In the open field, Ty Montgomery is dangerous against any defense.
The Green Bay Packers rookie moonlights as a punt and kick returner, and he has plenty of moves. After the catch, Montgomery accelerates into top gear. He jukes. He jerks. He leaves defenders behind in a heap of broken tackles, and his quarterback impressed.
“I think Ty is a talented guy,” Aaron Rodgers said. “We don’t want to put too much on his plate, but there’s an opportunity that’s there.”
A receiver with Montgomery’s particular set of skills seems best suited for the slot. In the middle of the field, he’s free to use open space as an advantage.
Montgomery lined up in the slot on 77.8 percent of his passing routes through two preseason games, according to Pro Football Focus. While receivers coach Alex Van Pelt said Montgomery wasn’t “locked into” the slot, that’s where the rookie expected to get the majority of his snaps this season.
In the wake of Jordy Nelson’s season-ending torn ACL, that ratio could change. The greater opportunity is now found on the field’s perimeter. Randall Cobb, who has run all his routes from the slot this preseason, isn’t going to regularly split wide. For Montgomery truly to be the Packers’ third receiver, he’ll need to transition away from the middle of the field.
The rookie said he’s ready to line up wherever coaches tell him.
“We usually know all the spots on the field,” Montgomery said. “It won’t be too difficult. I played a lot of outside in college, as well.”
In his senior season at Stanford, Montgomery’s perimeter-to-slot ratio was almost inverted. He split wide on 70 percent of his snaps last fall, according to Pro Football Focus. Only 20 percent of his routes came from the slot, with 5 percent in the backfield.
When Packers general manager Ted Thompson saw Montgomery’s college film, he said, it was his versatility that stood out.
But Montgomery didn’t have a diverse route portfolio. Stanford coach David Shaw got the ball in his best playmaker’s hands as quickly as possible, maximizing those jukes and jerks. Montgomery’s route tree included 32 percent screen passes, 23 percent hitches and only 12 percent go routes, according to Pro Football Focus.
In training camp, coach Mike McCarthy said, he has seen enough from Montgomery to have confidence in his potential to split wide.
“Ty has the ability to play inside or outside,” McCarthy said. “No question about it. He’s been playing primarily inside. So it’s important to get him reps out there. That’s really what it is. It’s the reps and the timing with the quarterback, and getting that established. The route-running principles and the details, it’s really reps. But he’s fully capable of it.”
Athletically, Montgomery’s skill set is varied enough to line up at both spots. He measured 5-foot-11⅞ and 221 pounds at the NFL scouting combine in February. His height is on the low end for a perimeter receiver, but Montgomery’s 40.5-inch vertical jump allows him to play bigger.
“I think he’s got the size and strength and quickness to win outside or inside,” Van Pelt said.
Second-year receiver Jeff Janis should be a more viable candidate than Montgomery to stretch the field vertically, arguably Nelson’s greatest strength. Janis is 6-foot-3, 219 pounds with blazing 4.42-second, 40-yard dash speed.
But the former seventh-round receiver has struggled to learn nuances required to be a professional receiver. Fundamentals like crisp route running, field awareness, beating press-man coverage and maximizing his catch radius remain obstacles in his development.
“I think we need to see more in practice from those guys who are kind of battling for that four and five spot,” Rodgers said, referring most directly to Janis and Myles White. “We need to see consistent play in practice and consistent play on the field.”
Montgomery also has plenty of developing ahead of him.
He was most productive on receiver screens at Stanford, catching 26 of 31 passes for 208 yards and one touchdown, according to Pro Football Focus. On vertical routes, he caught only one of 12 passes with a touchdown, and two of those passes were intercepted.
With more traffic in the middle of the field, there are more coverages for receivers to dissect in the slot. On the perimeter, most receiver face simple man-to-man coverage. Slot receivers must navigate linebackers, safeties and nickel backs.
“It’ll just look a little bit different as far as a first-person view,” Montgomery said. “It’s the same game, just a different spot on the field and a few different routes.”
Rodgers likes what he has seen from his rookie receiver, but he’s careful not to expect too much. Nelson leaves behind a void that’s impossible to replace. His deep-threat capabilities, and his chemistry with the Packers’ MVP quarterback, are as valuable as the All-Pro-caliber production.
But Montgomery has an opportunity now. For a team that figured to be strong at receiver this offseason, their third-round pick could be an investment with immediate returns.
“We’re going to continue to allow him to progress at a natural pace,” Rodgers said. “The rookie year’s a very difficult year. … There’s a wall that guys hit from time to time. So we’re going to continue to pump him up and give him the opportunities he’s ready for, and let him get the ball in space. He’s a talented guy, and we’re excited he’s our guy.”