JASON WILDEFor the State Journal
GREEN BAY — It’s happened before, and it might happen on Tuesday, too, a smiling Matt LaFleur acknowledged Saturday afternoon.
General managers and head coaches don’t always see eye-to-eye on players when the final cuts at the end of training camp must be made, and the Green Bay Packers are no different than any other team, LaFleur said.
And so, the head coach surely will have a player or two that he likes better than general manager Brian Gutekunst does — and vice versa — when the final decisions on the initial 53-man roster must be made by Tuesday’s deadline.
Add in any input that four-time NFL MVP quarterback and quasi-assistant GM Aaron Rodgers might have, and the Packers will be aiming for a consensus before Gutekunst ultimately makes the final roster calls.
“A lot of times in coaching, I think you’re just thinking about today and not a year from now,” LaFleur said in advance of the team’s final two practices on Sunday and Monday before the cutdown. “There is a balance that is a good thing for when somebody has to look at just the talent level of a player. I think we’ve all learned — I know I have because I can speak for myself — that there is a development process that has to take place. And for some guys, it happens a little bit quicker than other guys.
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“But if you see talent in somebody, then you’ve got to give the young player the benefit of the doubt and allow them to mature and learn the game. … Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t quite work out for whatever reason.
“I think when you look for the traits (we want in a player), I think we’re very much on the same page of what we’re looking for. And what’s great about our relationship and where we’ve come (to), is just to have the debate. I never feel like it ever gets contentious. Sometimes you can agree to disagree, and you work through everything. We’re without a doubt on the same page and always working through if there are any differences in opinion.”
While the Packers have the same amount of intel on their guys as the rest of the league has on their players — except the Las Vegas Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars, who played in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game and have four preseason games to use in their evaluations instead of three — Gutekunst acknowledged that the decision-making process is more challenging in his fifth training camp than it was in his first, when teams still played four preseason games and there were more camp practices.
At the same time, it beats 2020, when preseason games were canceled and training camp was truncated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Yeah, I do think that there’s much less (information),” Gutekunst said. “I think in the past we were able to get through that grind period earlier (during training camp), and so guys got a little bit more in their comfort zone. But I think Matt does a really good job, intentionally as we approach these games to put guys in position to see what we need to see. But it’s not, there’s not as many opportunities as we’ve had in the past.”
Case in point: LaFleur said Saturday that the special-teams units’ problems against the Chiefs — the coverage units gave up a 45-yard kickoff return and 35-, 20- and 17-yard punt returns while the Packers’ own return units struggled — were caused in part because the coaches used a number of players whose special-teams abilities needed to be evaluated by the coaches and scouts.
“We certainly played a lot of guys, and that was by design. We wanted to get a good evaluation on each and every individual that could potentially contribute to our football team,” LaFleur said. “That’s been a big-time emphasis.”
Then, there’s the matter of Rodgers’ input. In 2020, Gutekunst cut former UW-Whitewater standout — and Rodgers favorite — Jake Kumerow, and the wide receiver’s release angered Rodgers to no end.
In fact, it was the final straw for Rodgers in his frustration with Gutekunst not including him in certain personnel-related conversations and led to Rodgers skipping all of the 2021 offseason program to demonstrate his unhappiness.
Since Rodgers reported for training camp last summer, though, he and Gutekunst have both said that he’s being included in such discussions now. The true test of how much Rodgers’ opinions matter, though, likely will come with this final cutdown, as a player Rodgers has talked up all camp long — wide receiver Juwann Winfree — appears to be squarely on the roster bubble.
“I’m a big fan of Juwann Winfree,” Rodgers emphasized again during a sideline interview with the Packers TV network during the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Asked Saturday if Rodgers deserves a seat at the decision-making table going into Tuesday’s cuts, LaFleur replied, “Absolutely. I know that he’s engaged in a lot of conversations with myself, and he’s engaged in a lot of conversations with Gutey.
“I think that’s something over the next couple days that we’re just going to have to work through — his opinion, not only at the wide receiver position, but in particular the guys on offense. And also, I think he’s got a great feel for our locker room — and who really fits in well and who might not.”
Packers by position: Predicting which players will make the cut as Green Bay's roster shrinks to 53
Locks: Aaron Rodgers (above left), Jordan Love (above right)
On the bubble: Danny Elting
Love’s improvement after two uninspiring summers has been among the biggest storylines of camp, but Etling is the one who has put on a show — completing 7 of 9 passes for 123 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions for a 155.8 passer rating and adding an electrifying 51-yard touchdown run last week against the Saints. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely to be enough to get him onto the 53-man roster. As in past years, the Packers prefer to carry only two quarterbacks on the active roster, with the third-stringer on the practice squad. Etling’s athleticism and potential make it an easy call to keep developing him.
“I think he’s done a really nice job,” head coach Matt LaFleur said of Etling. “Although he’s had limited reps, I feel like he’s maximized those when given those opportunities.”
RUNNING BACK (3 or 4)
Locks: Aaron Jones (above left), AJ Dillon (above right)
Looking good: Tyler Goodson
On the bubble: Patrick Taylor, Dexter Williams
In-season PUP list: Kylin Hill
Goodson has put up the numbers through two games (115 total yards from scrimmage on 25 touches), and the burst he showed on his two longest plays (a 15-yard run and a 23-yard catch-and-run) is obvious. But Gutekunst emphasized that there’s more to making the roster as the No. 3 back, and that gives Taylor, a more experienced pass protector and special-teams contributor, more than a puncher’s chance at keeping the job. Hill, coming back from an ACL tear, is out at least the first four games.
“I think the next guy (after Jones and Dillon), obviously there’s some special teams that come into play with that. That’s going to be an important part of that third running back spot if we decide to keep three,” Gutekunst said. “The big jump from college to the National Football League is usually in pass pro(tection) for these guys, and being able to protect our passer is first and foremost.”
WIDE RECEIVER (6 or 7)
Locks: Allen Lazard (above), Randall Cobb, Sammy Watkins, Romeo Doubs, Christian Watson
Looking good: Amari Rodgers
On the bubble: Juwann Winfree, Samori Toure
Long shots: Travis Fulgham, Ishmael Hyman
Just how good this group will turn out to be without departed superstar Davante Adams remains to be seen, but four-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers is at least saying the right things now about how dedicated Doubs and Watson are to doing things the way he wants them done, and how Watkins came on toward the end of camp. The biggest question here is what happens to Winfree, a former practice-squadder who will turn 26 before the opener and has eight career regular-season NFL receptions in 12 career games (165 career offensive snaps, 143 of which were last season). His quarterback’s praise makes Winfree sound like Jake Kumerow 2.0. “(With) these young kids that are coming in and playing well. I wouldn’t be surprised if (No.) 88’s over there going, ‘Hey, I’m a pretty damn good football player. Don’t forget about me,’” Rodgers said. “Because when he shows up and when he’s healthy, he makes a lot of plays.”
TIGHT END (4 or 5)
Locks: Marcedes Lewis, Robert Tonyan (above), Josiah Deguara
Looking good: Tyler Davis
On the bubble: Alizé Mack, Sal Cannella, Nate Becker
Davis’ involvement in a pair of turnover plays in the first two preseason games — an interception that ricocheted off his hands at San Francisco and a fumble (which perhaps should have been ruled incomplete) against New Orleans — has created a public perception that he’s going to get cut, and there’s no denying those two plays (coupled with some pre-snap penalties in practice and some blocking issues in games) haven’t been a good look for him. Nevertheless, he's still a scratching-the-surface player who was a college quarterback not too long ago, and he’s also a core special-teams player who coordinator Rich Bisaccia likes in that role. With the release of Dominique Dafney earlier in camp, it’s hard to see Gutekunst moving on from Davis.
“(You can’t) let plays like that really drag you down too much. Obviously, it’s just a great lesson for life,” Davis said. “Sometimes, stuff happens. Unfortunately, it’s happened to me, and you just put your head down and keep moving forward and keep working.”
OFFENSIVE LINE (9 or 10)
Locks: David Bakhtiari (above), Elgton Jenkins, Josh Myers, Jon Runyan Jr., Yosh Nijman
Looking good: Royce Newman, Jake Hanson, Zach Tom, Sean Rhyan
On the bubble: Caleb Jones
Long shots: Rasheed Walker, Michal Menet
Jenkins’ and Bakhtiari’s activations from the PUP list alter the dynamic up front considerably, as you’d expect with two All-Pro level players returning to action. The good news is that their absences gave the team’s many young linemen ample work in practice and games, which will help the coaches sort out their best five linemen entering the Sept. 11 opener. Jones is fascinating because he dropped a ton of weight, is a mountain of a man — he’s listed at 6-foot-9 and 379 pounds but said recently he’s down to 338 pounds — and has remarkable feet for a guy his size. Still, he’s a project who’s likely to be on the practice squad.
“Those guys have gotten a lot of great work. It hasn’t always been pretty,” LaFleur acknowledged when asked about the value of the young line’s extensive playing time and practice work against the Packers’ No. 1 defense. “They’re going up against a pretty good front (in practice) and those guys have taken their lumps, but I’ve also seen a lot of improvement as well. I think they’ve performed pretty well in our two preseason games, so we’re looking to continue to build upon that in this next preseason game.”
DEFENSIVE LINE (5)
Locks: Kenny Clark (above), Jarran Reed, Dean Lowry, TJ Slaton, Devonte Wyatt
On the bubble: Jack Heflin, Jonathan Ford, Chris Slayton
Long shots: Akial Byers
Wyatt has had an unimpressive camp for a first-round pick, something he’s self-aware enough to acknowledge. The good news is, the Packers don’t need him to be a Clark clone just yet, and with the smart veteran pickup of Reed combined with Slaton’s ascension and Lowry’s steadiness, they’re in good shape here. Once the light clicks on for Wyatt, look out.
“I just think a lot of times when I get on the field, I'm like, ‘What’ve I got to do?' So I'm always all over the place. But once it all clicks in, it'll be better,” Wyatt said. “I'm not trying to put pressure on myself, but I am at the same time because I want to prove that I'm supposed to be here and I want to be one of the greats.”
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (4 or 5)
Locks: Preston Smith (above), Rashan Gary
Looking good: Kingsley Enagbare
On the bubble: Tipa Galeai, Jonathan Garvin, La’Darius Hamilton, Kobe Jones
All camp long, the search for a third, fourth and fifth edge rusher has been a priority, and each of the youngsters in the mix has had his moments. Enagbare, a fifth-round pick, has come on lately, as has Jones. Special teams will be a factor here, which helps Galeai more than anyone. Still, what this group does against the Chiefs could be what separates the keepers from the also-rans.
“Of course, we’ve got two great ones in Preston and Rashan, but after that, it’s competitive,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. “It’s going to go right down to the wire.”
INSIDE LINEBACKER (3 or 4)
Locks: De’Vondre Campbell (above), Quay Walker
Looking good: Krys Barnes, Isaiah McDuffie
On the bubble: Ty Summers, Ray Wilborn
As crazy as it sounds, this might be the Packers’ best top-to-bottom position of depth on their roster. Campbell is a first-team All-Pro, Walker is a first-round pick, McDuffie has had one of the best camps of anyone on the team and Barnes is no slouch as a former starter and special teams contributor. Summers, a key special-teams player over the past three years, might be the odd man out, and if he is, he could get claimed by another team. All that said, McDuffie’s improvement has been one of the best surprises of camp.
“He’s done a hell of a job, and (with his) knowledge of the game, he’s really grown,” LaFleur said. “You definitely feel his presence on (special) teams, and that’s what we need from him.”
Locks: Jaire Alexander (above), Rasul Douglas, Eric Stokes
Looking good: Keisean Nixon, Shemar Jean-Charles
On the bubble: Kabion Ento, Rico Gafford, Kiondre Thomas
The top three might prove to be the NFL’s best trio, but it’s been competitive behind them. Nixon and Jean-Charles have both shown they belong on the roster, but don’t discount Thomas, who has also had some statement-making moments. Gafford, meanwhile, is a speedster who’s played both corner and wide receiver and whose familiarity with Bisaccia’s special-teams system and return abilities are also a plus.
“He’s a very explosive guy. He can really run,” LaFleur said of Gafford. “He’s a guy that definitely can give us some speed on special teams, and that’s what you typically need your fourth and fifth corners for.”
Locks: Adrian Amos (above), Darnell Savage
Looking good: Shawn Davis, Innis Gaines
On the bubble: Dallin Leavitt, Micah Abernathy, Tariq Carpenter
Longshot: De’Vante Cross
Vernon Scott, who had started the first two preseason games and was in position to be Savage’s replacement if Savage’s hamstring issue continues to linger, was waived/injured this week, presumably because the shoulder injury he sustained against New Orleans will shelve him for quite a while. Still, it was a surprise given how he’d filled in for Savage, and his departure leaves the competition wide open, with Abernathy, fresh off playing in the USFL this spring, as an interesting option. His interception against the Saints was impressive and was the kind of play a late-in-camp addition to the roster needs to make to turn heads. Leavitt's status after his shoulder injury is also a factor.
“I feel like I showed that I could play fast and I feel like I have a lot left in me,” Abernathy said. “I just got off a season. I feel like I’m in shape. I feel like I can play. I just wanted to go out there and prove that. I felt like I did, hopefully.”
Lock: Pat O’Donnell (above)
Looking good: Mason Crosby
On the bubble: Jack Coco, Ramiz Ahmed
Crosby is still on the PUP list but it’s obviously his kicking job when his right (kicking) knee is green-lit for game action. He’s been kicking as part of his comeback in recent days and is confident he’ll be good to go for Week 1. If for some reason he isn’t, Ahmed has impressed after previous kickers (JJ Molson, Dominik Eberle, Gabe Brkic) in his position did not. The real question here — not including figuring out who the best return options are — is whether the inexperienced Coco, with his circuitous route to the NFL, is the best option as the snapper.
“I think Jack's done a nice job for us so far,” Gutekunst said. “But by the time we kick off that first Sunday and as we go through the season, if that's not where we want it to be, then we'll be looking for (a replacement). And there's always guys available. Right now, we feel pretty good about where we're at. But if we can upgrade and get better, we will.”
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