This is Part 4 of a 10-part series grading Packers players and coaches. Today, we rate the wide receivers.
The unthinkable happened this season for the Green Bay Packers’ offense.
After years of trying to break defenses of their two-high safety formations, the opposite happened amid all the turmoil the Packers’ passing game encountered in 2015. As the season progressed, more and more defenses began crowding the box against Green Bay, using press coverage against receivers and keeping only one safety back.
Without Jordy Nelson (torn ACL) on the boundary, defenses didn’t fear the deep the ball like they have in the past. For years, Aaron Rodgers and a never-ending line of weapons were only one pass away from a touchdown regardless of where the Packers were on the field.
Those reserves finally ran dry. In the NFC divisional playoff game in Arizona, the offense operated with only three receivers during the final three quarters after Randall Cobb exited with a bruised lung and didn't return.
All that remained were second-year reserves Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis and veteran James Jones, who split his offseason between the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants before re-signing with the Packers the day after final cuts.
Mike McCarthy said several times that the offense saw more base concepts against the Packers’ three-receiver packages than at any other time in his previous nine seasons as coach. That’s because Green Bay simply couldn’t force them out of it.
The loss of Nelson had a domino effect on a passing offense that plummeted to 25th, which marked its lowest ranking in a non-strike season since the Packers finished 23rd in the 28-team NFL in 1978. Two years after talk about the Packers possibly having three 1,000-yard receivers, the offense failed to produce a receiver with at least 900 receiving yards for the first time since 2003.
It has created a litany of questions for the Packers. Is the solution as simple as getting Nelson back next season? What direction will Davante Adams’ career take after a disappointing sophomore season? Will the coaching staff get Janis more involved? Do they need to take a receiver high in this year’s draft?
Whatever happens, this is undoubtedly the most uncertainty surrounding the Packers’ receiving situation in McCarthy’s tenure. Soon starts the search for answers.
A lot of expectations were hoisted onto Cobb’s shoulders after he signed a four-year, $40 million contract in March. His job wasn’t made any easier when he sprained his AC joint in the preseason against Philadelphia, one week after the Packers lost Nelson for the season to a torn ACL.
Cobb was listed on the injury report for the first two months of the season. Coincidentally, he still played his two best games in Weeks 2 and 3 against Seattle (8-116) and Kansas City (7-91-3). More quick than fast, Cobb had difficulty extending the field without Nelson drawing the secondary’s attention.
The 5-foot-10, 192-pound receiver didn’t have the same catch radius as Nelson and struggled to gain separation underneath once defenses started pressing at the line of scrimmage and bracketing him. His biggest impact in the second half of the season likely came from lining up in the backfield. It provided a spark for a stagnant offense and made it difficult for defensive coordinators to match him.
The most concerning part of Cobb’s season was his 12 drops on 94 catchable passes in 18 games with several miscues coming at back-breaking times, according to Pro Football Focus. Cobb demonstrated toughness in playing 1,046 of a possible 1,144 offensive snaps (91.4 percent) despite his shoulder injury.
In the end, however, his numbers dropped across the board from 91 catches for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014 to 79 receptions for 829 yards and six touchdowns. His 10.5 yards per reception were a career-low.
After redshirting his rookie season, Janis emerged as a standout on special teams. His straight-line speed and aggressiveness weighed heavily in the Packers leading the NFL in punt coverage (4.2 yards per return), according to the Dallas Morning News’ special-teams rankings.
He finished with the second-most coverage tackles (15) on the team, but also was overzealous and undisciplined at times in finishing with five penalties between special teams and offense. Every opportunity the 6-foot-3, 219-pound receiver was given to touch the football was due to injury.
He picked up where Montgomery left off on kickoff returns. His 29 yards per return were fourth-most among returners with at least 10 attempts. Along with Montgomery, Janis helped elevate Green Bay from 30th in the category to 11th (24.5 yards per return).
Offensively, he was entrenched as the No. 5 receiver after being usurped by both Montgomery and Abbrederis on the depth chart. Coaches say his limited playing time (129 offensive snaps in 16 regular-season games) was due to his difficulty in adjusting to the Packers’ offense, but he capitalized on both instances when he received extended playing time.
Janis had two catches for 79 yards against San Diego and seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the divisional playoff game against Arizona, including his 41-yard Hail Mary grab at the end of regulation. Whatever his limitations, it’s inexcusable how an offense crying out for a big-bodied playmaker failed to get Janis a few touches here and there.
The poster child for the Packers’ need for a full-time receivers coach.
Spit out twice this offseason by the Raiders and Giants, Jones returned to Green Bay the day after final cuts and started seven days later against Chicago. His familiarity with Rodgers enabled Jones to hit the ground running in catching 21 passes for 454 yards and six touchdowns during the Packers’ 6-0 start.
Still runs smart routes and is good for 10 yards on his tried-and-true stop routes. His big-play potential decreased when officials cracked down on free plays. He still led the Packers with 50 catches for 890 yards and eight touchdowns with only five drops on 62 catchable targets.
His production waned as the season went on, especially when defenses started pressing at the line of scrimmage and occasionally putting their top cornerback on him. He was held to one or fewer catches in six of the team’s 18 games. Jones remains a willing and able blocker downfield.
Although Jones never was known for his speed, he has lost a step at age 31. That probably accounts for why he could be erased by top-of-the-line corners. He battled through hamstring and quad injuries to play in all 18 games. He saw action on 1,043 of a possible 1,144 offensive snaps (91.2 percent) during the regular season.
A respected voice in the locker room, Jones often was the one standing in front of the media after games during the receivers’ struggles. He was a bargain working on a one-year, $870,000 contract that only counted $585,000 against the Packers’ salary cap because of the veteran minimum salary benefit.
Montgomery quickly impressed upon his arrival from Stanford with his intelligence and football acumen. He was greeted with high expectations after longtime scout Sam Seale compared Montgomery to a “bigger’ version of Cobb, but lived up to them early in camp and the preseason.
He showed explosiveness in taking a short crossing route and turning it into a 52-yard gain against Philadelphia on Aug. 29. He doesn’t seem natural as an outside receiver, dropping an over-the-shoulder deep ball on the first play from scrimmage against San Francisco that would have been a touchdown.
Still, Montgomery (6-foot, 216) possesses an intriguing tweener skill set the Packers were starting to take advantage of before he sustained a high-ankle sprain against San Diego that curtailed the rest of his season. He tried to return but finally underwent surgery after suffering two setbacks.
Before his injury, Montgomery provided a spark on what had been the league’s 30th-ranked kickoff return unit, averaging 31.1 yards per return on seven kickoffs. Finished the season with 148 total yards on 242 offensive snaps over six games.
Abbrederis returned from the torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his rookie season in time for the offseason program. He still wound up missing nearly all of training camp after sustaining a concussion in the first practice of camp.
Spent the first month of the season on the practice squad before being elevated to the active roster Oct. 3. Abbrederis quickly usurped Janis as the No. 4 receiver, taking over the backup slot receiver role that Montgomery vacated. An instinctive and savvy route-runner, Abbrederis earned the trust of Rodgers.
He caught nine passes for 111 yards in 10 regular-season games. He showed a lot of fortitude when he absorbed a big hit from Lions safety Glover Quin on a critical 32-yard reception against Detroit in Week 10, but suffered a chest/rib injury on the play that sidelined him for two weeks.
Served as the primary backup on kickoffs and punt returns. His hands came into question late in the season after he dropped three passes on 30 targets (including playoffs). Narrowly built at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Abbrederis will face durability questions until he puts together a full season.
Perhaps Mike McCarthy should stop naming offseason MVPs. A year after Jarrett Boykin flopped in the wake of McCarthy’s summertime praise, Adams failed when it truly mattered to make the awe-inspiring catches that were commonplace throughout the offseason program.
The second-year receiver wasn’t ready for the spotlight after Nelson was lost for the season. It didn’t help that Adams turned his ankle against Seattle in Week 2, aggravated it the following week against Kansas City and then missed a month. Whether the ankle was at the core of his issues, Adams failed to develop a niche in the offense.
He couldn’t beat his man deep or work the sidelines like Nelson, and wasn’t precise enough in his route-running to thrive in the possession game like Jones. Adams’ longest reception of the season (40 yards) was a meaningless Hail Mary before halftime in Carolina that was nine yards short of the end zone.
He dropped 10 of his 64 catchable targets and had the second-lowest receiver rating (71.9) among receivers with at least 80 targets, according to Pro Football Focus. Tied for the third-most catches on the team (50), but caught only one touchdown and saw his yards per reception dip from 11.7 as a rookie to 9.7.
Despite his struggles, he played 757 of a possible 880 snaps in the 12 regular-season games he finished (86.0 percent). Still only 23, Adams will get another chance to prove himself in 2016.
The expectations were high for the 30-year-old Nelson, who was coming off a 1,500-yard season and his first Pro Bowl appearance. He missed the entire offseason program after undergoing surgery on his left hip shortly after the 2014 season, but returned in time for the start of training camp.
Tore the ACL in his right knee in the Packers’ third preseason game and was placed on season-ending injured reserve. Rodgers missed the deep threat Nelson provides and his ability to run the route tree with pinpoint precision.
Nelson turns 31 in March and expects to be ready for the start of training camp. He’ll count $8.8 million against the 2016 salary cap after his base salary spikes to $5.5 million next season.