Third in a series of nine position previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' 2018 training camp.
GREEN BAY — Over the course of their Hall of Fame quarterback play the past two decades, the Green Bay Packers have had a constant revolving door at wide receiver.
Sterling Sharpe gave way to Robert Brooks in 1995. Brooks gave way to Antonio Freeman one year later, and Freeman passed the torch to Donald Driver in 2002. Greg Jennings surpassed Driver early in Aaron Rodgers’ time as a starter. Jordy Nelson surpassed Jennings at the start of this decade.
The role continued revolving this past offseason. Gone is Nelson, who will be remembered as Rodgers’ top target much like Freeman was with Brett Favre. In his place, fifth-year receiver Davante Adams assumes the top spot.
It isn’t a stretch to expect much of the Packers' passing game to hinge on Adams’ individual success this fall. The Packers are paying him to be their top receiver, signing him to a four-year, $58 million extension in December.
“He’s going to be looked at as more of the go-to guy outside the building,” Rodgers said in the spring. “Naturally, that would probably be the progression for fans to think that way, but I throw it to the open guy. He happens to be open a lot. So I’m sure he’s going to get a lot of opportunities to continue to be that guy.
“He’s just got to continue to improve on what he’s done every year. He’s gotten better every year. If he can play 16 games, he’s a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver.”
There is no question Adams, a Pro Bowl alternate last year, has the ability to return there this season. Less certain is what the Packers have on their receiving depth chart behind him.
Roster lock: Davante Adams.
Good bets: Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison, J’Mon Moore.
On the bubble: Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, Trevor Davis, Michael Clark.
Long shots: DeAngelo Yancey, Jake Kumerow.
Biggest offseason move
The absence of No. 87 is impossible to overlook or understate. Over the past decade, Nelson gradually grew larger and larger within the Packers' offense. He was Rodgers’ unquestioned top target since the start of the 2011 season, a major figure while Rodgers won two MVPs and ascended as one of the game’s all-time great quarterbacks. When Nelson tore his ACL in the 2015 preseason, his injury sunk the Packers' offense. Even after losing a step since then, his chemistry with Rodgers will be difficult to replace. Nelson led the NFL with 14 touchdown catches in 2016 and was leading the league again with six when Rodgers broke his collarbone last October. No, Nelson wasn’t the same explosive threat as in 2014, but his departure to Oakland after being released leaves a void of production the Packers could struggle to replace.
A recurring theme the past few preseasons has been intense competition at the bottom of the receiver depth chart, and this summer should be no different. After the top three of Adams, Cobb and perhaps Allison, jobs appear completely up for grabs. Whether the Packers keep five, six or seven receivers, there will be no shortage of options to fill the spots.
Keep an eye on
The Packers focused on adding to their receiver depth chart after releasing Nelson, selecting a trio of wideouts on the final day of the draft. To make any real football evaluations this early would be a stretch since players have not yet worn pads, but it’s clear fourth-rounder J’Mon Moore, fifth-rounder Marquez Valdes-Scantling and sixth-rounder Equanimeous St. Brown each have considerable upside because of their rare combination of size and speed. The question will be who separates from the pack once pads are strapped on when camp opens.
What can the Packers get from Cobb? Besides Adams, he is the only other proven entity on the roster. In perhaps a best-case scenario, the Packers' receiver production could mimic 2014. That season, the Packers' passing attack was a two-headed monster of Nelson and Cobb. The duo combined for 189 catches, 2,806 yards, 25 touchdowns and a pair of Pro Bowl appearances, while the rest of the Packers' receiving group added just 44 catches, 489 yards and three touchdowns. Adams appears poised for a huge year as the Packers' top receiver, but he needs a running mate. Cobb, whose numbers haven’t approached 2014 levels since, is the most obvious candidate for that role. The question is whether his production can ever return to what it was in 2014.
Adams will not only exceed 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, but he’ll also lead the league in touchdown catches. He has come close to accomplishing both in the past. In 2016, his last full season with Rodgers, Adams finished with 997 yards and tied Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown for second in the NFL with 12 touchdowns receptions. Maybe the most impressive thing Adams has done in his career came last season when, despite playing nine games with Brett Hundley at quarterback, he again finished second with 10 touchdown catches. Adams’ 22 touchdown receptions the past two years are the most in the NFL. As Rodgers’ unquestioned top target in 2018, expect him to see the end zone often.