The recent contract restructuring that Donald Driver agreed to with the Green Bay Packers has stamped a gigantic question mark over the wide receiver position. Namely, will the Packers’ 53-man roster include six wide receivers now that a roster spot is virtually guaranteed for Driver? Second-year players Diondre Borel, Tori Gurley, and even Shaky Smithson will all be competing for a spot on the roster, but it might require an additional receiver spot to make it possible.
Instead of debating the validity of keeping six wide receivers, I’ve decided to consider how this could actually happen. What roster moves would have to happen, and which option is the most likely?
Before diving in, I decided to do a little preliminary work and see how Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson have built their opening day rosters in the past. I first charted how many players were kept at each position, then went through and looked at the minimum number of players McCarthy has kept throughout the years. I didn’t take an average, since I though it more important to see how low the Packers were willing to go at a given position and use that as kind of a breaking point.
(Note: I only went back to 2009 due to the defensive scheme shift. Defensive positions prior to that point, especially DL and LB, would carry significantly different numbers.)
* – The TE, RB, FB positions comprised a total of 9 players throughout each year. TEs and FBs as blockers could be considered as mostly interchangeable, while some years the FB position took on a bigger ball-carrying role along with the RBs.
** – The safety position could be said to have a minimum breaking point of 4 players with the consideration that Jarrett Bush and Charles Woodson both played safety roles in the 2011 season. But across all three years, the DBs as a whole have sat at 10 players total.
After taking a look at the chart, there are some positions that remain definitively consistent: QB (2), WR (5), DL (6), ILB (4), SP (3). You could also add the DBs (10) and TE/FB/RB combination (9) as fairly stable with the latter more open to change.
This presents me with two basic options for adding an extra wide receiver . . .
OPTION #1: Take from the OL & LB
These two positions are the only ones that have seen fluctuation over the years. Combined, they make up the remaining 14 players on the roster; however, these two positions have practically nothing to do with each other. Unlike, say, the TE/FB positions, there’s no real trade-off between the two. Outside of special teams, these players are on completely different sides of the ball.
The Packers could keep 8 offensive lineman and 5 outside linebackers and have the room for 6 wide receivers. Or they could go 9 offensive lineman and 4 outside linebackers. Considering that having extra OLBs on the roster didn’t really help the position at all – since they were all equally pedestrian – it may not be that far of a stretch to go back to keeping 4 like they did in 2010.
Either way, these positions seem to have offered the most flexibility in the past, suggesting that they could offer more in this coming season.
OPTION #2: Take from the TE/FB/RB combo
In my first footnote below the chart, I noted that the three positions of TE, RB, and FB carried a combined 9 players throughout the years. While that may be purely coincidental, I think it still lends some insight into the philosophy of McCarthy’s offense. As a pass-focused unit, the offense relies on its halfbacks and fullbacks to pass protect first and foremost. And outside of Jermichael Finley, the same could be said about the tight ends. Running the ball and using tight ends as receivers is still part of the game plan, but none of these players will be put into that role without first being able to block oncoming pass rushers.
That being said, the tight ends – Finley in particular – share a significant role in the passing game. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch for them to give up a slot for the sixth wide receiver. In effect, we could see 4 tight ends, 3 running backs, and a fullback with what would normally be their ninth slot going to a wide receiver.
One player that could really affect this is Andrew Quarless. His injury situation might actually allow this scenario, especially if placed on the PUP or IR. It could provide some added flexibility through at least the first six games of the season.
Outside of these two options, I don’t really see much else. The QB position can’t go any lower, along with the DL, ILB and SP groups. The only other possibility is the defensive backs, but I think the Packers neared panic mode last season when Collins was lost to injury, and their past record indicates they like to keep a full 10 DBs on the roster.
The other wild card is the defensive line. Last year’s insufficient play combined with the suspensions of Mike Neal and Tony Hargrove could force the front office into some creative roster management. Fortunately the suspended players don’t count against the 53-man total, but how it will affect the other positions if/when they return is unclear.
Mike McCarthy has said that he puts the 53 best players on the roster, though logic and past practice indicate that positions require at least a certain number of players to adequately deal with unforeseen injuries. If he is to keep six wide receivers, however, then that player would have to prove himself more valuable than options at other positions.
He would also have to be a significant contributor to the special teams units, which McCarthy has admitted as another factor in deciding who makes the cut. Wide receivers have regularly been involved in special teams units, and the punt-blocking prowess of Tori Gurley might actually give him an edge in that battle.
I don’t think keeping six wide receivers is a far stretch, though it would definitely be a deviation from the norm. If it does happen, the two basic scenarios outlined above are how I would see it playing out. And really, this far ahead of training camp, playing this type of numbers game is about the best we can do to speculate for now.