JASON WILDE For Lee Newspapers
GREEN BAY — Forget all those snarky jokes about Aaron Rodgers, who is both the Green Bay Packers starting quarterback and assistant general manager. If the four-time NFL MVP really had a meaningful impact on the team’s original roster, then wide receiver Juwann Winfree would be on the 53 and not on the practice team.
And while Rodgers’ dissatisfaction didn’t reach Kumerow’s level when GM Brian Gutekunst held seventh-round Samori Toure ahead of Winfree during Tuesday’s final cutdown as the No. 7 Packers, both Gutekunst and Rodgers got what they wanted in the end: Winfree back on the 16-man practice team, with the chance of game-day call-ups and the opportunity to continue working towards a spot in the receiver hierarchy.
Winfree’s agent, Mike McCartney, announced via Twitter Wednesday night that his client had indeed committed to returning to the Packers, but only after apparently considering other options given that 12 other members of the practice team were back in the Dressing room and training were field earlier in the day while Winfree was not.
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Winfree’s release was among the most interesting steps Gutekunst took on his journey to the NFL’s mandated 53-man roster limit, considering the number of times Rodgers had publicly fought for him. And considering how far Rodgers and Gutekunst’s relationship has come since the GM cut former UW Whitewater standout — and Rodgers favorite — Jake Kumerow at the end of training camp in 2020, it’s worth noting that the quarterback didn’t rupture like a seal on Wednesday he did when “Whitewater Jesus” was sent away.
“There’s always conversations between Brian and I, and it’s definitely not the same situation as it was a few years ago when I felt like[Kumerow]was our third-best receiver on the team based on his performance in training camp,” Rodgers told Reporters during his usual weekly Q&A session in his locker after Wednesday’s practice.
“I thought Juwann had a nice training camp. We know sometimes it’s not meritocracy. There are additional options for drafted players; That’s how we’ve been doing it in Green Bay for a long time. And I’m not knocking on it because I wasn’t very good in my freshman year either. These guys usually get a little more opportunities and if you’re an older player you really need to solidify your role on the team.
The NFL’s new rules after two years of expanded practice squads due to the COVID-19 pandemic allow players to be included in the practice squad’s active roster for three game days, and given Winfree’s experience on the Packers’ offense — he’s spent the most of the on the practice team’s last two seasons, saw action in two games last year and caught eight passes for 58 yards — there’s a strong possibility he’ll be on the game-day list for the team’s Sept. 11 season opener in Minnesota, Rodgers said.
“There’s a good chance he’ll be activated in the first game on the 48-man playday list,” Rodgers predicted.
When asked how much say his quarterback had in the decision-making process compared to when he cut Kumerow, Gutekunst replied, “I would say Aaron’s involvement is very different than it was then. It’s kind of constant and there are a lot of conversations that happen whenever he’s here. … Obviously he’s kept himself abreast somehow, maybe more than he did then, and his input is really valuable to me. He has a different perspective on a lot of things than coaches, scouts and everyone else in the building because he’s in that dressing room. It’s really good for our business and I’m glad he’s with us.”
In addition to Rodgers’ contribution and Winfree’s return, here are four other takeaways from the Packers’ original lineup:
2. Winfree wasn’t the only player Rodgers thought deserved a spot on the 53. He also mentioned mammoth 6-foot-9 offensive tackle Caleb Jones and running back Tyler Goodson as strong camps.
Like Winfree, the Packers were both able to re-enlist in the practice squad. The other 10 practice squads officially signed Wednesday were quarterback Danny Etling, wide receiver Travis Fulgham, cornerbacks Rico Gafford and Kiondre Thomas, outside linebackers La’Darius Hamilton and Kobe Jones, defensive tackles Jack Heflin and Chris Slayton, inside Linebacker Ray Wilborn and running back Patrick Taylor.
As he had previously said at camp, Gutekunst reiterated how the flexibility of the training roster influenced his final decisions as he viewed the roster as a group of 69 players, not 53 plus 16. The most obvious example: so many run backs on the 53-man roster (Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon) as on practice group (Goodson, Taylor).
“That goes with the 69 (player) thing I was talking about with the flexibility of the raises,” Gutekunst said. “Also, the appearance of Amari Rodgers (wide receiver sophomore) doing some things back there could help us on game day I think as well. So we have some flexibility there, so that was part of the decision.”
3. Not that Gutekunst would have to confirm that, as holding all 11 of this year’s draft picks said it all, but draft status actually plays a key role in roster decisions. Potential investment and investment in design capital clearly means more than production in the field. Because while Toure made a strong case for being the seventh receiver over Winfree, two other seventh-round picks — defenseman Jonathan Ford and offensive lineman Rasheed Walker — earned spots over seemingly more deserving candidates. Slayton and Heflin had better summers than Ford, and Caleb Jones was better than Walker.
“I don’t know if that’s why we keep them, (but) certainly if we invest in these guys … that’s part of it,” Gutekunst said. “You weigh a lot of different things, but it’s not just because they’re being drafted. I think that’s because of the work we’ve done on them and where we think they’ll be in the future.”
4. If there’s one place the Packers lack talent and experience, it’s the outside linebacker behind starters Preston Smith and Rashan Gary. The Packers held fifth-round Tipa Galeai, Jonathan Garvin and rookie Kingsley “Jay-Jay” Enagbare behind Smith and Gary, and while this duo has played 159 of 162 in their combined 10 years in the NFL, the team is hoping to stick with it so durable given the uncertainty on the depth map.
“Obviously Preston and ’52’ are real players. (But) when Rashan and Preston come off the field, those other guys, they have to hold their own, whether it’s in first and second places in the running game or if we have to spell them out as pass rushers. said Gutekunst. “But not only am I looking forward to this group, I’m looking forward to the Inside (Linebacker) group. I think our centre-backs and full-backs are much more versatile and different overall than they have been for a while.”
5. Gutekunst made his squad decisions where his mouth was when it came to special teams. Not only were ex-Las Vegas Raiders Dallin Leavitt and Keisean Nixon brought in at the urging of new special teams coordinator (and ex-Raiders interim head coach) Rich Bisaccia, but Gutekunst added the ex-special teams ace Wednesday of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Rudy Ford, after the original roster was moved a day early.
While these players could also contribute to defense, Gutekunst acknowledged a changed approach after years of struggling on special teams.
“I think we’ve done things that might be out of character for us — in terms of some of the guys we brought in, who might not play that big of a role on offense or defense, but maybe they’re heavy special team players,” he said good art. “We’ll see how that goes. We have to get better at that in order to achieve the goals that this team wants to achieve. We have to get better. I think we will and we’ve certainly invested a lot, not just in coach Bisaccia but also in some of the guys we brought on.”