There was reason to ask whether the Green Bay Packers would be worse off for the loss of receiver James Jones in free agency this offseason.
The Packers had their Nos. 1 and 2 receivers back in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. But what about No. 3? Could third-year pro Jarrett Boykin make plays?
Two preseason games into 2014, it's looking like he can. Jones was on the wrong side of 30, and replacing him with Boykin is looking like a wash.
Boykin has taken on Jones' role of being the strong receiver who catches hitches. He did it on the Packers' first pass of their preseason game at St. Louis on Saturday. He caught the quick hitch, broke some tackles and gained 7 yards.
Boykin has a big body at 6-feet-2 and 218 pounds, and he's figured out how to use it to shield off defenders. He showed that the very next play, on a stop route, when he turned around and caught a 6-yard pass for a first down. It was a great throw by Aaron Rodgers, but plays like that show Boykin can fill Jones' spot.
Now, Boykin isn't going to burn defenses down the field. Nelson will do that with the deep sideline catch and deep post routes. Cobb will catch the ball between the numbers and either get to the sideline or take it up field. Boykin is going to catch the hitches and the shorter routes from the numbers to the sideline.
Boykin's route running has improved from last year, though as he showed Saturday, he still can use work. On the first play of the Packers' second series, for instance, he ran a bad out pattern that caused an incompletion.
The television video shows it perfectly. Instead of putting his foot in the ground and making a sharp 90 degree cut, he drifted back. Rodgers threw the ball to the right spot but Boykin ran a bad route, so the pass is off target.
If Boykin is sharper on the route and makes the catch, it's a first down. He can be a solid player if he cleans up things like that.
The Full Nelson
When you break down how important Nelson is to the Packers' offense, it isn't just his tremendous body control, or the great catches along the sideline, or plays like against the Rams when he caught a touchdown pass on a comeback route (the touchdown was called back because of a penalty).
The guy also does things that are easy to miss. Like on the first play of the game, a 13-yard run by halfback Eddie Lacy. Nelson was on his defender at the 18-yard line and drove him back to the 30. If he doesn't do that, Lacy doesn't run for a first down.
The offensive line did a nice job to get Lacy to the edge, but the wide receiver has to block the perimeter to get the extra yardage. It might not seem like a lot, but it resets the chains and gets the running game going right off the bat.
A second play you can point to was five snaps later, a little out pattern to Cobb for 9 yards. Nelson's block allowed Cobb to turn up field for extra yards. Little things like that help make Nelson special. It's not just catching the ball.
After final cuts, the Packers might be in the market for a No. 3 tackle. I don't know if it was the slow track last week in the rain at Tennessee that made Derek Sherrod and Aaron Adams look good, but they struggled against St. Louis.
You look at linemen who are textbook with their hands, such as left tackle David Bakhtiari, their hands start inside and finish inside. You see Adams and Sherrod's hands get outside their body frames.
I don't care who you are, your arms are stronger when your elbows are down and your thumbs are up. When your hands are wide, defensive linemen can break down your hands easily. Sherrod looked like he'd turned the corner last week at Tennessee, then against St. Louis it was back to the same high pad level and sloppy hands.
This is where Don Barclay's season-ending ACL tear could be a problem. He was the perfect insurance policy at right tackle and both guards. There are plenty of offensive linemen more powerful, but he has experience, he can run block and he was a pretty good backup.
Bakhtiari hasn't had any injuries, but right tackle Bryan Bulaga hasn't made it through a season in quite a while. So if Bulaga gets hurt, now what do the Packers do?
If they move right guard T.J. Lang to tackle, they're weakening two spots on the line — a backup playing guard in place of Lang, and a guy playing tackle who doesn't usually play tackle. The Packers might have to sign a Tootie Robbins-type backup tackle who's a little old but has a lot of starts.
■ Last year, starting on Family Night and all through the season, third-and-short was the bane of the Packers' offensive line play. But on Saturday on third-and-1 from the Rams' 6 in the first series, you saw the Packers' offensive line walk back the St. Louis defensive line.
In fact, the Packers' starting offensive line looked good in its two series. Yes, the Rams were missing defensive lineman Michael Brockers and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, so you can make some inferences there. But in preseason games, it's base offense against base defense, and there isn't much scheming and blitzing. You can see one-on-one battles and how guys play. Whatever the Packers saw to make JC Tretter their new center, they were right. He looks like he's got it. He has quick feet and gets the job done.
■ That Jeff Janis has some wheels, doesn't he? I think the rookie receiver made the roster when he turned a shallow crossing route into a 34-yard touchdown against the Rams. If the Packers can turn the seventh-round pick into a punt returner, too, they could be set up there for a while. He has enough speed to make things happen.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.