GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst couldn’t have scripted a better preseason finale. With an eye on determining winners and losers for the remaining training camp battles, Gutekunst will watch his backups play many of the Buffalo Bills’ starters on Saturday.
Can left tackle Yosh Nijman keep Jordan Love out of harm’s way? Can receivers Malik Taylor or Equanimeous St. Brown separate from the Bills’ top cornerbacks? Can cornerbacks Isaac Yiadom and Kabion Ento hold up against potential MVP quarterback Josh Allen?
Here's a look at the remaining roster battles, with the cut to the initial 53-man roster due at 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Keep zero or one: Kurt Benkert
Benkert is the perfect example of how putting a roster together isn’t quite like going to the store with a grocery list and picking up three of this and five of that. In a perfect world, the Packers probably would like to keep Benkert on the 53. And, depending on the health of Jordan Love’s throwing shoulder, they might have to. However, how will the Packers handle injured offensive linemen David Bakhtiari and Dennis Kelly? Will they need to keep an extra outside linebacker because of Za’Darius Smith’s back? If Benkert lights up the Bills, he might force the Packers to keep him for fear of losing him on waivers. Remember the long-term dynamic at quarterback. If Love winds up replacing Aaron Rodgers next year, the Packers will need a new No. 2. They’d be wise to give Benkert the full season to develop, whether as the No. 3 on the roster or on the practice squad.
Keep zero or one: Malik Taylor vs. Equanimeous St. Brown vs. Reggie Begelton
The top five receivers are etched in granite. For all the talk of keeping six or even seven receivers, they really don’t need to keep more than five. Coach Matt LaFleur loves his tight ends, and the Packers could deploy Aaron Jones as a receiver with AJ Dillon at running back. But let’s look ahead for a moment. Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Randall Cobb and St. Brown will be unrestricted free agents next offseason. The Packers better keep someone so the cupboard isn’t bare. St. Brown still has that imposing size for what’s essentially a dime-a-dozen position. But Taylor has been the more consistent performer. Begelton is a quality player but, at age 28, he’s the second-oldest receiver on the roster.
Keep two or three: Lucas Patrick vs. Ben Braden vs. Yosh Nijman vs. Cole Van Lanen
If Bakhtiari and Kelly were healthy, this exercise would be a lot easier. But they spent last week going through challenging rehab assignments together. There are three options. One, the Packers could place Bakhtiari on the PUP list, meaning he’d be ineligible to practice (let alone play) for the first six weeks of the season but not take a roster spot. Two, they could keep him on the 53 on Tuesday, then put him on injured reserve on Wednesday, meaning he’d miss the first three weeks. Or, three, if he’s really getting close, they could just keep him on the 53. Nos. 2 and 3 are options for Kelly, as well. The health of those two players will impact the fate of Nijman, Braden and sixth-round rookie Van Lanen. If Patrick plays well against Buffalo’s starters on Saturday, he’ll probably be the starting left guard for Week 1. If not, he could be a money-saving cut.
Keep one: Tyler Lancaster vs. Jack Heflin
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This is the most straight-forward of decisions. An undrafted free agent in 2018, Lancaster had a strong rookie season as a run defender. His play regressed the past two seasons, though the Packers re-signed him with a $200,000 signing bonus. Heflin, an undrafted free agent in 2021, has gone from long shot to legit challenger over the last couple weeks. Financially and, potentially, from a long-term upside perspective, going with Heflin might make the most sense. On the other hand, the Packers could keep Lancaster and sneak Heflin onto the practice squad to give them an unofficial six-man depth chart.
Keep one or two: Jonathan Garvin vs. Chauncey Rivers vs. Tipa Galeai
This all seemed so simple at the start of camp. With Pro Bowler Za’Darius Smith, hungry Preston Smith and surging Rashan Gary, the Packers might have had the best trio of outside linebackers in the NFL. In that case, Gutekunst could keep the best of the rest with a focus on special teams. But with coach Matt LaFleur concerned that Za’Darius Smith’s back injury could sideline him to start the season, Green Bay might have to carry five outside linebackers into the season. The problem is none of the other players has really jumped to the forefront. So, Gutekunst might have to go shopping on the waiver wire. An alternative would be keeping four and using practice-squad elevations to provide depth without burning an additional spot.
Keep zero or one: Isaiah McDuffie
The four-or-five dilemma at outside linebacker could impact the fate of sixth-round pick McDuffie, who missed the start of camp due to injury but is finishing strong. Presumably, Ty Summers and Oren Burks will be the third and fourth inside linebackers and key players on a special teams that has lost outside linebacker Randy Ramsey and safety Will Redmond to injured reserve. If the Packers can get by with four outside linebackers, maybe there’s room for McDuffie as a fifth inside linebacker. LaFleur sure raved about him on Thursday.
Keep two: Isaac Yiadom vs. Kabion Ento vs. Shemar Jean-Charles
I think Jean-Charles will be safe. He seems to have adjusted to the quantum leap in competition after dominating a bunch of bad quarterbacks and mediocre receivers at Appalachian State. Chandon Sullivan, the team’s slot defender last year and the front-runner to hold that role again this season, will be a free agent next offseason. If he develops, Jean-Charles could fill that role in 2022. So, let’s focus on the newcomer Yiadom vs. the receiver-turned-cornerback Ento. Ento was a sensation to start camp but has slumped. He missed three tackles vs. the Jets. Players who can’t tackle can’t play on special teams. With first-round pick Eric Stokes dropping out of Thursday’s practice, Yiadom and Ento formed the No. 2 pair. However, for one snap, Yiadom replaced Kevin King with the first unit.
Keep one or two: Vernon Scott vs. Innis Gaines vs. Christian Uphoff
Henry Black has been the No. 3 safety and No. 6 defensive back throughout training camp. So, unless he falls on his face against the Bills, he should be good to go. That leaves it to Scott, the promising seventh-round pick from last year who has been out with an injured hamstring, and the impressive undrafted rookie duo of Gaines and Uphoff. Gaines has mostly run ahead of Uphoff this summer but Uphoff’s size and athleticism make him an especially intriguing asset for special teams. The Packers could keep Scott and Uphoff on Tuesday, put Scott on injured reserve on Wednesday and replace him with Gaines (assuming he gets through waivers).
Keep zero or one: Long snapper Hunter Bradley
Hunter Bradley has been flying solo at long snapper for most of camp. That doesn’t mean he’s won the job, though. At Tuesday’s practice, three of his six snaps on field goals had to be scooped up off the turf by punter/holder JK Scott. At Thursday’s practice, one of his seven snaps was low. That’s just unacceptable. Will Bradley make the 53? Will he make it for a day and be replaced? Or will Gutekunst continue to show (unreasonable) confidence in the snapper he drafted in 2018?