All summer the same question was asked of Aaron Rodgers.
With Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb coming off career years and the rapid development of Davante Adams, how was the Green Bay Packers MVP quarterback possibly going to satisfy all of his perimeter weapons?
The loss of Nelson to a season-ending knee injury Sunday in Pittsburgh quickly squelched that narrative. Instead of having an overabundance of options, Rodgers now must figure out where to disperse the 146 targets he dedicated to Nelson in 2014 among a young supporting cast.
The trust between Rodgers and Nelson took years to establish. Opportunities often came Nelson’s way because he consistent in finding separation, but offseason film review indicated the Pro Bowl receiver wasn’t the only one getting open.
“Jordy is an incredible receiver,” Rodgers said Wednesday. “He got a lot of targets — the most targets last year. That’s because he was open the most. When you go back and watch the film from last year … Davante was open a lot. Davante ran some great routes and he’s a talented guy. I think his opportunities go up and everybody else kind of falls in line there.”
Based on his offseason, Adams seemed poised to take on a bigger role in his second NFL season even before Nelson’s injury. A second-pick in 2014, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound receiver has been lauded for the strides he’s made since catching 38 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie.
Nelson’s lost production won’t fall squarely on Adams’ shoulders, though. If the Packers are going to overcome his absence, every receiver who winds up on the 53-man roster must pull his own weight and gain the quarterback’s trust.
Entering his eighth year as starter, Rodgers knows more will be asked of him to bring along a group of receivers who currently combine for eight seasons of NFL experience. The room overflows with talent and potential, but Cobb and Adams are his only proven targets.
Ty Montgomery, Jeff Janis and Myles White must work to gain Rodgers’ trust, but only have so many reps to accomplish that. With injuries on the offensive line, Rodgers may play only a series or two, if at all, against the Eagles. He’ll probably sit out of next week’s preseason finale against New Orleans, too.
If he doesn’t play against Philadelphia, Rodgers feels the 47 offensive snaps he’s taken in two preseason games are sufficient to be ready for the team’s regular-season opener against Chicago on Sept. 13. So far, he’s completed 15-of-24 passes for 174 yards on his five exhibition series.
“Yeah, I think it’s definitely, it’s enough,” Rodgers said. “We value the snaps in the game, but also the practice snaps and things we do pre-practice in the walk-throughs. Those are all very important. In order to be a good offense, you have to innovate every, single year. You have to evolve and make sure you’re making subtle changes to kind of stay ahead of the scouting. We’re right where we need to be.
“We have some guys banged up right now, so not sure what the playing time will be, but whatever Mike decides I’m confident we’ll be ready when the season starts.”
Rodgers welcomes the opportunity to harness the abilities of his young receiving corps, but it’s going to be on them to make the most of whatever work they get with the first-team offense. This week, it’s been the third-round pick Montgomery stepping into Nelson’s void on the perimeter.
Even if Rodgers doesn’t get much work with Montgomery, Janis and White in the preseason, he’s proven had can adjust on the fly. A year ago, he spent an entire offseason preparing for JC Tretter to be his center only to lose him a week before the regular season to a knee injury.
Rodgers didn’t take an in-game snap with Corey Linsley until the regular-season opener in Seattle. The two gelled and now it appears Linsley could be the long-term answer Rodgers has sought at the position since Scott Wells left in 2011.
“Aaron has to basically be one of those guys who helps fill in that hole,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “Decision-making, everything he’s done, continue to do what he’s doing. Just continue to play how he’s played.”
Van Pelt already has started to see Rodgers adjusting his reads. He uses the example in Tuesday’s practice of a particular route where Rodgers “nine times out of 10” throws the ball to Cobb, who was again wide open on the play.
Instead, Rodgers threw in the direction of Adams. Van Pelt explained what Rodgers was doing when the receivers congregated back in the film room. Everyone knows what Cobb is capable of. He wanted to test Adams.
It’s the same psychology Rodgers used early in camp when he was throwing up deep balls to young receivers in single coverage to see if he could count on them to make the play in an in-game setting.
Rodgers doesn’t expect anyone to suddenly morph into Nelson. What he wants is his receivers to capitalize on their own opportunities when called upon much like Adams did last season.
“Jordy’s an elite player, a Pro Bowler,” Van Pelt said. “Everything that Jordy is and has been speaks for itself. To expect Davante to step up and make those same catches and plays, it’s not realistic or fair – and I think Aaron has that in the back of his mind, too. ‘I’ve got to work through this, this is going to be process of finding the guys who are going to be where I want them to be when I want them to be there time after time after time.’”
“That’s the consistency we need to see from the younger group of receivers. You get out there and he looks to you one time and you run the wrong route, boy, it’s not a good thing. We don’t need anybody to do anything more than what they’re supposed to do.”
Rodgers only took a handful of first-team snaps on Wednesday before giving way to Brett Hundley and Matt Blanchard. Whether he plays against the Eagles, the importance of the rest of his practice reps will be amplified over the next week.
The quarterback still feels good about the layout of the offense. He’s also willing to mold his young collection of weapons, but cautions that it’s a two-way street. The difference in athleticism is “minute” at the NFL.
To earn Rodgers’ trust, receivers must cut down on mental errors and perfect their route-running.
“They’ve got to earn that,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “They have to earn that trust. And the only way you do that is by your actions. It’s not something you can talk about, as far as, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.’ You have to show us. You have to show us on a daily basis.”
Whatever receiver proves capable of doing that will be the one taking reps with Rodgers once the games finally matter.
“(Time) is running out and that’s why these reps in practice are so important,” Rodgers said. “We’ve seen a lot of from those guys, but we just need to see consistency whether I’m in there or Scott’s in there or Brett or Matt. We need to see those guys making plays whether they’re going against the first, second or third corner or the seventh, eighth and ninth corner.
“We need those guys to play a little faster. That will give them confidence and the quarterback confidence in throwing them the ball.”
—firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.