Whoever it was that first said “You can’t lose your job because of an injury” was either drunk or not paying attention. In the NFL, it happens all the time, and it could happen to a handful of players on the Green Bay Packers roster.
This week General Manager Brian Gutekunst quoted the much more accurate adage “The most important ability is availability” when asked about roster decisions. Take, for example, cornerback Kevin King. King missed the first eleven practices of training camp with a hamstring injury. That allowed first round draft pick Eric Stokes to start with the first unit and show the coaches he could play with the big boys. Stokes’ play has been up and down, but his draft status indicates the Packers intend for him to be an eventual starting corner. Since he’s not displacing Jaire Alexander any time soon, it is King’s position on the other side that is vulnerable.
King finally returned to practice last week but did not suit up for the team’s first preseason game. Stokes started and received generally good reviews. King’s injury track record does not help him. In the four years of his rookie contract, he has never played in all sixteen regular season games. In those years, he missed, in order, seven, ten, one and five games due to injury. His 2020 season was marked by missed tackles, inconsistent coverage and the infamous gaffe in the NFC Championship game, allowing a Tampa Bay receiver to get behind him for a long bomb score at the end of the half.
King returned on a one year “prove it” deal this season to show he can not only play at a higher level, but can stay healthy through an entire season. He’s not off to a great start.
Equanimeous St. Brown was also sidelined by a hamstring problem. A room full of talented receivers is making his prospects for making the team look dimmer every day. EQ was also denied the opportunity to play against the Texans. Meanwhile Devin Funchess and Malik Taylor looked impressive. The addition of Randall Cobb squeezes the unit even tighter. Like Kevin King, EQ is finally back on the practice field but likely has fallen down the list on a team that may only keep as few as five receivers.
The breakout star of early camp was receiver Juwann Winfree. Making a few big plays at every practice, Winfree seemed to be forcing the coaches to make a spot for him. But a shoulder injury put him on the shelf, and he joined EQ as spectators against Houston. That roster spot is melting away and he’s looking like a practice squad candidate now.
Outside linebacker Randy Ramsey appeared to have the number four OLB slot nailed down, but then he suffered a bad ankle injury and was put on IR, meaning his season is over. That opens the door for Jonathan Garvin and Tipa Galeai to compete for the position, or maybe someone else not yet on the roster. That’s an entire season for someone to emerge. One has to wonder what sort of opportunity will remain for Ramsey by next summer.
Running back Patrick Taylor missed all of his rookie year with a foot injury, and missed the first part of this year’s camp nursing a groin problem. That gave Kylin Hill the chance to impress early, which he has done. Even Dexter Williams ran well against the scrubs Saturday night, finishing as the team’s leading rusher. Taylor, by comparison, looked a bit slow and plodding in carrying the ball nine times for just 22 yards. Running backs coach Ben Sirmans would not go so far as to say Hill has locked down the number three RB slot, but did comment that “he has put himself in great position” to do so.
And then there is Jace Sternberger. Packer fans forget that, just one year ago at this time, the tight end position was wide open and up for grabs, and the former third round pick was the favorite to grab hold of it. But Sternberger, who missed ten games during his rookie campaign, missed four more last year, while Robert Tonyan emerged with one of the best tight end performances in the league. The ex-Texas A&M star certainly hasn’t helped himself by getting suspended for the first two games of 2021.
Despite Sternberger’s catching a beautiful 34 yard strike from Jordan Love Saturday night, tight ends coach Justin Outten did not speak of him as someone who is a lock to make the team. “That one play doesn’t really describe the player” Outten said. “With his consistency, it’s kind of been sporadic…..he’s still having some up and down days with the extra reps that he’s getting. He’s got to handle it a little bit better.” With Marcedes Lewis, Josiah Deguara, Dominique Dafney, and even Bronson Kaufusi working hard, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Sternberger doesn’t make the final 53. Outten acknowledges that part of the problem was the experience the young player didn’t get because of injuries in the past two seasons.
I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for these players, who have poured so much into their careers, to have to deal with injuries, while they helplessly watch other players move past them. But it’s a fact of life in the NFL. “if you can’t be out there, it’s hard” says Brian Gutekunst. “It’s hard to get better when you can’t practice. It’s hard to become a big part of the offense or defense if you can’t be out there…..this train is moving forward, so if you can’t find a way to get out there, it will affect it (keeping your job).”
So, as we progress through these next two preseason games, it will be interesting to observe and analyze the players on the field. But who is not there may speak volumes as well.
Ken Lass is a former Green Bay television sports anchor and 43 year media veteran, a lifelong Packers fan, and a shareholder.