The most exciting training camp battles rarely happen on the margins. Player 51, 52 and 53 don’t move the needle for most fans, except those who become attached to fringe NFL players during the exhibition season.
We’ve all been there.
The Packers, a team with Super Bowl aspirations and plenty of talent to live up to those expectations, have critical roster decisions to make based on what happens over the next six weeks, and essentially none of them have to do with the guys on the back end of the roster.
What corners end up starting and where? How will the Oren Burks/Jake Ryan battles shake out? Who is going to start at right tackle of Bryan Bulaga has to open the season on the PUP. Which running back grabs hold of the starting job and how much will Aaron Jones’ suspension play a role? These are the pressing questions facing the Packers, the ones to which the answers could come to define the ultimate success or failure of the Green Bay season.
That said, there are three positions where the ultimate numbers will likely end up deciding the very shape of this roster when final cuts are made.
Let’s start at a position that could have been included in the above list of pressing questions: receiver. Beyond Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and probably Geronimo Allison, we expect J’Mon Moore to make the team because of his draft pedigree, though that’s far from a lock.
The APC staff predicted the three rookies would all make the team over returning camp star Michael Clark. That would make six receivers, a pretty good bet in terms of the total numbers. But what if the Packers want to get cute and keep 7? Could they sneak one of the rookies onto the practice squad after Aaron Jones comes back from suspension with most teams set with their rosters in mid-September?
That’s certainly one option.
It’s also far from a lock Clark gets left on the cutting room floor. I’d take him over all three rookies right now simply because he’s played in this system, knows the offense, and was getting critical live game reps at the end of last season. In fact, he was the player getting the lion’s share of targets on the field with Allison and Trevor Davis.
Clark making the squad would likely push one of the rookies out and I’m not sure it’s crazy to wonder if Allison is in danger of getting the axe. With the Packers able to play so often with two tight ends, and Jimmy Graham’s ability to play de facto receiver, maybe Green Bay has seen all it needs to see to know Allison is what he is and that’s all he’ll ever be.
Other competitions may have more practical impact on the season, but it’s hard to argue any race for a roster spot will be more fun to watch between now and Labor Day.
Keeping seven receivers could be made a little easier if the Packers decide to only keep two quarterbacks. That leaves a battle between Brett Hundley and DeShone Kizer. Reports out of early offseason practices were not friendly for Kizer who struggled from under center. Hundley’s ability to impress coaches in practice was what led the disaster we saw at times last season when the Packers coaches truly believed he was ready to play.
**Narrator voice** He was not.
But what happens if Kizer struggles? The Packers gave up a quality player, their best cornerback, to get him and Gutekunst was clearly one of the voices in the Green Bay front office last season advocating for him.
Keeping three quarterbacks could squeeze out other positions on the Packers roster where Green Bay could sneak on an extra receiver, defensive back or offensive lineman. The Packers have long been loath to carry three quarterbacks, perhaps subscribing to the old Peyton Manning premise that it doesn’t much matter who the backup is if they lose their star QB.
When asked once why the Colts didn’t give Peyton Manning’s backup more reps in practice, and offensive coordinator Tom Moore replied “Fellas, if ‘18’ goes down, we’re fucked. And we don’t practice f***ed.”
Finally, a position Packers fans love to complain about.
I’ve been on record as both an enormous supporter of Josh Jones and a believer Green Bay should kick the tires on one of the free agent safeties with starting experience. Throw a dart at a board with the names Eric Reid, Kenny Vaccaro, and Tre Boston and you’d hit a player who could come in and give Mike Pettine’s defense a reliable presence in the back end.
Pettine’s affinity for playing three safeties means Kentrell Brice, Marwin Evans or Jermaine Whitehead will have to play heavy snaps. As much as I like Evans and Brice has intriguing physical tools, none of them are even close to the proven commodities that trio of free agents would bring.
We don’t even know if Jones can be good or if Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will improve off a down season. Why not bring in an insurance policy? If there’s an injury or any of the three returning safeties struggle in the preseason, there’s a chance that could force Gutekunst’s hand on bringing in a veteran.
Either way, it seems like the Packers should be keeping at least four and probably five safeties. If they decide to add a veteran without cutting any of the current players, that would have trickle-down effects elsewhere on the roster, and it’s no guarantee they’ll decide to keep five. Perhaps four safeties and an extra corner will be how Pettine wants to play it, particularly with Tramon Williams’ experience dabbling as a safety.
Keeping the number of safeties (and inside linebackers for that matter) low, could allow Green Bay to keep an extra pass rusher as well, a place where they’ve proven they need the depth given the frailty of the starters.
In all likelihood, none of these position battles will determine starting jobs, at least not preferred starters. But they should all play critical roles in deciding the final roster makeup while telling us important things about how the front office and coaching staff view this team moving forward.