Training camp feels like the ultimate meritocracy, where the proverbial cream rises to the top (and is used to make cheese curds). Players do have to perform to get onto the field, but players with big numbers next to their names on the salary cap or with low numbers next to their name on the draft chart get the benefit of the doubt.
Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson ran with the starters long before they proved they were good enough to play there.
Building a team is no different, which complicates the handicapping of the receiver battle being waged in the Green Bay Packers’ training camp because the best players might not be the ones to make the final roster. At least not all of them. This discussion, of course, centers around the man APC’s Paul Noonan dubbed “The Great Whitewater Hope,” Jake Kumerow. His ascendence as a reliable target and an Aaron Rodgers favorite muddies the already murky receiver waters.
Before Kumerow broke out, a trio of rookies were set to battle Trevor Davis and Michael Clark in what was likely five players battling for no more than three spots. Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, and Geronimo Allison have the top three positions locked down for now. Clark made things a little easier on Mike McCarthy and the Packers front office by retiring early despite his estimable physical gifts. Meanwhile, injuries have prevented Davis from creating any forward momentum as anything other than a returner on this roster, so with two down, that leaves is with six players.
However, adding in the 6’4’’ former UDFA who has proven to be one of the most reliable receivers in camp — full stop — could push one of these other promising young talents off the roster.
Not so fast.
The decision about who to keep and who to cut won’t simply be made based on who had the best camp or showed the most in preseason games. J’Mon Moore would have to be pretty bad to get the axe given his fourth-round draft position. Equanimeous St. Brown stands as the closest thing to a lock of the rookies, showing the most consistency with his hands and chemistry with QB1. Marquez Valdes-Scantling probably has the most pure athletic ability of the rookies, but he’ll make one “wow” play a practice followed by one “whoops” play.
For all their flaws, each is more physically gifted than Kumerow. During a press conference, Brian Gutekunst said this week the rookies need time just to get in position to show their talent. Getting a receiver up to NFL is no easy task and Kumerow has a three-year head start. Of course he looks more polished.
Here’s the rub for Kumerow: a fourth receiver (at best) won’t be the difference between making the Super Bowl and coming up short. Furthermore, the marginal difference between Kumerow and EQ, for example, isn’t big enough to give up on the younger, more talented draft pick. St. Brown isn’t making it through waivers. Neither is Moore, who had plenty of fans pre-draft.
Could the tantalizing physical potential of MVS cause another NFL to scoop him up? Perhaps, but this is the first week of August. Every team has a player like him —a raw, unrefined pass catcher with upside—they’re trying to develop. What he looks like in three weeks could be drastically different, but there are also myriad players around the league with similar fringe roster profiles.
Of those four though, Kumerow would seemingly be the most obvious choice to clear waivers. Teams have had plenty of opportunities to see him in camps and exhibition games and passed. Seemingly every year, Packers fans fall in love with a fringe roster receiver they know for sure won’t make it through waivers, and every year he does.
More to the point though, how much better can he get? What is his upside relative to these rookies? Or even Trevor Davis? If the Packers had to play the Bears at Lambeau today, Kumerow would be one of the four best receivers, but they don’t. And what’s more, one game or one season won’t be the deciding factor here.
The cagey move could be to keep all seven with Aaron Jones set to serve a suspension, then cut one during the season once Jones returns. With rosters around the NFL more solidified, it’s unlikely a team would sign one of these guys outright, leaving only a practice squad bid. Brian Gutekunst could roll the dice that way, a reasonable gamble on what is already a fringe player.
This is the NFL’s version of a champagne problem. What are the Packers to do with so many receivers? It’s a problem a team like the Cowboys would love to have. Green Bay drafted three guys because Gutekunst and company wanted more competition at the position. If nothing else, the nascent Kumerow should push these rookies to the brink. Though it’s hard to imagine he’d play well enough to actually squeeze them off the roster, Kumerow could force the Packers to make some very difficult decisions, to take a gamble.
But the decision won’t be made with eyes only toward the 2018 season. The question isn’t just “Who can help the most this season?” but rather “Who can help the most over the next two or three season?” So long as these rookies show progress, it will become harder to argue Kumerow’s reliability with a lower ceiling makes more sense on the roster.
All three rookies should be better a year from now. Green Bay wants to win the Super Bowl this season, but they also want to win it next season and the year after that. Unless Kumerow is the missing piece to that run (he’s not), is his reliability worth losing the upside of these other players? The Packers track record with draft picks and young players suggests they would say no.