GREEN BAY – With mounting injuries on both sides of the ball, the first six weeks of the 2021 NFL season have tested the Packers' depth and creativity.
Green Bay has stayed true to its draft-and-develop principles, calling on young draft picks, unsung heroes and undrafted free agents to step up during team's 5-1 start.
However, General Manager Brian Gutekunst and his personnel department have also been aggressive and pragmatic in finding additional support through signings, trades and waiver claims.
This week, for example, the topic of discussion turned to former All-Pro linebacker Whitney Mercilus. With Za'Darius Smith out with a back injury and Preston Smith's status for Sunday's game against Washington uncertain due to an oblique, Green Bay responded with the signing of Mercilus, a 10th-year veteran with 57 sacks in 134 career NFL games (102 starts).
Since the initial cut to 53 on Aug. 31, Green Bay has added six players who combine for 323 NFL regular-season games played.
"It makes you feel great as a coach because ultimately we're as good as, many times, as our players are able to go out there and perform," said Head Coach Matt LaFleur of the team's in-season acquisitions. "The more great players you have, the better the opportunity you have to win football games. And that's what we're all here for."
While unrestricted free agency in the winter tends to draw most of the offseason NFL headlines, Gutekunst and his staff signed linebacker De'Vondre Campbell during the final week of the offseason program. The sixth-year veteran currently leads the Packers' defense with 52 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery in six starts.
In a little more than a month, Green Bay executed three trades to acquire longtime receiver Randall Cobb, cornerback Isaac Yiadom and punter Corey Bojorquez. The team also signed tackle Dennis Kelly as an insurance policy on the offensive line with David Bakhtiari recovering from ACL surgery.
When injuries mounted during the regular season, Gutekunst and his scouting department again took action. After All-Pros Za'Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander were placed on injured reserve, the Packers signed veteran cornerback Rasul Douglas and linebacker La'Darius Hamilton. The two combined for 64 defensive snaps in Sunday's 24-14 win over Chicago.
When Mercilus and former Pro Bowler Jaylon Smith came available in recent weeks, Green Bay made its interest in the two veterans abundantly clear and the feelings were mutual.
"I wanted to be in Green Bay, simple as that," said Smith in his introductory news conference two weeks ago. "Historic franchise, love everything and what everyone's about. '12' is amazing and getting the opportunity to add more value to the defense is a blessing and it's an honor. I'm looking forward to being here."
Smith made his Packers debut against the Bears, generating a pressure on Justin Fields during his 16 snaps. On the outside, the Packers are confident Mercilus can provide depth and leadership in a young outside linebacker room. The 31-year-old Mercilus was second on Houston's defense with three sacks prior to parting ways with the Texans earlier this week.
Several other players have been elevated from the practice squad as gameday replacements, with the NFL relaxing its policies on non-active roster players during the pandemic.
That change, in addition to the league altering its IR rules, has resulted in the Packers using 61 players through their first six regular-season games. In some ways, it reminds Rodgers of another Packers team from the not-so-distant past.
"This season is beginning to remind me a little bit of a season over a decade ago where we've had a number of injuries and in the course of the season added certain pieces to the mix that ended up playing a big role down the line," Rodgers said.
"I think you guys can imagine what season I'm talking about, which is a good thing."
Of course, Rodgers is referring to the 2010 Packers team that placed 16 on season-ending injured reserve and utilized 77 total players on its way a Super Bowl XLV championship.
To make up for those in-season losses in 2010, then-general manager Ted Thompson signed linebackers Erik Walden and Matt Wilhelm, claimed defensive tackle Howard Green and linebacker Diyral Briggs off waivers, and traded for safety Anthony Smith.
The team also received a boost from rookie running back James Starks, who led the team in rushing during the postseason, and undrafted rookie cornerback Sam Shields.
All the aforementioned contributed to the Packers winning three consecutive road playoff games en route to the Super Bowl, where Green Bay upended the Steelers 31-25 for its fourth Lombardi Trophy.
Time will tell what the future holds for the 2021 squad, which is off to a 5-1 start despite having seven players on injured reserve, one on the COVID-19/reserve list and Bakhtiari still on PUP.
The Packers recently have received good news on the injury front, though. Bakhtiari practiced for the first time Wednesday since he tore his ACL on New Year's Eve. Cornerback Kevin King also returned after missing Sunday's game against the Bears with a shoulder injury.
Finally, Elgton Jenkins was removed from the injury list altogether, a positive sign for the Pro Bowl offensive lineman after he returned Sunday following a three-game layoff with an ankle injury.
The Packers are holding out hope for getting both Za'Darius Smith and Alexander back at some point this season, as well. But regardless of what obstacles are thrown their way, the Packers have shown they're willing to adapt and press on.
"I think you're always looking for help," LaFleur said. "I know nothing's concrete in terms of Z, for the year. But you're always looking to upgrade your football team and I know Gutey is constantly looking at every available option out there for us. And if an opportunity presents itself, I know he'll jump at it."