the Thursday padded practice.
Added to the injury report was guard Lane Taylor (biceps) and running back Jamaal Williams (ankle), both of whom were limited participants. Kumerow (shoulder) returned to practice on a limited basis and safety Darnell Savage (shin) went from limited to full participation.