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Packers GM Brian Gutekunst stresses versatility in molding 53-man roster

Jim Owczarski
Packers News

GREEN BAY - As the 2019 season developed, Aaron Jones proved to be a problem for defenses when he would split out from the backfield and line up as a wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers. And it wasn’t just because he had speed – he developed the ability to run choice routes and had reliable hands.

Fellow running back Jamaal Williams had perhaps the catch of the year, sliding in the back of Kansas City's end zone on an Aaron Rodgers scramble play.

When Jace Sternberger was activated off injured reserve as a rookie, the tight end would line up in the backfield as a lead back. Tight ends Robert Tonyan would split out in the slot or put a hand on the ground in line. Tyler Ervin was brought in to resurrect the Packers’ return game, but soon was being used in a variety of offensive formations.

Green Bay Packers running back Jamaal Williams (30) celebrates a touchdown off a throw by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, during the second half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019.

And that was just on offense. See Raven Greene, Will Redmond, Ibraheim Campbell and Za’Darius Smith as defensive players who could do multiple jobs for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine last year.

“Versatility” isn’t just a noun, but an adjective for players on head coach Matt LaFleur’s team and general manager Brian Gutekunst illustrated that with the shaping of the initial 2020 roster.

“That goes all the way back, you know, Ted (Thompson) was really big on the versatility piece just because in an NFL season as long as it is and the injuries you have to deal with, having players that can play multiple positions, that can do different things, whether it’s within the defense, offense or special teams it’s critically important,” Gutekunst said Sunday.

It might seem strange the Packers kept five receivers, and it is the first time since 2015 they’ve started at that number, but it was common in the Mike Sherman and Mike McCarthy years to keep that number. And headed into this year Jones, Williams and Ervin have proven they can be options out in space as route runners.

“I think the entire room, really, excels in that area,” Gutekunst said of the running back room. “Obviously Jamaal and Aaron have had a lot of experience there as well as Tyler, but AJ (Dillon) coming in and not being a big part of the passing game at Boston College because they didn’t have much of one, he’s shown outstanding hands. As he grows into his NFL career I think that’s going to be a big factor for him. I think he certainly has very natural hands. It’s nice to have a stable of backs that can all catch the ball.”

Rookie Josiah Deguara is officially listed as a tight end, but he’s essentially an “H-back” and can be moved around in a variety of spots at the start of a play. Sternberger could fit that mold as well.

“I’m really excited about that group,” LaFleur said of the tight ends. “Obviously it is a young group that maybe doesn’t have a ton of experience, but all of those guys can do a little something different.”

On the whole, the Packers kept 13 non-quarterback skill position players to begin prep for Minnesota on Sunday.

“We’re always looking and searching for those types of guys, guys that you can plug and play in different spots,” LaFleur said. “And that definitely, we’ve got a few of those players this year and it definitely affords us some luxury and flexibility from an offensive standpoint.”

On defense, Gutekunst kept five safeties with Adrian Amos, Darnell Savage, Greene, Redmond and Scott – with Redmond having a background as a cornerback and Greene and Scott possessing the body type to play a hybrid-linebacker type role. Rashan Gary is listed at 277 pounds and could provide depth on the edge of the defensive line if needed. Outside linebacker Randy Ramsey hasn’t been seen by fans after spending 2019 on the practice squad, but at 238 pounds he’s only five pounds heavier than inside linebacker Oren Burks and showed in camp he can move well in coverage.

Gutekunst may hark back to a previous era of roster building regarding having players be able to play multiple spots, but the 2020 team has been set up do it on a regular basis.

“That’s a big factor when we go about, kind of scouting the players and evaluating players and selecting them for the roster,” Gutekunst said. “The more you can do, and that’s a big part of it.”