Early in training camp it looked like the Green Bay Packers could save a roster spot by putting fifth-round draft pick Brett Hundley on their practice squad as their No. 3 quarterback.
But in the past week or so, Hundley’s play in practice and his first preseason game have changed that. Unless he backslides in the three remaining preseason games, which the 31 other NFL teams will see on videotape, the Packers would be taking a significant risk if they cut him on the assumption he’d be available for their practice squad.
All it would take is one quarterback-desperate team to see something it liked in Hundley as a developmental prospect, and he’d be lost on waivers. So the best guess for now is general manager Ted Thompson will keep Hundley on the final 53.
On the other hand, the Packers’ two or three likely suspensions to start the regular season mean their hardest cuts probably will come after the end of training camp.
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Datone Jones is suspended for the opener and Letroy Guion for the first three games, pending appeal. So the Packers likely will be down two defensive linemen to start the season, though they won’t count on the roster.
Tight end Andrew Quarless also is a good bet for suspension after being charged with firing a gun in public in Miami in July. His next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 24, though any punishment by the NFL probably is on hold until the case is settled, which may or may not happen at that time.
So in reality, when the Packers reduce their roster to the NFL limit of 53 by 5 p.m. Sept 5, they’ll for all practical purposes be cutting to 55 (or even 56, depending on Quarless) instead of 53.
With two of the suspensions on the defensive line, Thompson probably will have to keep at least one extra player there. If all three players are suspended, that still could leave two extra spots for other positions for the opener.
If I had to pick now, I’d go on offense with three quarterbacks, five receivers, five running backs, three tight ends (with or without Quarless suspended) and nine offensive linemen.
On defense, assuming two suspensions on the line, I’d go with five defensive linemen (plus the two suspended players), nine linebackers, six cornerbacks and five safeties.
Plus three specialists and you have 53.
Here’s the roster outlook by position:
Defensive line (5 to 7)
Locks: Mike Daniels, B.J. Raji
Good bet: Mike Pennel
On the bubble: Josh Boyd, Bruce Gaston, Christian Ringo, Khyri Thornton
Long shot: Lavon Hooks
Suspended: Datone Jones, Letroy Guion
Summary: Pennel has too much size (6-4, 332) and strength not to make it and could end up with a big role as a run defender this season.
Jones hasn’t been the inside rusher the Packers projected when they selected him in the first round in 2013 and could be in slight danger of being the biggest-name cut after his one-game suspension to start the season. But in the end, it’s hard to see the Packers cutting bait after two years, so on his return he falls into the good bet category.
Boyd, Gaston, Ringo and Thornton are going for at least two and maybe as many as four spots for Week 1, though one or two would then go when the suspensions end. Gaston, signed off Arizona’s practice squad late last season, has had the best camp of the four and adds inside pass rush. Ringo, a sixth-round draft pick, is the most intriguing because of his inside rush potential, but if he doesn’t show more in the final three games he could be headed for the practice squad.
Boyd has been better than Thornton so far. Both of their motors run a little hot and cold, but Boyd is more consistent as a run defender. Thornton had several solid plays last week against New England but also is more prone to getting washed out or stuck on blocks. If Thornton is cut either at the reduction to 53 or after the suspensions, he’d be the earliest third-round pick Thompson has waived except for receiver Terrence Murphy, who was released after one season because of a career-ending neck injury.
Linebackers (9 or 10)
Locks: Clay Matthews (ILB, OLB), Julius Peppers (OLB), Sam Barrington (ILB), Mike Neal (OLB), Nick Perry (OLB).
Good bets: Andy Mulumba (OLB), Jake Ryan (ILB), Nate Palmer (ILB), Jayrone Elliott (OLB)
On the bubble: Joe Thomas (ILB), James Vaughters (OLB), Adrian Hubbard (OLB).
Long shots: Jermauria Rasco (OLB), Carl Bradford (ILB), Josh Francis (ILB), Tavarus Dantzler (ILB).
Summary: Mulumba is pushing Neal and Perry for playing time in the rotation at outside linebacker. He’s been the healthiest of the three in camp and looks better than ever rushing the passer after knee reconstruction surgery last year.
Elliott has been playing regularly on all the special teams plus had half a sack and a tackle for loss in the preseason opener. Hard to see him not making it after breaking through last season as an undrafted rookie.
It’s unclear whether the fourth-round pick Ryan or Palmer is the No. 3 inside linebacker, though Ryan might have the edge. Ryan has been healthy whereas Palmer is hindered playing with a protective club over his injured hand, plus the rookie figures to have a higher learning curve as camp goes on.
Vaughters (6-2, 254), an undrafted rookie, has made a move in the past week or so and been outplaying Hubbard (6-6, 257), who was on the practice squad all last season. Thomas, who spent the second half of last season on the practice squad, might not be stout enough at 227 pounds to hold up inside, though he’s been good in coverage.
Bradford (6-1, 248) made the roster as a fourth-round pick last year based on potential, but he hasn’t adjusted in the move from outside to inside linebacker as well as Palmer.
Defensive backs (10 or 11)
Locks: Sam Shields (CB), Morgan Burnett (S), Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (S), Micah Hyde (CB/S), Casey Hayward (CB), Damarious Randall (CB), Quinten Rollins (CB).
Good bet: Ladarius Gunter (CB)
On the bubble: Sean Richardson (S), Chris Banjo (S), Demetri Goodson (CB).
Long-shots: Tay Glover-Wright (CB), Kyle Sebetic (CB/S), Ryan White (CB), Jean Fanor (S).
Summary: Rollins is the dime back for now and could push Hayward for a starting job at cornerback. Randall shows cover and ball skills, too, so the first two draft picks have cornerback looking like a position of strength for the Packers again this year.
Gunter probably could be categorized as a lock, too. The undrafted rookie from Miami has made too many plays on the ball in offseason and camp practices, plus an interception at New England, to think he might get cut.
The odds look good for the Packers to keep 11 defensive backs, and that means Richardson, Banjo and Goodson would make it. All three have prominent special teams roles, and the guess here is that if it comes down to it, Thompson will go heavy here rather than at linebacker or defensive line.
Quarterbacks (2 or 3)
Locks: Aaron Rodgers, Scott Tolzien
On the bubble: Brett Hundley
Long shot: Matt Blanchard
Summary: The Packers, like most teams, prefer to keep only two on the 53-man roster and the No. 3 on the practice squad. But the risk of losing the rookie Hundley might be too great.
Hundley was scattershot early in camp and still has the occasional jarring misfire. But he’s improved considerably in three weeks and still has three preseason games to go.
There’s plenty to like about Blanchard, starting with his size (6-3, 223) and decent arm talent. But he doesn’t spin the ball as well as Hundley and doesn’t have as much upside.
Running backs (4 or 5)
Locks: Eddie Lacy (RB), James Starks (RB)
Good bet: John Kuhn (FB)
On the bubble: Raijon Neal (RB), Alonzo Harris (RB), Aaron Ripkowski (FB), John Crockett (RB)
Summary: There’s little reason to think Kuhn will lose his fullback job to the sixth-round pick Ripkowski. The questions are whether Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will keep two fullbacks, and if so, will they also keep three halfbacks. Kuhn’s ability to play halfback in an injury pinch theoretically gives Thompson and McCarthy the option of going with only two halfbacks and have one or even two others on the practice squad.
But the guess here is they’ll go with three halfbacks and also keep both fullbacks. Ripkowski has been hit and miss as a blocker, so he hasn’t threatened Kuhn in that role. But he catches the ball fine and shows promise as a cover man on special teams.
Not much separates Neal, Harris and Crockett. They have three games to separate themselves.
Neal might have the slight edge because he catches the ball almost like a receiver. But Harris, an undrafted rookie, has great size (6-1, 237) and shown nice running skill — he had a 25-yard touchdown against New England. Crockett, another undrafted rookie, is working from behind because an ankle injury sidelined him for the crucial first week of camp.
Wide receivers (5 or 6)
Locks: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery.
On the bubble: Jeff Janis, Myles White
Long shots: Jared Abbrederis, Larry Pinkard, Ed Williams, Jimmie Hunt, Javess Blue
Summary: Chances are the Packers will keep only five receivers, though you can’t rule out the possibility of six.
Janis gets the edge over White because of upside. He’s bigger (6-3 and 219 to White’s 6-0, 190) and at least as fast (both had reported 4.42-second times in the 40 coming out of college). Janis also has potential as a return man, and his length makes him a threat as a punt blocker as well. White, though, keeps making catches in practice. He has practice-squad eligibility remaining.
Abbrederis has shown NFL ability when he’s practiced, but that hasn’t been often. He’s still out after sustaining a concussion on the first day of camp and missed all of last season because of a torn ACL in the first week of camp. The injury risk figures to be more than Thompson is willing to take, even assuming Abbrederis is able and willing to return from the concussion.
Pinkard, Hunt and Williams all look more than viable as practice squad candidates.
Locks: David Bakhtiari (T), Josh Sitton (G), Corey Linsley (C), T.J. Lang (G), Bryan Bulaga (T)
Good bets: JC Tretter (C), Josh Walker (G/T), Don Barclay (G/T)
On the fence: Lane Taylor (G)
Long shots: Jeremy Vujnovich (T), Vince Kowalski (T), Garth Gerhart (C/G), Matt Rotheram (G), Fabbians Ebbele (T), Andy Philips (C/G)
Summary: Tretter has locked down the job as backup center. Walker has been something of a surprise and might surpass Barclay as first man in if there’s an injury at any position other than center.
Barclay isn’t full strength in his return from ACL surgery last August. Given his track record, which includes 14 starts at right tackle in 2013, it’s hard to see the Packers giving up on him even if his struggles continue through camp. But the team has to be concerned, because it’s thin at tackle behind him. Walker only recently has been taking regular snaps at right tackle.
Taylor, who says he dropped eight pounds of body fat while maintaining his 320-pound playing weight in the offseason, has had a good camp (10-3 in one-on-ones). Unless something goes wrong with Barclay, it will come down to whether the Packers keep eight or nine here. Considering Barclay’s slow progress, the guess here is they’ll keep Taylor as insurance.
Rotheram was one of the Packers’ best undrafted rookie in the offseason, but he’s been behind since an ankle injury sidelined him for most of the first week. He’s a good candidate for the practice squad, as are Kowalski and maybe Vujnovich.
Tight ends (3 or 4)
Lock: Richard Rodgers
On the bubble: Andrew Quarless, Justin Perillo, Kennard Backman, Mitchell Henry
Long shot: Harold Spears
Summary: Quarless is on the bubble only because of his uncertain suspension status. When his case is wrapped up, he’ll likely be suspended for at least a game, and perhaps longer. If that’s decided before the regular season starts, then he won’t count on the 53 until his suspension is over. He’s a lock for the roster as long as he’s eligible, though Rodgers has surpassed him as the No. 1 tight end.
McCarthy values tight ends, but if he keeps both fullbacks he could go light here with only three.
Perillo was clearly ahead as the No. 3 until a concussion against New England sidelined him. He’s missed two practices, and his chances depend on his head injury’s severity and how long he’s out.
Henry, an undrafted rookie, is a gamer — he’s playing with his broken finger wrapped in a huge protective club. Backman, a sixth-round pick, can run but is extremely raw as a blocker.
Locks: Mason Crosby (K), Tim Masthay (P), Brett Goode (LS).
Summary: Not much to see here. Masthay held off Cody Mandell on place-kick holding alone. Barring injury, this group will be together for its sixth straight season.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.