The Green Bay Packers signaled they were comfortable with their talent Tuesday when they remained inactive ahead of the NFL’s afternoon trade deadline, but that didn’t stop general manager Brian Gutekunst from tinkering with a few roster spots.
While fans’ blockbuster aspirations of the Packers signing A.J. Green proved far-reaching — the Cincinnati Bengals did not trade their star wide receiver — the team cleared some roster space with the release of rookie wideout Darrius Shepherd and tight end Evan Baylis and re-signing kick returner Tremon Smith to the active roster.
The moves Tuesday also leave the Packers with an open roster spot that could be set aside for rookie tight end Jace Sternberger, who is eligible to return this week after spending the entire regular season on the injured reserve list with an ankle injury.
Smith, who also plays cornerback, is likely the Packers’ solution for their struggling return game after Shepherd’s efforts in the role had rated among the league’s worst. He hit a low point during his Monday Night Football debut against Detroit, botching a punt return and letting a catchable pass at the goal line bounce off his face into a Lions interception.
Packers coach Matt LaFleur maintained he had confidence in Shepherd as their returner following the game and allowed him to return four kickoffs against the Oakland Raiders in Week 7, but he opted to go with second-year Chandon Sullivan the following week during their 31-24 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night.
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Smith Gets Second Chance With Packers
The Chiefs drafted him in the sixth round in 2018 and played him primarily on special teams, seeing him return 33 kicks for 886 yards over 14 games as a rookie, flashing his greater potential with a season-long return of 97 yards. The Packers moved in on him, though, once the Chiefs cut him loose in mid-September and deployed him for three games with their special teams unit.
Smith contributed adequate numbers with just three kickoff returns for 68 total yards, but the former Central Arkansas product was known for his long-ball speed and ball protection during his college career. The latter aspect especially was a concern with Shepherd, who fumbled a punt against the Lions and finished with minus-nine yards total on two total returned punts.
Shepherd now drops to the waivers and could be a possible candidate to join the Packers’ practice squad if he does not get picked up by another team. The Packers have among the league’s lowest waiver priorities thanks to their 7-1 start, but the former undrafted free agent is not exactly a hot commodity on the market.
Sternberger Could Help Right Away After Return
There’s nothing certain saying the Packers’ open roster spot belongs to Sternberger, as safety Ibraheim Campbell is also eligible to play again this week after an even-longer stay on the IR. Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis provide the tight end group with veteran guidance, but Robert Tonyan’s recent injury leaves room for another talent that is young, quick and agile.
Sternberger caught his only pass of the preseason in the finale against the Chiefs, a 2-yard touchdown reception that came minutes before he was knocked out of the game with his ankle injury. But lacking a body of work hasn’t stopped Rodgers yet from making his young talent shine, as both Allen Lazard and Jake Kumerow have touchdown catches this season while better-seasoned options such as Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison have been hit or miss.