Recent history says the Green Bay Packers will keep six receivers (at least) and four running backs. Each of Matt LaFleur’s most recent offenses feature this shape. Green Bay kept seven multiple times in the last few seasons, however, and the team boasts a deep group of receivers as we head through the preseason.
This season though, with depth needs on the roster elsewhere, Green Bay simply may not be able to afford, nor might the Packers want, to keep such a deep group of receivers. If they’re going to play two or three receivers 90% of the time, the marginal value of receivers numbers 5, 6, and 7 plummet, particularly relative to the value of players at other positions who are far more likely to step on the field. LaFleur’s offense doesn’t require five-receiver sets, preferring instead to exploit matchup problems out of base personnel. That Danny Vitale is far more likely to make the roster than Trevor Davis speaks volumes.
To avoid lengthy explanations and justifications for player picks, we can do a little back-of-the-napkin math on the roster. Let’s say the team keeps something close to the minimum safe number of players at most positions. That means just two quarterbacks, eight offensive linemen, six cornerbacks, four inside linebackers, five outside linebackers and six defensive linemen. That’s already 31 players and we have to add three for the special teams guys, bringing up to 34. These are minimum numbers and Green Bay could easily want to keep more at key positions.
Four tight ends looks like something close to a lock with the two vets and two young guys and we’re at 38. A minimum number of safeties for Mike Pettine’s defense would be four and there are at least three locks with Adrian Amos, Darnell Savage, and Raven Greene. Considering how often Pettine plays three safeties, we have to get to at least four and I’d predict five with Josh Jones and Natrell Jamerson.
That’s 43, leaving 10 roster spots between the skill positions beyond tight end.
Right off the bat, that takes seven receivers right off the table. Even with injuries, the Packers won’t only keep three running backs with Danny Vitale, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams locks to be on the roster. Corey Grant’s contract isn’t guaranteed beyond the $60,000 he got to sign, but they clearly brought him in with the intention of using him. This could be the key trade off for Green Bay. Dexter Williams and/or Tra Carson are right there in the mix as well, with the draft pick out of Notre Dame most likely to make the squad.
Given the importance of the run game to LaFleur offense, combined with the injuries the team has already suffered at the position, it follows the Packers would want to assure depth there. Four feels like the absolute drop-dead floor for running backs and given the current injury toll for Green Bay, it’s hard to imagine four feeling like enough.
Sure, running backs are replaceable, but part of the reason for that stems from the sad reality they quite literally must be replaced often. Having a group you already feel good about puts a team ahead of the proverbial game. This is something outstanding offenses like the Patriots, Chiefs, Saints, Chargers and others understand acutely.
On the receiver side, Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Geronimo Allison and Equanimeous St. Brown are locks. In terms of pure receiving ability, Jake Kumerow stands head and hair-adorned shoulders ahead Trevor Davis and J’Mon Moore and it’s not even close with the latter. Kumerow would make five and that could be sufficient.
Moore hasn’t shown anything in his first year and a half as an NFL player which is a bummer for a fourth-round pick, but his draft counterparts appear to be legitimate factors in this offense. If he’s bad enough to not make the team, he’s likely bad enough to sneak onto the practice squad with minimal concern.
The real question comes down to Trevor Davis and his ability as a returner. If they can only keep five receivers, does his return ability trump his clear disadvantage in receiving ability to Kumerow? Even with a much more impressive camp from Davis, he’s behind Touchdown Jesus in terms of progression in the NFL and certainly on trust from Aaron Rodgers. Six receivers to keep one just as a returner at the expense of a running back who will likely actually play feels like poor roster construction.
We have to take Matt LaFleur at his word when he says the offense is built off the run game. Having a stable of capable players at a position with a known turnover rate due to injury makes more sense than keep an extra receiver who the team doesn’t actually want to be playing receiver. Players like Corey Grant can handle kicks with Tony Brown, Ka’Dar Hollman, and even Jaire Alexander returning punts in a pinch (I’m all for the Patrick Peterson/Antonio Brown methodology of having a special situations punt returner with Alexander).
Worrying about the return game in the modern NFL makes no logical sense. Touchbacks are at an all-time high. Rule changes will make punt returns harder. Someone like Davis earning a roster spot simply to return kicks doesn’t jibe with how the league looks right now, nor does it fit with how LaFleur wants to play. He and Moore are good theoretical fits in the offense for myriad reasons, but right now they’re just not good enough players to justify rostering them over a running back who will almost certainly have to play 30 snaps in a game at some point.
This feels counter-intuitive. Keep more running backs; keep fewer receivers. But given the rest of the Packers roster, Brian Gutekunst and Co. are going to be squeezed by the numbers. They should probably keep nine offensive linemen instead of just eight. What if Curtis Bolton plays his way onto the squad? Could they afford to only keep five outside linebackers at a position Pettine loves to rotate?
Jimmy Graham serves as a de facto receiver and we know LaFleur wants to throw more to his backs. A team that will play two or fewer receivers half the time can’t afford the luxury of keeping six or seven receivers with the two-deep barely reaching essential minimum levels elsewhere. Cutting draft picks is never easy, but Moore has made it easier by failing to take a significant step in the league. LaFleur’s offensive philosophy may also make it simpler to walk away from someone like Davis as the team focuses its efforts on playing bigger and creating matchups that way.
Right now, with the preseason set to open, the race for the last spot could very well come down to Grant vs. Davis and a fight over ideologies. Given the effort the front office made to get Grant, his potential fit in the offense, and his versatility as a returner, he should be considered the favorite to land the gig.