GREEN BAY – Had this been 2017 and quarterback Aaron Rodgers was throwing the ball to Jordy Nelson, it’s almost a certainty that the third-and-3 play that transpired on the Green Bay Packers’ second day of training camp would have been a first down.
But it wasn’t Nelson running the route, it was rookie J’Mon Moore.
The fourth-round pick from Missouri thought he was doing everything right when he pivoted out of his route and headed toward the sideline in the same direction Rodgers was scrambling.
Moore had a limited amount of time on the field with Rodgers during OTAs, so most of what he knew about what might happen in that instance wasn’t ingrained in his head. Rodgers looked away from Moore and then threw the pass right at his hands for a sure conversion.
Until Moore dropped it.
“He looked the other way and I didn’t think he was going to throw to me,” Moore said. “I took my eyes off him. But he threw a no-look pass. By the time I saw he had thrown it, it was there, and it went off my hands.”
Rodgers walked away without looking back at Moore. The rookie must make that play if he wants to see the ball again in a similar situation.
“It’s a great lesson,” Moore said.
Coach Mike McCarthy and his staff are not babying the three wide receivers general manager Brian Gutekunst selected in the draft: Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling (fifth round) and Equanimeous St. Brown (sixth). They can’t because they’re going to need at least one of them, and probably all three at some point, to play this season.
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Gutekunst made the decision in the offseason that he could live without Nelson and then chose not to sign a veteran to complement Davante Adams and Randall Cobb. Next in line in experience — at least in terms of snaps played and passes caught — is Geronimo Allison, who in his first two seasons caught 35 passes for 455 yards and two touchdowns.
After Trevor Davis, who like Allison is entering his third season, no one else has played a regular-season down.
That’s why McCarthy, when asked whether he can afford to slow down the pace in the receiver room, said, “No, we’ve got to go.”
In previous years, the gold standard for what it should look like to play wide receiver in McCarthy’s offense was Nelson. If a rookie wanted to know what to do when Rodgers scrambled, he only needed to watch Nelson.
One of McCarthy’s former assistants once said that a big reason the receiver position fell apart and Rodgers started holding the ball too long during the 2015 season was because Nelson was out with a torn ACL. Nelson didn’t just perform in games, he created a standard on the practice field that everyone had to match.
“I think you have some young players who need an example of what it’s supposed to look like and that’s where that Jordy Nelson injury was devastating,” the assistant said. ““(You say to them), ‘this is how you do it’ and then Jordy goes and does it.”
There’s no way the dynamic inside the receivers room couldn’t change with Nelson’s exit. After 550 catches for 7,848 yards and 69 touchdowns in 10 seasons, his presence was stamped on the position with indelible ink.
And then suddenly he’s gone.
“All I can say is that it’s different,” Allison said. “His presence is missed. It feels different, but I’m going to say the one thing is that it’s forcing the other veterans, like myself, to show the young guys how things are done and how to operate in the classroom and on the field.
"The way he did things, the way he’d go about his business, that’s how you lead by example.”
The baton that passed from Donald Driver to Greg Jennings to James Jones to Nelson now rests in the hands of Adams and Cobb. Whether they want that pressure, all eyes are on them, especially given how badly the rookie receivers are needed this year.
Cobb played with Driver, Jennings, Jones and Nelson and never had to carry the burden of being the top dog. Adams also played a secondary role and not until the middle of last season started to move into the No. 1 receiver role.
“I had a lot of veterans to lean on and a lot of veterans to watch and see how they carry themselves, see how they perform as pros in the weight room, in the classroom, on the football field,” Cobb said. “So just being able to learn and pick up on all those little different things I think definitely helped my career.”
Now, the burden would appear to be on him and Adams to put their stamp on the room. Whether they know it or not, the rookies are watching them closely, looking for cues on how things are done.
“If you watch the drill and you see the conversation when the young guy comes back, particularly the rookies, you see Davante and you see Randall (talking to them),” McCarthy said. “The conversation behind and in between plays is critical.
“They’ve had a lot of change for themselves as far as what we’re doing. But I think those guys are excellent leaders, particularly from the veteran responsibility that they hold and take very seriously.”
After Moore came back from his drop, Rodgers was there to talk him through his mistake, something all the other receivers have experienced at some point in their careers. What matters now is that Moore not make the mistake again.
It would be the quickest way to let the next guy in line get in front of him.
“The expectations here are high,” Moore said. “That’s good. People believe in you and so you have to meet those expectations and then go above and beyond. It’s good that we have guys like Randall and ‘Tae and G-Mo here to show you how it’s done. That’s what leaders do.”