Earlier this week, the Green Bay Packers extended the contracts of head coach Matt LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst. It was obvious why the franchise made this choice. LaFleur has helped spearhead the revitalization of the Packers as a perennial Super Bowl contender, and Gutekunst is the puppeteer who has been carefully orchestrating this run of success.
Gutekunst, in particular, is deserving of a great deal of praise. Not only his work to hire LaFleur and quell the Aaron Rodgers drama, but to hold himself accountable for his mismanagement of personnel, is a true testament to his character. Beyond his interpersonal skills, Gutekunst has showcased some of the most desirable qualities in a GM. He has found talent throughout the draft, getting great value for his scouting work and instinct. His track record speaks for itself.
Keeping this in mind, it makes training camp much more intriguing with the addition of three USFL players. The first of these was tight end Sal Cannella, a member of the All-USFL team after playing with the New Orleans Breakers. Next came wide receiver Osirus Mitchell, who won the USFL championship with the Birmingham Stallions. WR and special teams returner Ishmael Hyman was the latest to be added to the 90-man training camp roster. Each player addresses an immediate area of need and will have a chance in camp to show they belong in the conversation for 53-man roster spots.
Cannella is perhaps the most obvious of the three to have a realistic chance of making the opening-day roster. Of the tight ends on the roster, Robert Tonyan is still recovering from a torn ACL just last season, Josiah Deguara has yet to prove he can be relied upon in the NFL, and Marcedes Lewis isn’t getting any younger. Cannella has shown pass-catching chops, the ability to block, and he’s still young enough to come across as a malleable prospect. If Gutekunst is looking for a safety net for the back end of the TE room, the team could do far worse than taking the upside with Cannella.
Mitchell is a gigantic receiver (6’5″, 210 lbs.) who will be able to replicate the size and physicality of second-round draft pick Christian Watson (6’4″, 208 lbs.) at the very least. Watson recently had surgery on his knee, which will cause him to miss a healthy portion of this offseason. Adding a player with semi-pro experience like Mitchell will give Green Bay less of a project to develop for training camp but more of a replica that they can use to continue game planning as if Watson were present. Mitchell spent some time with the Dallas Cowboys last offseason. However, he will likely be a practice-squad guy for a while before he has any realistic shot of making a 53-man roster.
Hyman is sort of in the same boat as Mitchell. The Packers’ special teams were a disaster last season, and bringing in help from all different walks is the right move. Hyman, like Mitchell, has also bounced around on some practice squads, most notably with the Cleveland Browns. He joins the team as a likely injury replacement for Sammy Watkins, who is dealing with yet another injury. Hyman will not likely survive cuts, but he is a versatile player who will provide value to the team in these last days of prep before the season starts.
Outside of Cannella, it is doubtful that any of these USFL players move the needle for the regular season. Their presence indicates something important, though. Gutekunst is doing his due diligence in finding talent at every available level. The path to the NFL for players is relatively homogenous. Players almost need to play college football. Otherwise, they have little to no chance of making the league.
American football is not an internationally acclaimed (or beloved) sport, so there is hardly any international scouting to be done beyond the occasional rugby player who trickles into the league every few years. The USFL presents an intriguing alternative path to the NFL for players who either don’t get drafted or find themselves unable to formally play college football for whatever reason. It is more of a professional setting than something like the fan-controlled football league, which has become more meme-fodder for those still keeping tabs on Johnny Manziel and Terrell Owens. Playing in the USFL is legitimate, and these players now with the Packers are reaping the benefits.
Savvy general managers like Gutekunst can look into these alternative pathways and find value. Regardless of whether any of these players make the opening-week roster, there is value to be had in the time scouring these rosters for any potential diamonds. Gutekunst is no slouch, and these training camp signings add more evidence to that cache.