Experience wins out at wide receiver

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY — The most divisive storyline of Green Bay Packers training camp was the overpopulation of wide receivers, a group whose percentage of the eventual 53-man roster projected large relative to recent years. The only locks were Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Everything behind them was bleary.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12)  talks with wide receiver Davante Adams (17) after some miscommunication in the offense ending a  third quarter drive.

When the dust cleared, general manager Ted Thompson retained seven wide receivers, the highest total in his tenure with the Packers. Joining Nelson and Cobb were Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery, Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Janis and rookie Trevor Davis, a fifth-round pick in this year’s draft.

From there it was Mike McCarthy's job to find ways to use them.

“Good problem to have,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said five days before the regular-season opener. “We knew going into it was going to be extremely competitive with that unit. … It’s certainly a blessing to have guys of that ability in that room, and I'm sure we'll have a plan for each and every guy when they get their opportunities.”

While that may be true in the long run, McCarthy resembled a basketball coach in the playoffs when he shrunk his rotation against the Jaguars, even as temperatures reached Mercurian levels. He afforded at least 84 percent of snaps to three players — Nelson, Cobb and Adams — while offering only brief cameos to the others. Had Nelson gone through a full training camp, the percentage would have risen even higher.

It makes you wonder: Is it really feasible for the Packers to find roles for all of their receivers? Is it something McCarthy even wants to do? What happens when the crowd thickens as Davis and Janis return to full strength? Would the offense be better if it rode the most experienced players?

“I think when you have all three players run the way those three guys do, it definitely gives you continuity, consistency and definitely production,” McCarthy said of Nelson, Cobb and Adams. “The fact of the matter is it’s a long season. There’s a lot of football in front of us. You do want to find some common ground there where everybody plays. That’s something (where) you’re trying to find balance without disrupting the rhythm and flow of your offense.”

McCarthy’s fondness for matchups suggests the Packers will incorporate other receivers throughout the season, even if the offense relies heavily on the aforementioned trio. Snap counts may fluctuate on a week-to-week basis in response to a specific opponent. And in truth, the variance among the reserves might make the à la carte approach more appealing.

Consider the precise route running of Abbrederis against a secondary known to gamble. Or the speed of Davis and Janis once the play-action pass is established. Or perhaps McCarthy revives a trick from last season, using Cobb in one slot and Montgomery as a mirror in the other.

The newest toy is tight end Jared Cook, who took 23 snaps as a wide receiver against Jacksonville and further diluted the playing-time solution.

“When you’re a receiver, there’s only one football going around,” Montgomery said. “You’re not always going to get the ball. You’re not always going to be in on every play.”

Montgomery and Abbrederis were used as supplemental weapons against Jacksonville. They played 11 snaps and 14 snaps, respectively, and their appearances were as scattered as they were fleeting. Combined, their statistical contributions were marginal: one catch for eight yards. It belonged to Abbrederis.

For Montgomery, who finally is healed after a gruesome ankle injury shortened his rookie season, the snap count against the Jaguars was a fraction of the playing time he received when healthy last year. Injuries to Nelson (torn ACL) and Adams (ankle) thrust Montgomery into a starting role in 2015, and during a three-game stretch before the bye week he averaged 94 percent of snaps.

On Wednesday he was asked if minimal involvement in Jacksonville was disappointing.

“No, not really,” Montgomery said. “I mean — let me take that back, depending on the context and how you put it. Obviously I want to do more, I want to be involved more. But I understand my role in this offense right now.

“We have a lot of established vets, even some young guys coming up, like Trevor (Davis) did what he did in training camp, Abbrederis did what he did in training camp. I missed enough of it, so I understand. But I’m thankful to be a part of this 53 right now and contribute when I can.”

There is also a mechanical factor that limits the opportunities for receivers outside the top three. At its best, McCarthy’s offense is a whirring typhoon that exhausts its opponent with tempo. The faster the Packers arrive at the line of scrimmage, the less time a defense has to substitute between plays. It’s ruthless, genius and effective.

But tempo comes with a corollary applicable to the wide receivers: If the opponent doesn’t have time to substitute, the Packers don’t, either.

“We don’t like to substitute a lot,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “I like it when those guys can stay on the field for a number of snaps in a row. The key is we need to get all in that football shape where we can play 85-plus percent, so we can keep those guys on the field. But when we need to rotate, we expect those guys to come in and make plays.”

With Nelson and Cobb entrenched on the depth chart, the only uncertainty was attached to the No. 3 receiver position that went unclaimed last season. Abbrederis turned in the strongest training camp, but Adams, who stands 6-1 and weighs 215 pounds, is much better suited for the perimeter. If Montgomery was healthy at the start of camp, it might have been a three-horse race.

But any hint of indecision was erased by the final horn in Jacksonville. Adams, who caught three passes for 50 yards and a touchdown, played 59 of 64 snaps, trailing only Cobb among skill position players. The decision by McCarthy and his staff was clear.

The Packers may have seven receivers, but against the Jaguars they only needed three.

“It just allows us to get that chemistry going,” Adams said. “That’s what we’re doing in practice, so I feel like what you do in practice should carry over to the games.

“I felt like I had a pretty good camp. That’s how this organization works: They give credit and reward people for working hard and for putting in solid, diligent work.”

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