Packers brace for difficult decisions following energetic training camp

Head Coach Matt LaFleur appreciates how players responded to challenging offseason

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Running backs huddle

GREEN BAY – The playbook is in, training camp is over and the Packers are eight days away from their regular-season opener against the Minnesota Vikings.

But before the team takes the field at U.S. Bank Stadium, General Manager Brian Gutekunst must pare down the roster from 80 players to 53 by 3 p.m. CT on Saturday.

While cut-down day is never easy for anyone involved, this year is particularly difficult given the challenging nature of training and developing a football team in the midst of a global pandemic.

There was no physical offseason program for rookies and first-year players to get up to speed on the plays and installs, and no preseason games to leave an impression on the scouts and coaching staff.

A spring spent mostly online culminated in 15 training-camp practices, split between Nitschke and Lambeau Field, over 20 days.

"This is the toughest time of the year for us," LaFleur said. "Anytime you're knocking on the door of cut-downs, you've got so much appreciation for what our guys do, how they battle and how they come to work and it's always tough when you take that away from somebody.

"As excited as we are to start the season, it's a difficult day just because you have relationships formed with these guys and you just, you want the best for them."

One silver lining is the NFL and NFLPA agreeing to expand the practice squad to 16 players this year, with four veteran exemptions. Once cuts are submitted to the league, teams can begin building their practice squads after 12 p.m. CT Sunday.

As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, NFL teams are allowed to protect up to four practice-squad players each week. There also is greater flexibility with the process, allowing teams to elevate up to two players to the game-day roster each week without having to go through the waiver process.

This year, teams can also designate as many players as they want to return from injured reserve, as long as those players are on the initial 53. Once on IR, players are eligible to return to practice after only three weeks. Once a player practices, teams have a 21-day window to activate him to the 53-man roster.

The Packers also have one player (linebacker Curtis Bolton) who is eligible to start the season on the physically unable to perform list and two others (guard Simon Stepaniak and running back Patrick Taylor) who are on the non-football injury list.

"The new CBA, obviously there are some different roster rules, and then particularly this year with COVID, there's been some changes, as well," Gutekunst said. "Whether that be to the IR, being able to return as many guys as you want to during the season, and the amount of time they have to stay down. It's certainly been a very big part of how we've looked at things, and how we will look at things going forward."

Several of the Packers' returning practice-squad players and street free agents addressed the media this week. To a man, each player was grateful to the organization for the opportunity to compete for a roster spot this summer, while also acknowledging the challenge of an abbreviated offseason program and camp.

Gutekunst and his scouts were present at every practice this summer, frequently conferring with LaFleur and his coaches on what the personnel department needed to make their evaluations.

In the end, Gutekunst felt they were able to make the most out of difficult circumstances.

"It's never a good thing but particularly this year, you weren't able to give the guys the opportunities in those games to go out and prove some things, so that's tough," Gutekunst said. "At the same time, it's our job to try to make the best decisions that we can to put the best football team out there.

"It's the situation we're in and I feel for those guys, but there will be opportunities down the road."

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