There wasn’t a position on the Green Bay Packers depth chart that struggled more last season than wide receiver.
The group was decimated when top target Jordy Nelson’s torn ACL wiped out his season in August. At the time, everyone knew Nelson’s absence would hurt the Packers' offense. Few could have predicted just how damaging it would become.
Nelson’s departure left a void that couldn't be filled, exposing a young position that was unready for the increased pressure and responsibility. Given their struggles, the 2016 draft would seem to be an opportune moment for general manager Ted Thompson to select a receiver in the first round for the first time in his tenure.
A talent infusion appeared to be necessary as the Packers' receivers floundered last season. While it can’t be ruled out, a first-round receiver now seems unlikely with the draft less than two weeks away.
Related: Complete Packers draft coverage
The Packers receiver position is a paradox. Too thin to hold up without Nelson. Too deep for the position to be a dire need in this year’s draft. For all their struggles, it’s important to remember only two Packers receivers had more than two seasons of NFL experience last fall. Only James Jones, at 31, was older than 25. The position is loaded with developmental prospects Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery, Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis.
It’s unlikely Thompson will want to crowd a position that needs reps and snaps to develop, something that would happen with a first-round receiver. But the Packers could use another developmental candidate. Thompson could perhaps look at the position in the draft’s second or third round, something he has done in seven of his 11 drafts with the Packers.
The 2016 receiver class doesn’t offer the same depth and talent that entered the league in each of the past two seasons. Still, there are high-potential prospects that could be drafted on Day 2. None is more intriguing than Ohio State’s Braxton Miller.
For three years, Miller was the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback. He led them to 24 wins in his final two seasons, including an undefeated 12-0 record in 2012. In the first game of his senior year, Miller was lost for the season with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Ohio State went on to win the national championship behind J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, both of whom passed Miller on the quarterback depth chart.
Miller could have transferred elsewhere to keep playing quarterback. Instead, he got a head start on his eventual NFL position. After getting a medical redshirt, Miller had 25 catches for 340 yards and three touchdowns in 2015. Though he’ll be an NFL receiver, he also showed his versatility and athleticism with 261 rushing yards on 43 carries.
Few players throughout college football were more explosive last season. After evaluating him up close in January, Senior Bowl president Phil Savage said he was impressed with Miller’s size and toughness.
“He’s bigger than you think,” Savage said. “You watch Ohio State on TV, and you think he’s 5-foot-11, 190 (pounds). And he’s actually over 6-foot-1, about 210 pounds, and he can run. So there’s a lot of ability to work with. I think he’s just scratching the surface, really, in terms of what he could become.
“I think initially he’s somebody who would probably play in the slot, but ultimately he may be able to play outside. He’s physical. He has a toughness and edge to him that you might not expect from a former quarterback.”
Miller showed his athleticism with a 4.5-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. He lowered his time to a reported 4.46-second dash at Ohio State’s pro day. With all his potential, Savage said he expects Miller to be drafted in the second round.
A second-round selection would place significant early expectations on Miller. Savage said whichever team drafts Miller will have to be patient with his development.
“I think that if a team takes him in the second round, and then expects him to get on the field and just be ready to play this year,” Savage said, “that might be a little bit too high of a threshold. But I think if they take the talent in the second round, knowing that, ‘OK, we’re going to really have to coach him up here. It may not be August, September. It may be more November, December before we get a real dividend, or perhaps even next year.’ Then I think a team will be real satisfied.
“He’s definitely got the equipment to develop. It’s just a matter of how long someone’s willing to wait.”
A couple of potential second-round receivers are on the opposite end of the spectrum from Miller — less athleticism and upside, more polish.
South Carolina receiver Pharoh Cooper declined to run the 40-yard dash in Indy, then posted a disappointing 4.65-second dash at his pro day. That speed won’t impress anyone in today’s NFL, but Cooper’s tape will catch attention.
Cooper, a junior last season, was a significant contributor for the Gamecocks starting with his first season when he was selected to the all-SEC freshman team. He had 69 catches for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore, then followed with 66 catches for 973 yards and eight touchdowns for South Carolina’s struggling offense in 2015.
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. said he doesn’t expect Cooper’s slow 40 time to hurt him much, because his tape will compensate for his workout.
“Cooper is a football player,” Kiper said. “Forty times, if you look back at the last 38 years I’ve been doing this, a lot of guys who were a heck of a football player — great football players — didn’t run well. And some who couldn’t even get it done at the pro level in any capacity were workout warriors. So you’ve got to be really careful in terms of this combine stuff with Cooper. Cooper is a really good football player.”
Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard was more renowned in college, partly because of his bloodlines. His father, Derrick Shepard, was a former Sooners walk-on who developed into an NFL receiver. His life tragically ended with a heart attack at age 35.
Sterling Shepard continued his father’s legacy at Oklahoma. He wore the same number and starred at the same position.
Shepard's size at 5-foot-10 and 194 pounds will limit him to being a slot receiver, but he ran a 4.48-second, 40-yard dash at the combine. Savage said Shepard reminds him of former Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett, an All-Pro return specialist and promising rookie receiver with the Seattle Seahawks last season.
“Sterling is sort of on the other end of the spectrum from Braxton Miller,” Savage said, “in terms of he has a ton of experience as a receiver outside and inside. He can return. He’s just more polished. He’s more fully developed.
“Braxton Miller might have the bigger upside, but Sterling Shepard could probably get on the field right away as a rookie, especially in the slot.”
Rising stock: Notre Dame receiver Will Fuller had one of the best combines of any prospect in Indianapolis, running a blazing 4.32-second, 40-yard dash that will have NFL teams dreaming of his deep-threat potential.
Falling stock: Cooper has some of the best film in this receiver class, but a poor time in the 40-yard dash could drop him into the third round.
Sleeper: Ohio State receiver Michael Thomas can get overshadowed by older teammate Miller, but he has the size, athleticism and skill set to develop into a first-round talent.