In Ted Thompson’s first season as the Green Bay Packers’ general manager, 2005, he badly needed a starting weak-side linebacker.
So he traded Chris Johnson, a third-year cornerback with injury issues and exceptional speed, for St. Louis Rams linebacker Robert Thomas.
It was a rare move for Thompson, who in 10 seasons since then has made only three trades at the end of training camp to immediately help his team. The others were an inconsequential swap of backup running backs (acquiring Vernon Morency for Samkon Gado) in 2006; an important shoring up of a weak group of running backs (acquiring Ryan Grant for a sixth-round draft pick) in ’07; and a trade of a backup offensive lineman for a backup safety (Tony Moll for Derrick Martin) in ’09.
So it’s been seven years since Thompson has made a deal at or near final cuts. And as an object lesson for why he’s been smart to retain depth where he’s had it, look to 2010, when he had a glut of inside linebackers (Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, Brandon Chillar, Brad Jones and Desmond Bishop).
Thompson didn’t trade any of them, and it turned out to be a great decision, because he needed them all. Barnett, Chillar and Jones ended the season on injured reserve, and Bishop came through alongside Hawk as one of several reasons the Packers won the Super Bowl.
So yes, odds are slim that Thompson will make a trade at final cuts next weekend. But maybe, just maybe, he'll have his top personnel advisers — Eliot Wolf, Alonzo Highsmith and Brian Gutekunst — working the phones harder this week. And that’s because the Packers’ depth of NFL-quality receivers goes beyond what they can keep, while their roster screams out for help at defensive line.
RELATED: Build your own Packers roster
NFL teams normally keep either five or six receivers. The Packers can make room this year for a seventh, as rare as that would be. Eight just isn’t viable, especially with their unusual depth in the defensive backfield with this year’s exceptional class of undrafted free agents.
Yet, the Packers have eight receivers who will play in the NFL this year: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery, Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Janis, fifth-round pick Trevor Davis and undrafted rookie Geronimo Allison.
Using the temporary IR exemption on Janis (broken hand) doesn’t provide a way out. For a player to be eligible, he has to be on the 53-man roster at final cuts; the next day he can go on IR and then return six weeks later at the earliest. If Janis goes on IR before that, he’s out for the season. But he’s the Packers’ best all-around special teams player, and they want him on the field this year. His injury probably won’t keep him out longer than the first three games of the regular season.
So even keeping an extra, seventh receiver means cutting one of the above. And that almost surely comes down to Davis or Allison.
Allison has great size (6-feet-3) and has played better of the two overall in camp – most recently, he had three catches for 78 yards against San Francisco on Friday night to Davis’ one catch for nine yards. At this point, Allison has played so well that if the Packers cut him, it’s a given another team would claim him on waivers.
But Davis has a quality the Packers’ desperately need at that position: speed (4.42-second 40). He showed that early in the third quarter against the 49ers when he ran past two defensive backs but was barely overthrown by third-string quarterback Joe Callahan. Davis, too, would be attractive to other teams because of his speed.
So unless an injury intervenes this week, Thompson could face the choice of trading a receiver, or losing a promising one while getting nothing in return.
Then there’s the gaping need at defensive line. It was nothing less than shocking to see Mike Pennel starting at defensive tackle against the 49ers with Letroy Guion (knee) and Kenny Clark (back) out because of injuries. Pennel is a good player, but he has a drug suspension for the first four games, and the Packers never play suspended players with their starters in preseason games.
That was the strongest sign yet of how thin they are on the defensive line. The Packers obviously wanted a good performance in their dress-rehearsal game and don’t think fourth-round pick Dean Lowry, second-year pro Christian Ringo and undrafted rookie Brian Price are ready to contribute in their primary defense, the nickel. And they’re right.
Lowry has upside because of his size (6-5½, 296) and athleticism (4.87-second 40), and he’s going to make the team, but he’s not ready for the rotation to start the season. He’s still too slow in recognizing whether a block is run or pass, and too slow to shed.
Ringo isn’t explosive for a short (6-0½) defensive lineman. He might or might not even make the final 53.
And though Price is in the running for a roster spot, he isn’t quick laterally and sometimes gets pushed around because he stands up to peek into the backfield. He’s better suited for the practice squad.
That leaves Mike Daniels, Guion and Clark as the main interior defensive linemen for the first four games, and that rotation is too short. Thompson really needs a readymade fourth. Maybe the GM can get that guy in a trade for Allison or, if he’s willing to part with a recent second-round pick, even Adams. Or maybe he can get really lucky and find help on the waiver wire after final cuts.
But if Thompson doesn’t do something, the Packers’ defensive line could have a rough go of the first month. The fallback probably is playing Julius Peppers more as an inside lineman on early downs. But that’s not what the 36-year old is here for. He’s here to rush the passer.
» The Packers need Jake Ryan (hamstring) at starting inside linebacker for the regular-season opener. His reactions are quicker than Sam Barrington’s. Ryan returned to individual and group drills last week, so he presumably will advance to team drills this week.
» JC Tretter is as good a fallback center as there is in the league and will be a starter for someone beyond this season, but we saw Friday night the difference between him and injured Corey Linsley (hamstring). Tretter is excellent at getting out to the linebacker level to block in the run game, but he often gets pushed back a yard that Linsley doesn’t when a defensive lineman lines up over him. That doesn’t blow up a run play, but it allows the running back fewer cutback lanes.
» Among the Packers’ four eye-catching undrafted rookie defensive backs – safeties Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans, and cornerbacks Josh Hawkins and Makinton Dorleant – Brice probably has the best chance of becoming a starter a couple years down the road. Besides his range in pass defense (4.43-second 40, 42-inch vertical) he’s also a thumper in the run game.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1