Where Green Bay Packers safety Innis Gaines potentially fits on the final roster, or what his path to the 53-man looks like is unclear at this time. However, he is a proven contributor on special teams and could carve out a specific role on defense.
As a special teamer last season, playing on both return and coverage units, Gaines didn’t see steady playing time until Week 12. But despite ranking 19th in special teams snaps on the team, he was able to showcase some playmaking abilities, ranking sixth in solo tackles with four, according to PFF.
Then during the last three games of the regular season, Gaines saw some 32 snaps in the slot and another nine in the box. He allowed four completions on five targets but limited pass catchers to just 7.0 yards per catch.
Throughout offseason programs, Gaines continued to see snaps in the slot, and during the first training camp practice, he was regularly playing from there with the second-team defense. On Wednesday’s practice, Gaines made a nice break on a pass from Alex McGough and recorded a pass breakup.
While the Packers have a talented cornerback room, Keisean Nixon is their only true slot-cornerback type. Rasul Douglas, Eric Stokes, Corey Ballentine, and Carrington Valentine all have primarily lined up on the boundary, while Jaire Alexander is best utilized lining up wherever the opponent’s top receiver is–not being solely a nickel cornerback. Shemar Jean-Charles is another inside option, but he appears to be behind Gaines when it comes to the nickel depth chart and is, at best, the seventh cornerback option, not including Gaines.
The safety room, however, is crowded. We know that Darnell Savage will be on the final roster, and I would put Rudy Ford in that group as well, given that he has started next to Savage this entire offseason. It’s also hard to envision Green Bay moving on from Dallin Leavitt, a core special teams player who has spent his entire career playing under Rich Bisaccia. Aaron Rodgers would also praise him last season for his locker room presence.
That likely leaves two roster spots up for grabs. Jonathan Owens has consistently been at safety with the second team defense, while Tarvarius Moore, before missing minicamp and being placed on the non-football injury list, was lining up with the second defense as well during OTAs and even saw some snaps with the ones.
Then there is rookie Anthony Johnson, who the Packers took in the seventh round. From a playing time standpoint, Johnson seems to be near the bottom of the safety depth chart, behind Savage, Ford, Owens, Moore, and Leavitt, often playing with the third-team defense. But, for what it’s worth, the team does have a history under Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur of rostering their own draft picks, even if their playing time as rookies is minimal or even nonexistent.
An added wrinkle to all of this is that all of the safeties just mentioned are traditional, deep safeties in this Joe Barry defense. Gaines, however, plays from the slot. If the team was going to move him to cornerback officially on the roster, I’m guessing that’s a move that would have been made already.
But even there, Gaines runs into the issue of being a part of a crowded room. Alexander, Douglas, Stokes, and Nixon are locks, while Valentine and Ballentine have been the go-to second-team options at the position on the outside, not to mention that Valentine is another draft pick, and Ballentine ended up being a key special teams player in 2022.
Based on what I’ve seen up to this point, if Gaines is going to make this roster, the clearest path comes with the Packers keeping five safeties and him beating out Moore and Johnson. Moore has now missed both minicamp practices and the first training camp practice after being placed on the NFI list. Too many missed practices could result in him falling behind in the competition.
Johnson, meanwhile, needs a year to develop–this is only his second season playing the safety position to go along with also trying to transition to the NFL level. With Gaines’ ability on special teams as providing needed and added depth in the slot, perhaps the Packers opt for his contributions this season and try to sneak Johnson on the practice squad.
This, of course, is all just speculation at this point. There are a lot of practices and preseason games left to determine all of this. But the point is that in a crowded safety room, don’t forget about Gaines. He is someone who can make potentially make an impact in several different ways on this 2023 Packers team.