Gaines has been sidelined with a quad injury since the week of the Packers’ first preseason game against Cincinnati. Ballentine suffered a stinger in that Bengals game, in which he was picked on a bit in coverage, and missed over a week of practices of his own. Before each players’ injuries, both players were taking on fairly significant roles in practice, and despite the missed time, both players have continued to do so.
Since offseason programs, Ballentine has been lined up with the second-team defense out on the boundary. With Eric Stokes sidelined, Ballentine looked to be settled into the fifth cornerback spot on the depth chart behind Jaire Alexander, Rasul Douglas, Keisean Nixon, and Carrington Valentine.
Gaines, meanwhile, is listed as a safety but has been the Packers’ second slot cornerback option behind Nixon. Although this is a very talented cornerback room that the Packers have constructed, Nixon is the only true slot option guaranteed a roster spot right now. Douglas, Stokes, and Valentine are all best on the boundary, while Alexander is best utilized lining up all over.
“For his size especially, he’s got all the movement skills, everything you look for,” said Matt LaFleur on Wednesday. “He’s a physical player, and I think he’s done a nice job. We just got to try to keep him out there. Keep him healthy.”
Neither Ballentine nor Gaines began the 2022 season contributing to special teams. Both were on the practice squad, actually. Yet even though Ballentine ranked 18th in special teams snaps and Gaines 19th, each was able to make an impact, with Gaines ranking sixth on the team in total tackles and Ballentine seventh. Throughout this summer, both have continued to play key special teams roles, with each starting on several different units.
For the reasons just mentioned — their roles on defense coupled with their special teams abilities — you can see why either player would make the final roster. However, the makeup of the cornerback and safety rooms, both of which are somewhat crowded, could make that a challenge as well.
Depending on how soon Stokes is able to be activated off the PUP list, he would give the Packers five cornerbacks, which is how many they rostered a season ago. Keeping six corners means going lighter at another position, such as edge rusher, interior defensive lineman, or receiver, for example.
At safety, despite the questions that still exist, it’s a fairly crowded room with six players, and that doesn’t even include Gaines, who have been fighting for what is likely five roster spots for most of training camp.
But with that said, over the last two days of practices, Ballentine and Gaines have been thrown right back into the mix, competing on special teams and with the second-team defense and seeing a lot of snaps in the process. Reading the tea leaves, this perhaps tells us that both are very much in contention still for a final roster spot and the Packers are doing some final evaluating.
Given that both are likely to be core special teams players and both are defensive backs, I’m guessing that the Packers won’t be able to roster both of these players. I do, however, think that keeping one of them is very much in play.
If I were to guess, I would say Gaines is more likely to be kept, given that he can do a bit more than Ballentine. He provides some depth in the slot, which the Packers do not have a lot of. He has experience at safety if the Packers are in a pinch and will be a core special teams player.
Final roster cuts have to be completed by Tuesday, Aug 29., which means there is just one training camp practice and one preseason game left for Gaines and Ballentine to earn a roster spot. The amount of playing time that each player sees against Seattle could be the true litmus test for how serious this roster battle actually is.
“I feel like I put a lot of stuff on tape already beforehand,” said Gaines after Wednesday’s practice. “I feel like just reassuring the coaches that I know what I’m doing. As soon as I got back the first day, I’m already making the call, making the chase. Letting them know I didn’t miss a step at all.”