Training camp battle- An Abundance of Talent
You could say the Packers have a plethora of talent at wide receiver or you could go old school and say they have more receivers than you can shake a stick at.
No matter how you say it, this overloaded-at-one-position situation brings up a sticky problem.
Green Bay could pull off the nearly unimaginable and keep seven wide receivers on the final 53. With the potential for just two quarterbacks and one fullback on the roster this season (one fewer at each position than last year), it is possible, but more than likely someone will get the ax.
The outsider(s) could slip through the NFL waiver-wire cracks and make it back to Green Bay’s practice squad, but there are no guarantees some receiver-needy team wouldn’t be glad to snap up a Packers’ cut.
So what do each of these receivers bring to the table?
Well, there’s no question that Jordy Nelson, if healthy, is one of the top receivers in the game, with 98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2014. His pro-day 40 time was just 4.51, not exactly speed-burner territory, but has top-end speed in spades with a 10.62 100 in the books. Forty times are more important for cornerbacks who need catch-up speed. Nelson has the “extra gear” to pull away after the catch and since the cornerback doesn’t know where the receiver plans to go, they can’t take a lead to compensate.
Equally as important, Nelson (6’ 3”, 217 pounds, age 31, signed through 2018, 9th year) has some of the best hands, feet and body control in the business. He makes difficult sideline catches look routine, especially that staple of the Packers’ diet, the back-shoulder pass.
Nelson’s value to the team was never more apparent than last year when the knee injury he suffered in the preseason meant the receiver group had a difficult time gaining separation from pressing cornerbacks after the mid-point of the season. The only other receiver at the time with the speed to stretch the defense –Jeff Janis – didn’t get many chances to do it for reasons that weren’t always apparent. More on that later.
It’s always a question mark when any player who relies on speed works to come back from an ACL tear, but the procedure has a much higher rate of full recovery than even 10 years ago. Add in the fact that Nelson had the whole of last season, including the preseason, to heal and possesses the work ethic of a farm boy, it’s more likely he’ll be at full speed than he won’t. Continual reports said he was ahead of the recovery curve.
The other completely sure bet on the roster is Randall Cobb (5’ 10”, 192, 25, 2018, 6th). He may have been hurt by the Nelson injury more than any other player besides Davante Adams. Cobb’s line of 91/1287/12 dropped to 79/829/6 last year when defenses were able to turn their focus to him.
As a slot receiver, Cobb needed someone to take the top off the defense to give him room to work underneath, the way he did in 2012 and 2014 (he was injured in 2013). Not that he couldn’t go long when he found a defensive back to bite on the short route, as evidenced by fourth-and-eight from the 48, the iconic play against the Bears to seal up a playoff spot in ‘13.
The third-receiver starter is the job up for grabs, although at times it will be manned by a tight end, potentially new pick-up Jared Cook.
At least four of the other receivers seem to have an equal shot for the spot, five if you factor in draftee Trevor Davis.
That group include Davante Adams, Janis, Ty Montgomery, Jared Abbrederis and Davis.
Adams (6’ 1”, 215, 23, 3rd, Fresno State) was the player everyone expected to shine in 2015 after Nelson went down, based on his strong performances in ‘14 against New England (6-121-0) and Dallas (7-117-1). He had provided a 38/446/3 line as a rookie, but offered a 50/483/1 line in a bigger role in ‘15 with some key drops.
Adams was deemed the Packers off-season MVP but struggled when thrust into the larger role caused by Nelson’s injury.
Janis (6’ 3”, 219, 25, 2017, 3rd, Saginaw Valley State) had his break-out game at Arizona in the playoffs when he hauled in seven passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns, including the Hail Mary that sent the contest into overtime. Before that, he only had two regular-season catches, and didn’t receive opportunities despite Packer receivers having trouble gaining separation, rumored to be due to a lack of trust on routes from Rodgers.
I unbelievably have heard “fans” question the ability of Janis to learn the offense, but he scored a 30 on the Wonderlic – a high score for a quarterback much less a wide receiver. Packer coaches have felt he was over-thinking it, if anything.
Montgomery (6’ 0”, 221, 23, 2018, 2nd, Stanford) surprised people with his power in the first six games of 2015. He caught 15 passes for 136 yards and two TD’s out of the slot, and proved to be tough to tackle after the catch. He drew a 52-yard interference call on Richard Sherman in last year’s Seattle game, then bounced Bobby Wagner five yards after the catch in a four-reception performance. He sports a 40.5” vertical and 10-1/8” hands.
Being a victim of Stanford’s quarterly system, he missed much of the early off-season last year, but still showed the intelligence to catch on fast enough to see serious playing time.
But on-and-off troubles with his ankle sidelined him the rest of the way. The trouble was the Packers had hoped the essentially high-ankle sprain would heal without surgery before finally opting to go under the knife in January. So while his injury wasn’t as serious as Nelson’s he had half-a-year less time to heal.
Everybody loves Abbrederis (6’ 1”, 195, 25, 2017, 3rd, Wisconsin), a Wautoma boy-made-good who attended UW. Aaron Rodgers and Coach Mike McCarthy also love his route-running and ability to get open even without elite speed (4.50 40), strength (four reps of 225 at the combine) or burst (30.5” vertical).
He put up a 9-111-0 line in the final three regular-season games of ’15.
Davis (6’ 1”, 188, 23, 2019, rookie, Cal) is a true burner with quality hands (10”) and his route-running at OTAs and mini-camp was said to be far ahead of schedule. He was a top combine performer in the 40 (4.42), vertical (38.5”), three-cone (6.60) and 60-yard shuttle (10.94).
Still, it’s tough for a rookie to make much of an immediate impact in the NFL period and even more so on the adjust to the defense route tree the Packers demand of their wide-outs. It took Nelson three years to make a big contribution, the same for all-time Green Bay receptions leader Donald Driver.
The above list doesn’t even take into account at least two wide receivers on the practice squad in January, Ed Williams and Jamel Johnson, or others added when the roster burgeoned to 90. One would have to doubt their chances of making up enough ground to crack the group above.
So where do we stand at this early point in training camp?
Although this scenario could be negated by the time you read this, Ty could be placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list, at least until the season is rolling and teams would be less likely to take a flyer on stealing a Packers’ receiver off the practice squad. To qualify for the PUP, a player can’t take part in any practices, so the intriguing Monty would need to be some time from full health for the Packers to slow his development.
Or another devastating injury could make all this discussion a moot point.
But if neither of those two scenarios play out, Green Bay will have some difficult decisions.
Virtually any of the five after Cobb and Nelson could crack the roster. It may be a blessing that Green Bay will play in five pre-season games this year, with the Hall of Fame Game opener added due to Brett Favre’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Special teams will play a role. Janis blew up numerous return men last year along with breaking a few long returns of his own, and proved to be one of the top guys on all four squads. Abbrederis looked natural handling punts.
Montgomery was a decent option on kick returns, but with his ankle may not be risked there for at least a while. Davis does offer kick return potential, especially kick-offs. That job has been marginalized somewhat with the 2011 35-yard starting point for the kicker, and for 2016, touchbacks will be placed at the 25.
But special teams won’t overshadow who garners the final spot in the commonly-used three-receiver and four-receiver sets.
A whole training camp awaits to let these decisions shake out.