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Two potentially important missing pieces return to Packers' practice

GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers have two spots open on their 53-man roster and there’s a good chance they’re being held for rookie inside linebacker Kamal Martin and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown.

The players are on injured reserve and have yet to play a snap this season, but both were on the practice field Monday as the team returned from its bye week.

Both are eligible to return to the 53-man roster at any time during the next three weeks but won’t count against it until they are activated. The three-week window allows the Packers time to evaluate their progress on the practice field without having to commit a roster spot.

However, if they don’t activate them within the three-week window, which began the minute they stepped on the practice field, the Packers must either place them on season-ending injured reserve or release them.

The Packers need both players.

Green Bay Packers linebacker Kamal Martin (54) is shown Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, during the team's first practice at training camp in Green Bay, Wis.

Martin was going to start next to veteran Christian Kirksey but injured his knee in practice Aug. 30 and underwent surgery the next day. The Packers have not revealed the exact injury, but NFL Network reported it was a torn meniscus in his left knee.

It has been six weeks since Martin hurt his knee and for at least the past two he has been working out on the sidelines at practice. The Packers will probably give him the entire week to see whether he’s ready to return or needs more time.

Kirksey made it through three games before being placed on injured reserve for the third year in a row. He injured his shoulder against New Orleans, and it isn’t clear how long he will be out.

However, the earliest he would be eligible to return would be Nov. 1 against Minnesota.

Undrafted rookie Krys Barnes filled in for Martin and performed exceptionally well, given he was barely on the team’s radar during training camp. He ranks second with 23 tackles and leads the team in tackles for loss with two.

He has been so reliable that against Atlanta the coaches gave him the radio helmet that Kirksey usually wears so he could call defensive plays.

Kirksey’s replacement has been Ty Summers, who has been around the ball a lot but also has missed too many tackles. He isn’t as good in pass coverage as either Barnes or Martin. If Martin does return, it’s possible he and Barnes would be the starters inside.

“He’s had a tremendous camp,” Barnes said. “He was drafted (fifth round). He’s a tremendous player all the way around, so we’re excited to get him back hopefully here pretty soon.

“And I’m excited to see him play and produce like we all know he will.”

The possible return of St. Brown from a knee injury he appeared to suffer in training camp would provide some depth at a position where Davante Adams (hamstring) and Allen Lazard (core muscle surgery) have missed a combined three games.

Adams returned to practice Monday and probably will play this week, but Lazard will be out for a while and the only other receivers on the roster are Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Tyler Ervin, Darrius Shepherd and Malik Taylor. The Packers signed practice squad receiver Reggie Begelton to the 53-man roster prior to the Atlanta game but cut him afterward and re-signed him to the practice squad.

Despite missing a combined three games, Adams and Lazard together have accounted for 37 targets, one more than all the other receivers combined. Shepherd, Ervin and Taylor have combined for just eight catches for 67 yards.

St. Brown was coming on during 2019 training camp when he suffered a season-ending right ankle injury in the third exhibition game. He went through the entire offseason program and made it through most of training camp, so it shouldn’t be too hard for him get acclimated.

The Packers put him on injured reserve Sept. 19 after it became clear he wasn’t progressing fast enough from the knee injury.

The two roster spots the Packers have available came open when Kirksey and Lazard were put on injured reserve Oct. 3.

Recharging time

Matt LaFleur couldn't help himself, deciding to return to Lambeau Field "a few times" over the bye last week, but he was pleased with what he saw.

Or, more specifically, LaFleur was pleased with what he did not see.

"The halls," he said, "were pretty empty, which was a good thing. Because I do think everybody needs to recharge during this time. You have to take advantage of it, because the season is long."

The Packers returned from their early Week 5 bye with Monday's practice inside the Don Hutson Center. It was their first day of full-time preparation for Sunday's game against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Packers returned to practice with zero positive tests after the team's week away, LaFleur said. Players and coaches were forced to stay in northeast Wisconsin, a new coronavirus hot spot that has been inundated with high infection rates, because of the league's COVID-19 protocols limiting bye-week travel. LaFleur noted it will take a few days to know if the Packers avoided the virus completely.

"Really, you're never out of the clear, right?" LaFleur said. "Especially, with where we're living. But I think our guys are being responsible and taking the appropriate actions to make sure that we all stay safe."

LaFleur said position players were tasked with communicating with their players during the bye. He did not provide specifics in terms of any activities to help pass the time, but believes the communication prevented players from feeling isolated during the week.

Barnes said he and his roommate, fellow rookie and former high school teammate Jordan Love, passed time playing video games. 

"At this point," Barnes said, "I'm kind of used to it. With COVID, you can't really go anywhere, can't really do too much anyway. I'm more of a home body as it is, so for me it was like, I'm just going to be at home, get on the game, watch some film. I took advantage of it, honestly, to get my body right, stayed in the training room and continued to try to get my body to where it needs to be for the upcoming weeks." 

Turning up the heat

With temperatures in northeast Wisconsin already plummeting, the Packers found themselves with a poor time to prepare for sunny Florida.

The Packers will be greeted by a high temperature of 85 degrees when they travel to play the Buccaneers on Sunday. Sounds pleasant this time of year, unless you have to play a football game for three hours.

With temperatures dipping below 50 degrees later this week – including an expected high of 49 degrees Sunday – the Packers won't be able prepare for the Florida heat, no matter how high they turn the heat inside their indoor practice facility.

"I think that's a tough thing to simulate," LaFleur said. "We'll do our best. We definitely had it cranked up in there, and it was nice and sweltry, if that's the right word. But our guys are going to have to do a great job during the week making sure that they're taking in the proper fluids because we don't want any problems on Sunday."

Playing disciplined

Through four games the Packers have been flagged 22 times, with 19 penalties being accepted. Their average of 4.8 penalties per game is eighth best in the NFL. While penalties in general are down, the Packers averaged 6.1 flags per game in 2019.

“I also think the players take a lot of pride in that, as well,” LaFleur said. “It comes down to fundamentals and trying to trust your training and also just be disciplined, so our guys have done a good job with that.”

Za’Darius Smith has been the most penalized Packer through the first quarter of the season with four, three of which have resulted in opponent first downs. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Kevin King and Lucas Patrick have been flagged twice each, though one of Patrick’s was declined.

Offensive holding has been the infraction most committed by the Packers, with five.

On special teams, coordinator Shawn Mennenga’s group has been called for just one, an offside on an extra point.

“Knocking on wood, we’ve had the one penalty on jumping across early on a field-goal block and stuff, but guys have done a good job with the techniques and those kind of things,” Mennenga said. “And we continue to try to be disciplined and do those things and give ourselves a chance and be penalty-free. I’ve been pleased with what we’re doing and the understanding for the guys and we continue to try to keep reinforcing that.”

Tight end joins practice squad

The Packers filled out their 16-person practice squad Monday by signing undrafted rookie tight end Dominique Dafney.

Dafney played wide receiver, and some fullback, at Indiana State but is a tight end prospect at 6 feet, 6 inches and 235 pounds. Dafney spent some time with Indianapolis in late August and had a workout in New England in late September. After spending time initially at Iowa Western Community College, Dafney played at Iowa in 2017-18 before transferring to Indiana State in 2019. He had 439 rushing yards and caught 15 passes for 196 yards.