GREEN BAY – As a draft-and-develop team, the Packers are always going to have a number of young players sprinkled throughout their depth chart who may not quite be ready for the bright lights of the NFL.
The idea is that soon they will be, even if their abilities are somewhat unknown at the moment. Constantly developing young talent always will remain the lifeblood of a consistently successful team.
This year, however, those young up-and-comers in reserve are mixed with a handful of veterans who are prepared to step in at a moment's notice. There are a few spots where the Packers will know exactly what they'll be getting if reserves need to take on a larger-than-expected role.
It's one facet of new General Manager Brian Gutekunst's first 53-man roster that looks a little different compared to recent years.
Tight end Lance Kendricks, offensive lineman Byron Bell and cornerback Davon House, none of whom is expected to start at their respective positions, are all entering their eighth NFL seasons. That's more than a collective two decades of pro experience at three backup spots – four if Bell is counted as both a guard and tackle.
"You're always balancing developing young players with experience," Gutekunst said on Sunday as he discussed his roster selections with the media. "In those particular cases, as we went through the spring and summer, they were areas we wanted to add that kind of experience, and we were able to. It worked out."
Even newly acquired inside linebacker Anthony Morrison, beginning his third season after starting 15 games and leading the Colts in tackles a year ago, has more experience than a lot of reserves who have needed to be the Packers' "next men up" in the recent past.
Just look back to 2015, when a banged-up Packers team shifted JC Tretter, with all of three career starts at center, out to left tackle in place of David Bakhtiari for a playoff game at Washington. Or in 2016, when an undrafted second-year pro in LaDarius Gunter started 18 of 19 games at cornerback, partly because he was the only player at his position who could stay healthy. Or that same year when injuries forced rookie tackle Jason Spriggs to play out of position at guard for three weeks until T.J. Lang could come back.
The Packers made the best of those situations and still found success, coming an overtime away from the NFC title game in '15 and then getting there in '16. But the state of the depth chart made those tasks infinitely tougher.
Having the level of experience at all positions that reserves like Kendricks, Bell and House bring to theirs isn't realistic, not with a salary cap and the need to have young players in the pipeline.
But now in at least a few places the Packers have been put in some really difficult spots before, the players they might have to call upon are more known quantities who have large bodies of work to fall back on.
"You'd always like to have a little bit of both (youth and experience) and have it tiered through your roster, but that's not always the case," Gutekunst said. "Those players, having that kind of experience made us feel better about the backup spots."
As for the young reserves still developing their games, undrafted rookie linebacker James Crawford from Illinois might have been the most surprising inclusion on the 53-man roster, especially given he didn't arrive in Green Bay until two weeks into training camp.
But the 6-foot-2, 239-pound Crawford, who's a nephew of former Packers star and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Woodson, beat the odds and showed enough in an abbreviated stint for the Packers to keep him around and see what the future brings.
"He made a strong impression, specifically on special teams the last game," Gutekunst said, referring to the preseason finale in Kansas City. "That was one of the better special teams games we've seen around here in a while. He has physical traits we look for, and he maximized the opportunities he had in less time with us. He did a nice job of letting it loose."
Gutekunst also saw plenty of upside in No. 3 quarterback Tim Boyle from Eastern Kentucky, another undrafted rookie whose standout moments were too good to ignore. Boyle's most extensive playing time in preseason came in Kansas City, and overall the outing was uneven, but early in the game when he was playing with more second-string teammates rather than third- or fourth-string, he engineered back-to-back touchdown drives.
"He's been able to come in and run the offense and make plays from Game 1 to Game 4," said Gutekunst, who said choosing to have three quarterbacks on the active roster versus just two came down to the quality of the players. "Like any young player, you have inconsistencies, but I thought he was able to make some big throws in big moments. He's trending in the right direction and it'll be interesting to watch him grow."
Quality was also the reason behind keeping eight receivers, though Gutekunst emphasized a couple of times, "Nothing's set in stone. It's still fluid and it will be all season."
The same goes for running back, where the Packers currently have just two (Jamaal Williams, Ty Montgomery), but they know they're getting a third back in Week 3 when Aaron Jones' suspension ends.
On paper, the Packers also look thin at outside linebacker, with just four on the active roster (Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Reggie Gilbert, Kyler Fackrell), though Gutekunst said Crawford provides some positional versatility, and seventh-round draft pick Kendall Donnerson was signed to the practice squad.
Regarding the outside linebacker making the biggest news around the league – new Chicago acquisition Khalil Mack – Gutekunst did not address specifically any trade discussions with the Raiders (and former Green Bay personnel colleague Reggie McKenzie, Oakland's GM). He simply stressed that he's been active in trade discussions around the league, especially the past few weeks.
"A lot more discussions happen than deals get done," he said. "A lot of times it just ends up that what a certain team is looking for you might not have.
"My thought process is always about winning. Does this help us win? If it does, we're going to pursue it. It's a puzzle and you have to make it fit, and you can't put yourself in a bind moving forward, but it's really about that – does this help us win? If it does, we'll attack that and see if we can make it work."
As for how he feels about Mack going to a division rival like the Bears, Gutekunst didn't say.
"I don't want to talk about other players on other teams," he said. "I feel really good about where we are right now and where we're headed. I'm looking forward to the season."