GREEN BAY – Marquez Valdes-Scantling knew to check with the line judge.
He was the far receiver on the right. On this run play, his primary job was simple: Don’t cover up the tight end.
Since he started playing football, Valdes-Scantling has checked with the line judge before snaps to ensure he’s lined up off the line of scrimmage. It’s rudimentary, like adding one and one to get two. But, simultaneously, the Green Bay Packers rookie was trying to look at four different things.
He watched his quarterback, ready for a potential audible from Aaron Rodgers. He glanced at the defense, calculating where to block. He focused on the football, so he wouldn’t be late off the snap. He …
Well, he forgot to do his simple math.
The line judge in Detroit was telling Valdes-Scantling to back up, that he was within the 1-yard barrier from the line of scrimmage. He was covering the tight end in an illegal formation, but never budged. Five-yard penalty.
“Loud stadium,” Valdes-Scantling said. “He was talking to me, but I couldn’t hear him. I was focusing on my quarterback and the defense and the ball being moved. Because playing receiver, if the ball moves, you’ve gotta go. So I wasn’t listening to him.”
This is how something simple slips through the cracks. For a rookie, the professional game moves at warp speed. There’s an overload of information to digest each snap.
The only way to catch up is by playing. Which presents a conundrum as the Packers prepare to return from their bye. For the first time since September, their offense should be whole again. Barring an unforeseen setback, veteran receivers Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison are expected to return to action next Sunday when the Packers travel to the Los Angeles Rams.
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Make no mistake: Cobb and Allison will get the bulk of snaps alongside No. 1 receiver Davante Adams. Currently, Adams, Cobb and Allison are the Packers' top three receivers. But Valdes-Scantling is rapidly approaching. So, too, may be fellow rookie Equanimeous St. Brown, whose back-shoulder grab for 19 yards on third-and-2 that extended the Packers' game-winning drive Monday night was the type of savvy, veteran play that caught everyone’s attention.
“His growth since he’s gotten here,” Adams said of St. Brown, “is one of the biggest that I’ve seen since I’ve been in Green Bay. A guy with a lot of talent when he stepped in here. He needed to get polished up a little bit, and he’s made tremendous strides, plays incredibly fast and he makes plays like that.
“Most rookie don’t even get the opportunity to make a play like that, let alone capitalize on it.”
That’s where coach Mike McCarthy will need to find a balance. The Packers' primary goal in October — and November, and December — is not to develop younger players. That’s the focus for spring and summer. In the fall, the Packers are charged with winning games.
To do that, they need their best players on the field — especially with the grueling, five-game stretch greeting the Packers after their bye. Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown aren’t there yet. For every big play like Valdes-Scantling’s 60-yard reception on the Packers' opening drive against the 49ers, there’s a rookie blunder like his inability to come get the football on a 6-yard stop route, almost leading to a pick-six.
Against good teams, those blunders cost games.
But, on their current trajectory, it’s entirely possible Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown could crack the top-three receiver rotation by late in the season. Both are supremely gifted, with measurables far exceeding their fifth- and sixth-round draft status.
Valdes-Scantling, standing 6-4 with a 79⅜-inch wingspan and 4.37 40, ranked in the 91st percentile in height and wingspan and 90th percentile in the 40-yard dash compared to all receivers at the scouting combine since 1999, according to mockdraftable.com. Among his closest comparisons in overall measurables was a Kansas State receiver named Jordy Nelson, whom the Packers drafted in the second round.
St. Brown, standing 6-4¾ (94th percentile) with a 78⅞-inch wingspan (82nd) and 4.48 40 (65th), doesn’t quite match Valdes-Scantling’s raw athleticism but isn’t far behind. Among his closest comparisons were Braylon Edwards (third overall pick, 2005), DeVante Parker (14th overall pick, 2015) and Mike Williams (seventh overall pick, 2017). Not bad for the 207th overall pick this past spring.
On the day they were drafted, general manager Brian Gutekunst gushed about the size and speed Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown brought to the Packers' offense. It doesn’t always translate into production, especially early in a receiver’s career. Perhaps most impressive is how quickly the two rookies have posted numbers.
In only his sixth career game, Valdes-Scantling had three catches for 103 yards Monday night. Of the 43 players the Packers drafted as receivers since Brett Favre arrived in 1992, only Greg Jennings (third game) reached the century mark quicker. Nelson didn’t reach 100 yards in a game until late in the 2010 season, his third year. Donald Driver didn’t have a 100-yard game until his fourth season.
St. Brown hasn’t hit 100 yet, but his 89 yards at Detroit in only his second career game was the only time any of those 43 receivers had reached 80 in their first two games.
“They’re not only getting better,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “but they’re producing. I feel very good about that.”
With continued opportunities, Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown should produce even more. They’ll also make more mistakes. Where is the balance between patient development and clean, consistent play? The Packers will have to figure that out starting in Los Angeles.
Because by season’s end, their emergence could make a big difference for the offense.