Third in a 10-part NFL draft position-preview series looking at prospects who might be of interest to the Packers. Today: Wide receivers.
GREEN BAY - Before the 2018 season, the Green Bay Packers plan to make Aaron Rodgers the highest-paid player in NFL history.
Rodgers’ extension might be historic for more reasons. The two-time MVP quarterback could become the first NFL player to average $30 million annually. Perhaps he’ll become first to sign for $100 million guaranteed.
With such a watershed investment coming, it’s surprising the Packers left a major vacancy at No. 2 receiver. The hole on their roster opened after they released Jordy Nelson to make cap room to sign tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson. The move could be seen as a net gain, but they’ll need someone to step into the No. 2 receiver role.
The Packers prevented their top receiver, Davante Adams, from becoming a free agent with a four-year, $58 million extension in December. Now, they need someone to line up opposite Adams on the field’s perimeter. Randall Cobb, the Packers' second-highest paid receiver, almost exclusively lines up in the slot and hasn’t had No. 2 receiver production since signing his current contract after the 2014 season.
DRAFT PREVIEW: WRs that might fit for Packers
General manager Brian Gutekunst probed the receiver market in free agency. The Packers reportedly courted Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins, with Robinson telling a Jacksonville news station his decision came down to the Packers and Chicago Bears. Ultimately, Robinson signed a three-year, $42 million contract with the Bears, while Watkins signed a three-year, $48 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Packers later hosted Jordan Matthews on a free-agent visit, but he signed a one-year, $1 million deal with the New England Patriots.
“Shocked they didn’t sign anyone in free agency,” an NFL scout said. “If you’re going to sign Rodgers to $30 million (annually), why have him throwing to average receivers?”
It’s especially surprising the Packers were unable to reach a deal with Robinson.
The Packers signed Bears transition free-agent cornerback Kyle Fuller to a four-year, $56 million offer sheet this offseason, which Chicago quickly matched. In annual average, the deal was identical to Robinson’s contract, and catching passes from Rodgers would seem to be a persuasive tiebreaker.
The Dallas Cowboys released receiver Dez Bryant last week, sending another starting receiver to the open market. It’s uncertain whether the Packers would be interested in Bryant, who made public his preference to stay in the NFC East. Bryant would be a better No. 2 option than Nelson and cost less than Robinson or Watkins.
If not free agency, the Packers figure to target a receiver in the draft. Though the possibility can’t be discounted, it’s unlikely the value in talent will warrant selecting a receiver at No. 14 overall in the first round. There is no singular, great prospect in the class. For the first time since 2010, it’s possible — if not likely — no receiver will be drafted in the first 15 picks and only two may go in the first round.
Soon after, things will get busy at the position. What the 2018 receiver class lacks in elite talent, it compensates with depth. Once teams start drafting wide receivers later this month, several are bound to follow.
Drafting a receiver high in the first round almost always presents risk. For every Calvin Johnson, there’s a Ted Ginn. The Atlanta Falcons traded five draft picks in 2011 to move up and acquire Julio Jones, and suddenly their offense was set for the next decade. The Buffalo Bills burned a first-round pick to move up five spots to draft Watkins in 2015, passing on Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr., only to trade him before his rookie contract expired.
Because of receivers' value to quarterbacks, teams have been unable to refrain from drafting them early in the first round. This year appears to be different. It could entice the Packers to seriously consider drafting a second-round receiver, something former general manager Ted Thompson did about once every three years.
Thompson was a master at finding receiving talent in the second round. He did it four times in the span of nine drafts from 2006-14: Gregg Jennings (52nd overall, 2006), Nelson (36th overall, 2008), Cobb (64th overall, 2011) and Adams (53rd overall, 2014). Only Adams hasn’t crossed the 1,000-yard mark in a season, though he certainly could have with a full season with Rodgers last fall. Adams leads the NFL with 22 touchdown catches in the past two seasons.
Without signing a free agent, perhaps Gutekunst can strike second-round gold at receiver like his predecessor. He should have plenty of capable options.