Packers returning backup WRs have a lot of competition
Chris Harper wasn’t going to make this mistake again.
A fourth-round draft pick by Seattle a year ago, Harper didn’t crack the Seahawks’ roster out of training camp, but landed with San Francisco shortly thereafter and quickly shipped all of his possessions to the Bay Area.
Six weeks later, the 49ers ended their experiment to convert Harper to an H-back and he was out of work again. With Randall Cobb out with a broken tibia, Packers general manager Ted Thompson submitted his only waiver claim of the season on the 6-foot-1, 228-pound receiver.
Harper remained on the Packers’ roster for the next three months, but he never had his belongings sent up to Green Bay. Instead, he brought just two suitcases with him and sent the rest home to Kansas.
“The moving part was probably the toughest part. Like literally moving my stuff was probably the worst part,” Harper said. “I just now got everything back up here like two weeks ago. I’m still unpacking stuff.”
This is the life for a Packers’ receiver when you’re not named Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb, but Harper finally is making himself at home both on and off the field.
Starting next month, he’ll be one of 10 receivers embroiled in what quarterback Aaron Rodgers believes could be the most competitive battle for roster spots at the position in his nine years with the Packers.
Seven of those receivers were NFL draftees. Two former college free agents, Jarrett Boykin and Myles White, also combined to play in 23 games last season for Green Bay.
This group might not have Donald Driver’s name recognition or James Jones’ durability, but there’s competition where it counts, especially after the Packers used three draft picks on the position last month.
The three rookies — Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis — all have developed followings, but history has shown unheralded reserves like Boykin, Harper and White typically are the ones who make more of an impact than rookies.
Boykin can speak to that. He had only five catches for 27 yards as a rookie in 2012 before shooting up the depth chart after Cobb’s injury last season. He played in all 16 games and started eight, finishing third on the team in both catches (49) and receiving yards (681).
Not bad for an undrafted receiver who was deemed too slow by some coming out of Virginia Tech and released three days after signing as an undrafted free agent with Jacksonville.
Boykin doesn’t want to be seen as a replacement for Jones, who signed a three-year deal with Oakland this offseason, but rather another proven weapon in Rodgers’ holster. To get there, he plans to “snatch everything” thrown his way.
“I want to be a household name. I want to be a Pro Bowl receiver,” Boykin said. “I want to have 1,000 yards, I want to have big-time touchdowns — 10-plus touchdowns. Those are things that you want to do as a player. If you’re not striving for those things, then what are you playing for? You don’t want to be mediocre. You want to be great. You want to be one of the best that’s ever done it.”
Harper hopes to follow Boykin’s path from lightly used reserve to role player. Active for four games, the former Kansas State standout played only 20 snaps last season but already has looked more at ease in the Packers’ offense during organized team activities.
That’s largely because he’s able to be himself again. During his six weeks in San Francisco — none of which were spent on a game-day roster — the 49ers tried to convert him into an H-back, a position he’d never played.
“I play receiver. I don’t play tight end, which is what San Fran really had me playing was tight end,” said Harper, who missed Tuesday’s practice because of a hamstring tweak. “I don’t even know how to get into a three-point stance. We had to work on getting into a three-point stance. In the NFL, you shouldn’t have to work on a stance. I had to go back to like Day 1 of football. I don’t want to say it couldn’t have worked out, but it was during the season and I missed camp and all the basic stuff. It didn’t work out, but it worked out because I’m here.”
The presence of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Adams and Boykin likely means Abbrederis, Janis, Harper, White, 2013 seventh-round pick Kevin Dorsey and practice-squad holdover Alex Gillett will be battling for one, maybe two spots on the roster.
White had nine catches for 66 yards in seven games and 123 offensive snaps before landing on injured reserve with a torn meniscus. He’s been a full participant in the offseason program.
Rodgers looks at it as a luxury. He’s has had some deep receiving corps in six years as the starting quarterback, but nothing like this.
“I think it could be as deep a group as we’ve had here,” Rodgers said. “It might not be the big names like we had in the past when we had the whole stable of guys, but I think you could definitely see us keeping six guys there in that position because we are a pretty deep group.
“Obviously, (Boykin) coming along from last year is going to get a lot of looks, and then the young guys as a whole are coming along. I don’t like to make a lot of predictions in helmets and shorts, but there’s been a lot of plays made.”
Jobs aren’t decided this time of the year, but holdovers like Harper and White know it’s on them to show the organization they’re capable of making a jump like Boykin.
Harper has traveled a long road, but the opportunity to show he was worthy of his 123rd selection in last year’s draft is before him.
“I look at it as kind of a challenge,” Harper said. “It don’t change the way I think about it either way because like I said to A-Rod, I’m not trying to beat anybody out to make the team — I’m trying to start. I’m trying to go for Jordy and Randall, I’m not trying to just play. I’ve done this since I was little and I don’t feel like anything changing, just the guys around me and the teams, it’s still football. That’s how I look at it.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.