GREEN BAY – After months of virtual meetings and off-site preparation, the Packers are finally scheduled to retake the practice field this Saturday.
It'll mark the first time General Manager Brian Gutekunst and his scouts have seen Green Bay's nine-player rookie draft class and other offseason acquisitions in a competitive setting.
With the preseason already cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, every second of practice film between now and the start of the regular season will be invaluable in assessing which 53 players the Packers will take into their regular-season opener next month in Minnesota.
"I think everyone around here is starving for us to get back out there so we have a little film to watch and start to evaluate these guys and get prepared for the season," Gutekunst said Monday.
It's been a tough offseason to be a scout. In addition to the restrictions the NFL put in place to combat the virus, the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming college football season has created new challenges in terms of preparation for next year's draft.
Like the organization has done throughout most of 2020, Gutekunst, Head Coach Matt LaFleur and their respective staffs have adjusted to a moving landscape. It started this past spring when the Packers conducted a virtual offseason program to get returning veterans and incoming rookies up to speed on the playbook.
Since players reported for training camp two weeks ago, the Packers have been conducting daily testing, strength and conditioning workouts, position meetings and walk-throughs as part of the acclimation period leading up to the team's first practice.
Green Bay has already pared its roster down to 80 players (not including a handful on the COVID-19 reserve list) and largely will stick with that group since the league cracked down on weekly workouts with free agents. If a team brings in a player for a visit, it must be done with the intention to sign him.
Without a physical offseason program to watch and limited on-field opportunities to this point, Gutekunst has relied on communication with his scouts and coaching staff to get a feel for how Green Bay's 2020 roster is coming together.
"The opportunities are just limited," Gutekunst said. "Whether that's in a meeting, knowing what they're supposed to do and being on point there, whether it's the walk-throughs, the strength and conditioning, being in shape, everything's just kind of enhanced. Everything's just a little bit more important because we don't have the length of time and the exposures...to make these decisions."
One change Gutekunst already is taking into account is the expansion of the practice squad from 10 to 16 players (including four veteran exemptions), pushing the total number of players teams can have under contract during the regular season to 69.
As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, two practice-squad players are now eligible to be activated to the 48-man game-day roster each week.
They're all factors Gutekunst must consider as the Packers cut down their roster on Sept. 5. Of the 10 players Green Bay kept on its practice squad last year, four were elevated to the 53 at some point and five others stayed with the team all season.
"We're going to try and keep the best players we can, understanding that it's going to be a long season and that practice squad's going to be very, very important for us," Gutekunst said. "Especially this year with the ability to move guys up and down, that's going to be more important than it ever has been."
The Packers are likely to try "a bunch of different things" to create a competitive environment in lieu of the preseason. LaFleur already said he plans to utilize more live-scrimmage periods and practice inside Lambeau Field to prepare players for the possibility of not playing in front of fans this season.
Working to the team's advantage is the fact Gutekunst and LaFleur are entering the second year of their partnership. Reflecting on Green Bay's 13-3 season a year ago, Gutekunst praised LaFleur for creating a practice climate that aided the personnel department's ability to evaluate the roster.
Those conversations will be even more critical given the limitations created by the pandemic.
"Last year I thought was really good, being able to be very open with each other about some of the guys we were evaluating, what we might need to see," Gutekunst said. "Most of that was around the preseason games, so this year probably will be the opposite, just more around the practices and certain markers we'll have as we go through."