Taking the Leap: 2021 Packers about to take form
The preseason has mercifully concluded and the Packers' opening roster will soon take shape.
Welcome to the official launch of The Leap, a newsletter from Jason B. Hirschhorn and Peter Bukowski dedicated to coverage of the Green Bay Packers. Our goal is to take you beyond the box scores and headlines to explain the how and why behind every major decision, development, and outcome.
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Projecting the most surprising roster decision
Jason B. Hirschhorn: Cornerback Isaac Yiadom makes the opening 53-man roster. The Packers acquired Yiadom, a former third-round pick, in exchange for fellow corner Josh Jackson following the latter's disastrous performance during the preseason opener. That late arrival meant Yiadom had little time to prepare for the team's next preseason game, getting just a few days of practice and meetings before playing 42 snaps from scrimmage and another 14 on special teams.
While Yiadom's play on defense didn't inspire much confidence, his work on special teams left a better impression. He played on every special-teams unit save for the field-goal kicking, recording a tackle on punt coverage and consistently filling his lane. Given the Packers' continued struggles on special teams, retaining a reliable tackler with athleticism makes some sense even if other players on the bubble possess higher upside on their respective side of the ball.
Peter Bukowski: Offensive tackle Yosh Nijman makes the opening 53-man roster. This will be surprising because of the loud, bad plays including and especially the awful pass blocking rep that got Jordan Love hurt. But Nijman may well be the only pure tackle on the roster outside of David Bakhtiari and Billy Turner. Perhaps that’s a reason not to keep him, particularly because Ben “I Can’t Believe He’s Not 45” Braden played well on Saturday and offers positional versatility.
The Packers put considerable time and effort into developing Nijman and offensive line coach Adam Stenavich told reporters Sunday he challenged Nijman coming into camp, a challenge he said the young tackle “handled really well.” Less than nine months removed from an NFC Championship that went sideways because of offensive line depth problems, the Packers opt to keep nine or even 10 guys to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Pay attention to …
JBH: … who wins the competition at right guard and pay a little less attention to the winner at left guard. Both position battles matter in the short run, but only the winner at right guard can expect to hold the job once All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari returns from his ACL tear. At that time, Elgton Jenkins will slide back to his customary spot at left guard, pushing the opening-week starter to the bench.
Put a different way: The best offensive lineman among rookie Royce Newman, veteran Lucas Patrick, and second-year pro Jon Runyan Jr. will end up at right guard, which explains why the Packers' coaching staff has worked all three at multiple spots throughout training camp and the preseason.
Right now, the inside track for the starting job at right guard appears to belong to Newman.
"I think the biggest thing for him is learning the offense and his ability to play fast," Packers O-line coach Adam Stenavich said of Newman on Sunday. "He's naturally a fast guy. Some guys, when you put a lot on their plate, they don't go out there and play fast. You can see them hesitate on film and stuff like that where Royce, he plays really fast. Basically, from Day 1, you've seen him just play with confidence."
Stenavich's remarks echo those from head coach Matt LaFleur who has also praised Newman frequently since the rookie began taking snaps with the No. 1 offense. The team hasn't named a starting five as of yet, but it would seem a sizable upset if Newman didn't line up between center Josh Myers and right tackle Billy Turner when the Packers offense takes the field for the first time in New Orleans on Sept. 12. And when Bakhtiari does return to action, Newman appears likely to remain with the starters so long as his play doesn't dip. A different fate awaits whoever begins the season at left guard.
"Once the guys kind of declare where we're going to put them, then hopefully we can settle them in," Stenavich said. "But as you know, we'll have our starters for Week 1, but that change Week 2 for multiple reasons."
PB: … the Los Angeles Rams’ final cuts. Per ESPN’s Lindsey Thiry, Corey Bojorquez impressed the L.A. coaching staff enough to potentially earn the starting job over long-time stalwart Johnny Hekker. If Hekker surprises and does make the team, Bojorquez would hit the open market, making him a prime candidate for the Packers. If the big-legged ex-New Mexico punter makes the Rams, it’s difficult to imagine the Rams keeping both players, making Hekker either available in a trade or cut outright.
One word of caution: Sean McVay and Les Snead could be devious enough to avoid precisely this situation, and look to trade Hekker to a team not in the NFC contender circle even for a relative tuppence. Still, this looks like the best way forward to fixing the disappointing situation with JK Scott.
What we’re hearing/seeing
JBH: Roughly 24 hours before the Packers' final preseason game, the team signed free-agent cornerback Rojesterman Farris to the 80-man roster (an addition first reported by The Leap). With most of the regular-season roster spots already determined and effectively no time to prepare for the game, why would Green Bay or Farris agree to do this? What chance does Farris have to actually impress the coaches and stick around in some capacity?
To find the answers, The Leap spoke with Farris' agent.
"It's a one-game rental. The practice squad is absolutely the ceiling," United Athlete Sports Agency’s Evan Brennan said of Farris' outlook given the timing of the agreement. "It's an opportunity to get tape."
Farris, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Hawaii in 2020, does have some tape from this year. He played 25 snaps from scrimmage for the Denver Broncos during their preseason opener, recording one tackle in the process. He did not see a single target during the action.
But for one reason or another, the Broncos decided not to retain Farris, waiving him the following week before the league-mandated cutdown to 85 players per team. In most cases, players who lose their jobs at that stage of the process have a difficult time catching on with another roster in the immediate future. While Farris managed to beat the odds in that regard, he faces an uphill battle for a job with the Packers beyond Tuesday's final-cut deadline.
Even so, Farris might have an ace up his sleeve. His time in Denver exposed him to head coach Vic Fangio and his defensive system, a version of which Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry runs. That won't offset Farris' lack of familiarity with his new teammates, but it at least means he speaks the same football language.
Regardless, Farris' plight underscores the harsh reality for back-of-the-roster players in the NFL. Despite the glamour of professional football, most careers hang by a thread. The spotlight the league shines on the outliers shouldn't distract from the fact that so many athletes never get a fair shake.
With that in mind, what chance does Farris have of finding himself on the Packers' practice squad?
"Five percent," Farris' agent said.
PB: Jordan Love is making the right kinds of mistakes. That may sound weird, but it’s true. Bad decisions with the ball aren’t created equal. Some quarterbacks read defenses slowly or poorly and end up putting the ball in harm’s way because they didn’t see the lurk defender, or the spinning safety. There are natural risk-takers, the Jameis Winston’s of the world, who know guys are covered and throw it anyway, believing too much in their own arm talent.
Love, though, looks excellent from a clean pocket, a must for a young quarterback. Every QB gets worse, usually significantly worse, under pressure so when a player gets reasonable circumstances, he has to be able to execute. The second-year signal-caller looks adept at playing in rhythm and within structure, getting to his second and third reads, resetting his platform, and firing strikes as he did on the double move to Reggie Begelton on Saturday.
The pair of bad decisions on Saturday came with near immediate pressure, situations in which Love must ratchet down his aggressiveness. But he’s not turtling under pressure, immediately dropping his eyes and looking to run. Instead, his eyes stay downfield and he’s trying to make a play. That’s actually a positive trait so long as he and the coaching staff can channel it into healthier choices moving forward.
JBH: Before Saturday's game, the Buffalo Bills tweeted out a photo of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his former teammate, wide receiver Jake Kumerow.
Ostensibly, the tweet referenced not only the relationship between the two players but also Rodgers' reported frustration with the Packers' decision to cut Kumerow just before Week 1 last season. Among the myriad issues Rodgers had with the organization, the complaint garnered significant attention nationally given Kumerow's relative anonymity.
Opinions may vary on whether the Packers' decision to part ways with Kumerow matters, whether in regard to Rodgers or the team generally. However, another football team could have fielded both players but instead drove away each: the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Back in 2002, Illinois recruited Rodgers out of high school with the hope of luring him to Champaign as a preferred walk-on. While the California senior had no other serious Division I suitors, the lack of a scholarship offer ultimately dissuaded Rodgers from attending the program he "wanted to go to out of high school."
"I went to their team camp, and they didn't offer me," Rodgers told The Dan Patrick Show, via the Chicago Tribune. "They didn't offer me a scholarship."
Kumerow spurned the Fighting Illini in a different way. The Bartlett, Illinois native actually joined the team as a walk-on in 2010, though he redshirted his freshman year. Kumerow went on to appear in seven games the following season but barely saw the field, finishing 2011 with just three catches for 15 yards. That figure seems especially paltry when considering that only one Illini player — A.J. Jenkins — recorded 250 or more receiving yards that season.
With no apparent path to meaningful playing time, Kumerow transferred to UW-Whitewater where he hauled in 158 passes for 2,648 yards and 36 touchdowns over the next three years. Meanwhile, Illinois' passing game took a nosedive over the same stretch, with none of the more heralded wide receivers coming close to matching Kumerow's production and skill.
All of which underscores the importance of talent evaluation. The team with the better players generally performs better on the field. Illinois has gone through five coaching changes since failing to land Rodgers and four since Kumerow departed. Meanwhile, Rodgers just completed his third MVP campaign while Kumerow appears to have locked up a spot on an NFL roster.
PB: Thanks to everyone for being early adopters of this endeavor. We are going to be trying all kinds of fun and different things, at least for the Packers beat, and hope to bring you something you can only get here. We’re excited to get started and hope you’ll tell a friend if you like what you’re getting so far.