Welcome to NFL cutdown day or, as we now call it, the one day a year when Ted Thompson steps out of character and rolls the dice.
A year after taking the risky step of cutting Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton in the final roster reduction, the Green Bay Packers’ normally cautious general manager was at it again Saturday. This time he gambled by parting with a good portion of his promising young talent at quarterback and wide receiver.
At least this time there appeared to be a method to Thompson’s madness after he cut quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Joe Callahan, leaving Green Bay with only Aaron Rodgers and Brett Hundley at the position, and wide receivers DeAngelo Yancey, Malachi Dupre, Michael Clark and Max McCaffrey, leaving the Packers with only five players at a position where they kept seven last year.
Since the Packers seem to like most of those players, Thompson will probably see which ones aren’t claimed by other teams and add the ones he likes the most to Green Bay’s practice squad. By putting them all on the street at the same time, he virtually assures that some will slip through. And since Geronimo Allison will return from his NFL suspension after one game, the Packers should quickly be up to six wide receivers.
While it may seem like Thompson is taking a chance by leaving himself short-handed or losing some potentially valuable prospects at those positions, the Packers’ reduction to a 53-man roster Saturday was much ado about very little. Frankly, decisions on whether to keep a third quarterback or an extra wide receiver aren’t all that important to the team’s success in 2017.
Indeed, Thompson faces more pressing issues as the Packers prepare to open the regular season next Sunday. I’ve found one of the best ways to analyze their final roster is to look for the potential weak spots, positions where a lack of talent or depth might come back to haunt them during the regular season.
Packers fans don’t need a long memory to recall when an injury-depleted position sabotaged their season. One year it was the safety spot, another year it was the offensive line. Last year it was healthy cornerbacks who were in short supply, leading to one of the NFL’s most porous pass defenses.
So which areas of the team are cause for concern this season? Though the true final roster probably won’t be known until Monday, I count three potential trouble spots:
• Offensive line: The Packers retained 10 lineman Saturday, an unusually high number. That likely was due to the iffy status of starting right tackle Brian Bulaga and backup center Don Barclay with ankle injuries.
If intact, the starting line is among the NFL’s best. However, the same can’t be said for the second-string line, which had a rough training camp. The Packers attempted to showcase Hundley for potential trade suitors in August, but shoddy pass blocking by the second unit hindered his performance at times.
Former second-round draft pick Jason Spriggs, the swing tackle as a rookie, saw his performance dip inexplicably during his second training camp. Kyle Murphy, who was drafted in the sixth round last year, was better than Spriggs and could be called upon if Bulaga can’t go. With Barclay out for a month, there was ample playing tme at center and guard but no one really stepped up.
Unless the Packers can augment their line by adding a veteran on the interior in the next day or two, disaster could be an injury or two away.
• Running back: The Packers have Ty Montgomery back and kept all three of their drafted running backs — Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Devante Mays. Still, the running game went nowhere in the preseason despite coach Mike McCarthy’s ongoing efforts to get it up to speed.
All three rookies showed some strengths, but none proved to be the three-down back McCarthy said he was looking for at the start of camp. Williams handled the pass receiving and pass-blocking phases of the game well but is a straight-line runner who couldn’t find many openings. Jones and Mays showed more running instincts but struggled in the other areas.
Montgomery could make it a moot point, but the Packers have to be concerned with his durability and pass-blocking skills, especially since keeping Rodgers upright is job one in Green Bay. With four running backs, the Packers don’t lack for quantity. Quality is a big worry, though
• Outside linebacker: The Packers showed they had a shortage of edge pass rushers behind Clay Matthews and Nick Perry when they reached a contract agreement with longtime San Francisco starter Ahmad Brooks last week. But given the injury histories of Matthews and Perry, even having three at the position might not be enough.
Fourth-round rookie Vince Biegel was put on the PUP list due to offseason foot surgery and the Packers kept only two others — Jayrone Elliott and second-year man Kyler Fackrell — at the position. Neither one did much in camp and Fackrell appeared to make the roster over Reggie Gilbert only because he was a third-round draft pick.
The Packers are improved at cornerback — LaDarius Gunter, the No. 1 corner last year, is now No. 5 — but even one injury could derail the pass rush and leave the team vulnerable once again.