Monday, March 2, 2015

Building The 53 - Projections for Practice Squad Players

The 2014 NFL season has long since come to a close for the Green Bay Packers, which ended with a heartbreaking overtime loss in the NFC Championship Game on the road the Seattle Seahawks.  It took me some time to process that loss because of the roller-coaster of emotions that I went through that day.  If you told me right before the opening kickoff that the Packers would take the Seahawks to overtime, I would have been ecstatic given that the Seahawks were the presumptive favorites heading into the game.  Unfortunately the Packers systematically self-destructed to snatch a loss from the jaws of victory.  Given how well Packers general manager Ted Thompson manages The 53, I am sure he was working on The 53 for 2015 even before the start of the 2014 season.  Despite that fact, I still feel the need to advise Thompson on how to handle The 53 this off-season.

In the past I wrote one long post about how Thompson should approach the off-season (2011, 2012, and 2013) but given all the moving parts, much like I did last year, I am going to breakdown my advice into a number of post.  The first step in Building The 53 for 2015 is evaluating the players currently on the practice squad.

Thompson did not extend any players before the end of the regular season, which means the Packers will carry over roughly ~$8 million of cap space from 2014 to their 2015 salary cap.  The Packers have their top 51 most expensive ~$110 million, which leaves them upwards of $33 million in salary cap space for 2015 given that initial reports are that the salary cap will be $143.28 million in 2015.  That sounds like the Packers will have a ton of salary cap space but they have 16 players on The 53 in 2014 that are exclusive rights (2 players), restricted (3 players) or unrestricted (11 players) free agents that in less than a week will be available for any new team to sign unless the Packers sign them to a contract extension, which makes every decision about The 53 for 2015 crucial.

2015 Off-Season Advice for TT
Projections for Practice Squad
How to Handle 2015 ERFA's
How to Handle 2015 RFA's
How to Handle 2015 UFA's
Free Agent Shopping Guide
Potential Salary Cap Casualties
Locks for The 53 in 2015
In the off-season Thompson can have a 90-man roster as he works towards The 53 to open the season.  Thompson signed nine of the ten players from their final practice squad at the end of January to the 90-man roster: Jean Fanor (S), Tay Glover-Wright (CB), Adrian Hubbard (LB), Joe Madsen (C), Rajion Neal (RB), Joe Thomas (LB), Jeremy Vujnovich (T), Josh Walker (G), and Myles White (WR). For some reason Thompson decided not to sign Alex Gillett (WR) to a futures contract.  I find that decision slightly odd given that Gillett has been with the organization off and on for the last two seasons.  I don't have any grand illusion that Gillett will become the next Jordy Nelson but he seemed talented enough in his limited preseason snaps to warrant one of the 90 spots on the off-season roster.

Given that Thompson already signed the aforementioned nine guys, I thought it made sense to handicap each guy's chance of making The 53 to start the 2015 season by splitting them into three groups: long-shots, injury fill-in, or decent chance.

Technically all of these guys are long-shots since they were NOT on The 53 to end the season but among the nine guys, there are six guys that look like they are really long shots: Fanor, Glover-Wright, Madsen, Vujnovich, and Walker.  Sure there are always undrafted free agents that make The 53 but those spots are becoming more and more scarce because the last few guys cut by Thompson are now routinely added to The 53 for other NFL teams.  Plus Thompson does a good job of stacking depth on The 53 so I would be shocked if any of the six guys mentioned even get meaningful preseason snaps.  Sadly for those guys families that makes the six guys just discussed very, very, very long shots to even make it past the first round of cuts in the off-season.

There is really only one injury fill-in guy and that is Neal.  The Packers presumably like the three running backs that project to make The 53 next season in Eddie Lacy, James Starks, and DuJuan Harris.  Sure Harris played sparingly down the stretch last season and was even a healthy scratch a couple games last season but part of that was due to the fact that Lacy and Starks were shockingly healthy most of last season.  Given the lengthy injury history for Lacy & Starks, the odds that both of them stay healthy all of 2015 are quite low.  Assuming that Thompson does NOT draft a running back in the 2015 NFL Draft, it gives Neal a real shot to make The 53 at some point in 2015.

That leaves Hubbard, Thomas, and White as decent shots to make The 53.  The case for Hubbard and Thomas is the same.  Both guys are versatile linebackers, which makes them intriguing prospects.  That is something the Packers clearly need after they cut middle linebackers Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk.  Neither Hubbard or Thomas project as surefire starters at inside or outside linebacker but their versatility reminds me a little bit of Jamari Lattimore.  I give Hubbard (6'6" and 257 lbs) a slight edge over Thomas (6'1" and 227 lbs) just based on his Hubbard's size.  If Hubbard could somehow legally add 10 or 15 pounds of muscles in the off-season, I would change him from a decent chance to a borderline lock to make The 53.

The final player to discuss is White.  I am actually shocked that the Packers were able to keep White on their practice squad for all of 2014 given that some thought White deserved to make The 53 to start the 2014 season.  White projects as a quality slot receiver with enough size to line-up outside too.  With the wide receiver position in flux this off-season, I could see White making a real push to be the 5th or 6th wide receiver on The 53 next season depending on how Thompson approaches free agency and the draft.  If money were no object the Packers would resign Randall Cobb to a mega extension and tender Jarrett Boykin to give the Packers seven quality receivers in Jordy Nelson, Cobb, Devante Adams, Boykin, Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Janis, and White.  Fortunately for the guys on the bottom end of that list, there is a salary cap and Thompson already committed to Nelson long-term.  That means both Cobb and Boykin could play elsewhere next season, which gives White a great shot at making The 53.

I know a discussion of practice squad guys is NOT very sexy but it is an important one given every couple years Thompson develops a starter off of the practice squad.  Make sure to check back tomorrow for my thoughts on how Thompson should handle his two exclusive rights restricted free agents.

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