GREEN BAY - The game within the game for three Green Bay Packers quarterbacks is not what you would expect. Sure, there is friendly competition to lead the most productive drives and throw the fewest interceptions during training camp, but this is different.
This is the competition over wide receiver Max McCaffrey.
“Who told you that?” rookie quarterback Taysom Hill said with a smile. “Who brought that up?”
It was quarterback Joe Callahan who let the secret slip.
“It’s something we’ve kind of been joking about the past couple days, who Max prefers and who is claiming Max as their primary receiver,” Callahan said. “He’s had a great camp.”
If the Packers’ depth chart were arranged in order of receptions, McCaffrey would win in a landslide through the first week of camp. His precise routes and steady hands have made him a reliable target for the three young quarterbacks behind starter Aaron Rodgers. His ability to find pockets in the middle of the field has produced the kind of intermediate receptions patented by Jordy Nelson when he manned the slot last season.
“You can see that understanding of the little things that we’re wanting within things, inside routes or concepts, just being out there playing fast,” Nelson said of McCaffrey. “He’s making a lot of plays. We give him a hard time that he seems like the only one out there practicing right now. But that’s the way it works sometimes. That’s the way training camp can go. You can get on a roll and especially with these young quarterbacks, they’ll start building trust there.”
McCaffrey, who played four seasons at Duke, broke into the NFL with the Oakland Raiders as an undrafted free agent last year. He signed in May, was released in August and spent the next four months on the street until the Packers added him to the practice squad Dec. 20, 2016.
Because he never appeared in a game, it’s easy to forget McCaffrey ended last season on the Packers’ 53-man roster. He was signed off the practice squad during the build-up to the NFC championship game as injuries to Nelson (broken ribs), Davante Adams (ankle) and Geronimo Allison (hamstring) threatened the heart of the receiving corps. When all three players suited up, McCaffrey was among the inactives.
Six months later, McCaffrey's recent surge is due in large part to his efforts to improve as a route runner. At Duke, where the Blue Devils used a speed offense, McCaffrey said his task on each passing play was to arrive at a specific spot on the field as quickly as possible. Technique was not as important as speed and timing, so the finer elements of route running never were sharpened.
It meant that McCaffrey had to “re-learn route running” when he signed with the Packers, whose pro-style offense asks receivers to be pristine with their mechanics. He spent a lot of time working with his father, Ed McCaffrey, a former wide receiver for the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers. Ed has served as the primary mentor for Max and his younger son, Christian, the former Stanford running back and No. 8 overall pick by the Carolina Panthers in this year’s draft.
“It was definitely difficult at first, I’ll say that,” McCaffrey said of running routes in the pro-style offense. “Being around the guys I’ve been able to (improve) and in the offseason working out. I work out with my dad, and other quarterbacks and receivers have been able to help me. I’m still learning but I’m trying to get better each day.”
McCaffrey (6-2, 196 pounds) has found success with short and intermediate routes that allow him to use his change-of-direction ability and quickness. McCaffrey’s agility in close quarters has left cornerbacks a step behind on crossing routes and created throwing lanes in front of linebackers and safeties. He works most frequently with the second- or third-team offense when Callahan is under center.
“We have an ongoing joke that Max is Joe’s guy, right?” Hill said. “So if Max is in when Joe is in, then Max gets the ball. The ongoing joke with me is when (wide receiver) Colby Pearson is in and I’m in, that he gets the ball from me.
“We’ve had a few incidents where they’ve cheated on us with Brett Hundley. Brett has been trying to steal both of our guys.”
The game within the game continues.
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