Packers' wide receiver riches create roster quandary
Second in a nine-part Packers by Position series.
GREEN BAY - A year ago, the Green Bay Packers did something none of their 31 NFL competitors matched, entering the season with seven receivers on their 53-man roster.
Fifteen teams kept six receivers on their initial active roster. The same number of teams kept five. Only the Packers exceeded the norm.
It was a rare allotment for the receiver position, but not unprecedented. In 2015, the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills each kept seven receivers. But more unusual than keeping seven receivers on an initial roster — general manager Ted Thompson had never done it in a decade as GM before last season — would be doing it in consecutive seasons.
“I’d like to think we have more than seven guys that can play in that group for sure,” Packers receivers coach Luke Getsy said. “Circumstances dictate a little bit the way things go.
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The Packers certainly will have seven receivers deserving of making an NFL roster. Always careful to ensure the depth chart is stocked with developmental talent — Thompson drafted at least one receiver each of the past five years — the Packers surprised even themselves this spring, selecting two on the draft’s final day.
DeAngelo Yancey (fifth round) and Malachi Dupre (seventh) join a group that, in effect, already has a trio of 1,000-yard receivers: Jordy Nelson (2011, ’13, ’14, ’16), Randall Cobb (2014) and Davante Adams (997 yards last season). The Packers also were the only team with two receivers catching double-digit touchdowns, thanks in no small part to quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ scorching play in the second half of 2016.
The Packers could settle on a more traditional allotment, even if seven receivers are deserving. They could stash one of their rookies on the practice squad and still have six receivers on their active depth chart. Geronimo Allison, their most productive rookie receiver in 2016, began the season on the practice squad.
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One difficulty in bloating a position group is finding roles for everybody. It’s a big reason the Packers found it easy to move Ty Montgomery to the backfield last season: They needed to find a way to get him the football.
But a year after entering the 2016 season with arguably the NFL’s deepest receiver group, the Packers should be even deeper at the position when camp opens.
Jordy Nelson (Ht.: 6-2 1/2; Wt.: 210; Age: 32; Acquired: D2-’08; College: Kansas State)
The Packers could have scripted their best-case scenario for Nelson’s return from a torn ACL that cost him all of 2015 and still fallen short of reality.
Sure, that best-case scenario would have included 1,000 receiving yards, maybe double-digit touchdowns — markers Nelson exceeded last fall. Nobody could’ve expected Nelson to lead the NFL in touchdowns with 14, to go with his 1,257 yards.
Yes, Nelson deserved his NFL comeback player of the year award. His 97 catches last season were only one fewer than the 98 he had in 2014.
“I hope he’s one of those guys who has an even better year the year after (an ACL tear),” Getsy said. “As the year went on, I think we saw him get better and a lot of that, too, was he was not doingmany football activities until we started our season. I think he was getting in game shape as the season was wearing on, so that’s probably why you saw a really good player by the end of the season again.”
Nelson’s production came differently in 2016. He averaged 13 yards per catch, dipping below the 15-yard mark for the first time since 2010. But if Nelson was less explosive vertically from the perimeter, he added a new dimension to his game, morphing into perhaps the NFL’s best slot receiver.
In 181 routes run from the slot, according to Pro Football Focus, Nelson led the NFL with 2.75 yards per route. His move inside correlated with his comeback-player-of-the-year emergence. In the Packers' first six games, only a quarter of Nelson’s routes came from the slot. His slot and perimeter routes split almost in half through the final 10 games.
Perhaps the biggest mystery in the Packers' receiver group isn’t how many will be kept on the 53-man roster, but whether Nelson’s transition to the slot will go even further this fall.
Randall Cobb (Ht.: 5-10; Wt.: 195; Age: 26; Acquired: D2-’11; College: Kentucky)
Based on raw numbers, Cobb’s production hasn’t matched the four-year, $40 millioncontract the Packers gave him before the 2015 season.
His 60 catches last fall were two-thirds of the 91 receptions he had in 2014. His 610 yards were less than half the 1,287 he had in his career-best season. His four touchdowns were one-third of his 2014 total of a dozen.
But the Packers love their short, shifty receiver. Their appreciation goes beyond numbers. Coach Mike McCarthy long has lauded Cobb’s versatility, extending to occasional appearances in the backfield. A month before his 27th birthday, the seventh-year veteran remains one of the Packers' most reliable players.
Cobb’s biggest issue has been health. He rarely was at full strength in 2015 because of a sprained AC joint in his shoulder. Hamstring and ankle injuries slowed him last season. Yet Cobb’s value to the offense never was more apparent than his production — five catches for 116 yards and three touchdowns — in the Packers' wild-card win over the New York Giants.
Those big-time games have become rare for Cobb. His only other 100-yard game last season came when the Packers hosted the Giants in the regular season. With better health, the hope is Cobb can return to output more closely resembling 2014.
“I think you saw him in those playoff games,” Getsy said, “and he wasn’t even totally healthy, and you saw who he is. He’s an impactful guy. You take the Giants game early in the year, and it’s third-and-long, and we throw the ball way short of the sticks and he’s the only guy on the football team that makes that play for us."
Davante Adams (Ht.: 6-1; Wt.: 215; Age: 24; Acquired: D2-’14; College: Fresno State)
At some point this season, the Packers will have to decide whether Adams’ ceiling is that of a No. 1 receiver.
The question started to pop up last season. Rodgers was dismissive of the premise when asked in November.
“That’s fantasy-football fodder,” the quarterback said. “We throw to the open guy here. Whoever gets open the most is going to get the most targets his way. That No. 1 stuff is for fantasy football and contract negations.”
Those final two words — contract negotiations — are why Adams’ prospects as a No. 1 receiver will become relevant in the coming months. Already, Adams has proved to be at least a strong complementary weapon in an offense. He enters the final year of his rookie contract on the wings of a breakout season, easily the best in his career. His 997 yards on 75 catches fell just shy of 1,000, but his 12 touchdowns tied for fourth in the NFL — two more than Odell Beckham Jr.
That’s good company, but Adams will have to improve even more to be viewed as a No. 1 receiver when contract time comes around next spring. The biggest obstacle is proving his 4.56-second, 40-yard-dash speed doesn’t hinder his explosiveness.
“He’s the type of guy that always has a chip on his shoulder,” Getsy said, “and he’s always out to prove something. Since I’ve been with him full-time, I’ve just seen a guy that’s very driven to be a really great player, and he’s driven every single day."
Geronimo Allison (Ht.: 6-3½; Wt.: 202; Age: 23; Acquired: UDFA-‘16; College: Illinois)
It's hard to say which is more surprising: that Allison started last season on the practice squad, or that no other team placed him on their 53-man roster.
It wasn’t for lack of production that Allison didn’t make the Packers' initial active roster. Allison, looking the part with his tall, long frame, led the Packers with 119 yards on six catches in his first preseason. At final cuts, Allison fell on the wrong side of the roster bubble.
“He attacked every single day like he was one of those guys on the 53,” Getsy said, “and that’s a credit to him because he was ready to go.”
The Packers promoted Allison to the active roster before theirmidseason trip to Atlanta, and he produced immediately with a touchdown against the Falcons. He finished the regular season with 12 catches for 202 yards and two touchdowns, including a team-high 91 yards and a touchdown on four catches when the Packers clinched the NFC North title at Detroit in their finale.
At his best, according to one scout, Allison has Marques Colston-type potential as a big, powerful receiver. Colston, a longtime fixture with the New Orleans Saints who caught passes for almost 10,000 yards in 10 NFL seasons, started his career as a seventh-round draft pick.
Jeff Janis (Ht.: 6-3; Wt.: 219; Age: 26; Acquired: D7-‘14; College: Saginaw Valley State)
Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Janis has reached the point in his career where it’s unlikely he’ll develop significantly more as a receiver. The former small-college star might be all he’ll ever be on offense. For the record, that’s 15 catches for 188 yards and a touchdown in three seasons.
But don’t count Janis out of a roster spot, even with two drafted receivers added to the mix.
At the bottom of the depth chart, receiver jobs are won and lost on special teams. Janis had more errors on special teams last season, unable to match his remarkable production from 2015, but he remains a known commodity as a gunner on punt coverage and a kick returner. Janis’ ability on special teams could secure a long career, including a job this season.
Trevor Davis (Ht.: 6-1; Wt.: 188; Age: 24; Acquired: D5-‘16; College: California)
Clocking the third-fastest 40-yard dash among receivers at the 2016 NFL combine, Davis’ speed provides a lot of developmentalpotential. Needing to get stronger, it wasn’t a surprise Davis saw his playing time limited last season. He’ll have to show he can do more on special teams — especially in the return game — to secure a roster spot.
DeAngelo Yancey (Ht.: 6-1; Wt.: 220; Age: 22; Acquired: D5-‘17; College: Purdue)
Yancey averaged 19.4 yards per catch as a college senior, but he isn’t expected to be an NFL deep threat. It was his size,strength and hands that attracted the Packers. Yancey can be a little stiff, but he has the tools to be a possession receiver. He was adept at running slant routes at Purdue, which would fit nicely in the Packers' hybrid West Coast offense.
Malachi Dupre (Ht.: 6-2; Wt.: 196; Age: 21; Acquired: D7-‘17; College: LSU)
The Packers didn’t plan on drafting two players at such a deep position, but they couldn’t pass when Dupre unexpectedly slid into the seventh round. After his sophomore season at LSU, Dupre projected as a potential first-round receiver. Even after a disappointing junior season — thanks in large part to LSU’s quarterback issues — the best bet was he’d go early on Day 3. Dupre is a smooth route runner with reliable hands and good height, though he’ll need to get stronger at the next level. Dupre lacks experience with special teams, something he’ll have to do in the NFL.
Max McCaffrey (Ht.: 6-2; Wt.: 200; Age: 23; Acquired: UDFA-‘16; College: Duke)
Superior bloodlines. Father, Ed, played 13 NFL seasons and won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos. Brother, Christian, was a Heisman Trophy finalist and drafted eighth overall this spring by the Carolina Panthers. The Packers signed Max to their practice squad last December.
Michael Clark (Ht.: 6-6; Wt.: 217; Age: 21; Acquired: UDFA-‘17; College: Marshall)
Former basketball player with the size to show it. Moves well for his size, but very raw. Left Marshall with one year of eligibility remaining.
Montay Crockett (Ht.: 6-0; Wt.: 184; Age: 23; Acquired: UDFA-‘17; College: Georgia Southern)
A speed burner, Crockett ran a 4.39-second dash at his pro day. Was a longtime backup before starting his final season. Experienced returning kickoffs.
Colby Pearson (Ht.: 6-0; Wt.: 194; Age: 22; Acquired: UDFA-‘17; College: BYU)
A late arrival, Pearson was signed June 1. College teammates with fourth-round rookie running back Jamaal Williams, as well as undrafted rookie quarterback Taysom Hill. Had career-high 38 catches for 384 yards and eight touchdowns ascollege senior.