GREEN BAY - There are many ways an NFL general manager can send a message to his team, and when that message arrives, its meaning usually is quite clear.
The NFL draft provides an annual opportunity to spice things up, stir a roster’s competition. Green Bay Packers GM Ted Thompson maximizes the draft better than most, if not all, of his peers. So when Thompson drafted the third-fastest receiver at the NFL combine in the fifth round earlier this month, well, maybe that was just coincidence.
It sure looked like something more.
Related: Complete Packers draft coverage
The Packers’ receivers faltered in the wake of Jordy Nelson’s season-ending torn ACL last August. There was no deep threat. No speedster to strike fear in the heart of an opposing secondary. Defensive backs crept close to the line of scrimmage, daring quarterback Aaron Rodgers to throw downfield.
That Rodgers, the league’s two-time MVP, couldn’t win deep was an indictment of the receivers left on the Packers' roster.
Intentional or not, there’s no mistaking what Trevor Davis’ addition means to the Packers’ receiving depth chart. The Packers have drafted five receivers in the past three years, each now fighting for a job behind Nelson and Randall Cobb. Competition for precious roster spots will be fierce, beginning a week from Monday with the first day of OTAs (organized team activities).
Almost by rule, NFL teams keep either five or six receivers on their initial 53-man roster. A look back at all 32 NFL teams’ final cuts at the end of training camp last year showed there can be exceptions, but rarely.
Seventeen teams kept six receivers on their initial 53-man roster entering last season, and 10 teams kept five. That accounted for almost 85 percent of the league, a high percentage but not unanimous. In fact, three teams kept only four receivers on their initial roster, and two of them (the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints) had elite quarterbacks.
The Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills were the only teams to keep seven receivers. Both had uncertain quarterback situations, which could have influenced the decision to keep an extra receiver. Special teams undoubtedly were a factor as well.
So there is a precedent for teams to keep seven receivers, but that doesn’t mean the Packers will go that route. Since 2010, their Super Bowl season, Thompson has kept five receivers on the Packers' initial 53-man roster in all but one season. The lone exception came in 2012, when the Packers started with six receivers and entered the 2012 postseason with seven on their active roster.
Regardless, Thompson’s preference has been to keep five receivers. With an influx of developmental receivers, the Packers GM could allow for another exception this year. It probably would take persuasive training camps from each for Thompson to expand his receiver depth chart to seven players, but that’s what makes the pending competition so intriguing. Each of the Packers' recently drafted receivers has a legitimate argument for cracking the roster.
Some will have more navigable paths to a roster spot than others. It is hard, for example, to foresee 2014 second-round receiver Davante Adams being a casualty of final cuts. Yes, Adams crumbled in his sophomore season. Though his 50 catches and 483 yards were slightly more than his rookie year, it did not represent the type of improvement expected from a player receiving a major opportunity.
In Nelson’s absence, Adams was expected to be the Packers' top perimeter target. Eventually, that role fell to veteran James Jones, whom Thompson signed as an emergency insurance policy one week before the regular season. Adams’ failed 2015 season was far from promising. It heightened the importance of a successful offseason, but if his job isn’t 100 percent secure, it’s the next-closest thing.
There is too much invested in Adams — and too many promising flashes interspersed with the dropped passes — for the Packers to move on after three seasons. Nothing short of a catastrophic offseason would put Adams’ future in jeopardy. For a player coach Mike McCarthy dubbed the offseason MVP a year ago, that’s unlikely to happen.
Ty Montgomery, a third-round pick in 2015, also figures to have job security. As a rookie, Montgomery was starting to find his groove before a Week 6 high-ankle sprain — and subsequent setbacks in practice — cost him his season. Montgomery will miss most of this offseason recovering from ankle surgery, but his quickness and versatility are valuable assets for the Packers' offense.
There would have to be some sort of significant medical concern for Montgomery’s job to be at risk. None appear to be present at this time.
That most likely leaves three receivers fighting for two roster spots. The two receivers most directly affected by Davis’ arrival. Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis, drafted two rounds apart in 2014, exited their second seasons on an uptick. Now, they’ve been put on notice.
There are arguments for and against both receivers making the roster. For Janis, the problem has been inconsistency, a buzzword coaches view as something more than cliché. He has all the height, all the speed, all the physical tools a receiver could ever want. Shaky route running and mental lapses on the field limited his snaps last season until injuries gave the Packers no other choice but to play him in the postseason.
Abbrederis is a different player than Janis, his good friend. He isn’t the fastest, isn’t the flashiest. Abbrederis’ elite skill is old-fashioned, boring consistency, something that can make all the difference in the NFL. Consistency helped Abbrederis overcome two significant injuries — a torn ACL in 2014, a concussion that wiped out his training camp in 2015 — to seize a role in the Packers' passing game quicker than Janis. There is implicit trust between Abbrederis and his quarterback, something that could count for a whole lot.
The question is whether Abbrederis’ chemistry with Rodgers outweighs Janis’ value as a special-teams ace. Janis was dominant as a gunner last season, leading the Packers with 12 special-teams tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Special teams often serve as a tiebreaker for final roster spots, and that ultimately should work in Janis’ favor.
There is another option the Packers could use, perhaps the most ideal. Even with his speed, there’s a reason Davis fell to the fifth round. He needs to develop, needs time for his overall game to catch up to the potential he flashed with a 4.42-second, 40-yard dash. If Davis is a year away from being a significant contributor, the Packers could try to stash him on their practice squad.
The transition from college football to the NFL is different for every player. It’s possible Davis conquers that learning curve quicker than most. If he sparkles in the preseason, it will be impossible for Thompson to hide Davis on the practice squad.
Without that luxury, the Packers GM could be forced to expand his receiver depth chart to an almost unprecedented proportion. Given their track record, there is no doubt the Packers would prefer to avoid keeping seven receivers on their initial 53-man roster. They may have no other choice.