INDIANAPOLIS - The 2020 NFL draft class for wide receivers is being heralded as one of the deepest and most talented in recent memory, prompting speculation the Green Bay Packers will target at least one rookie at the position.
But two years removed from taking three receivers in the middle rounds, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst cautioned that the learning curve for a first-year pass catcher remains steep.
“Receiver in general is a tough place to come in and have an immediate impact,” Gutekunst said before heading to the NFL scouting combine. “If you look at the history of the league, that doesn’t happen a ton.”
That said, Gutekunst acknowledged Tuesday in his combine media session that the 2020 receiver class has potential.
“It is a deep group,” he said Tuesday. “It’s pretty heavy at the top. More numbers than what we’ve seen in the past. It’s early. They’ve got to run, there’s a lot of things they’ve got to do still, but going through draft meetings early, I was impressed with the class as a whole. It’ll be interesting how it falls, but there were some good players out there. I think in today’s day and age where these guys were starting 7-on-7, it’s almost like AAU basketball. The receivers are so much more advanced in terms of their fundamentals coming into college and the league than maybe they have been in the past.
“And it’s really just the NFL offense that will take time. So there’s some guys sitting here today that I think will have a chance to make a pretty immediate impact, and I’m excited about that.”
But if the fundamentals of route running and catching the ball are being sharpened more quickly with each coming draft class, the learning curve needed in an NFL meeting room and with the playbook may not be shallowing accordingly.
“There’s a lot of learning that takes place,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said Tuesday. “The way the college game has gone, it depends on what systems that they’ve been in. There’s certain guys here that have maybe only lined up on one side of the field. Maybe they only lined up on the left side. Certainly, at our level, we’re going to move guys around and try to create matchups or whatever it may be. There’s a learning curve. And then to get on the same page as a guy like Aaron (Rodgers), who might just look at you and want you to run a certain route, that takes time to do.”
The question is whether the Packers can afford to wait on developing the receivers already on the roster, or if they can identify a rookie who can be productive once the regular season begins in September.
Last season the Packers had the 17th-ranked passing offense in the league, and seven wide receivers caught passes. Davante Adams led the group with 83 catches on 127 targets, despite missing four games and the end of a fifth. Trevor Davis caught one ball before being traded and Darrius Shepherd caught one before being released.
Allen Lazard (35), Geronimo Allison (34), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (26) and Jake Kumerow (12) were the other receivers to haul in a pass.
Adams also led the receiver room with five touchdowns. Lazard (3), Allison (2), Valdes-Scantling (2) and Kumerow (1) also scored.
Equanimeous St. Brown will be returning off a season-ending injury in 2019, and he caught 21 passes as a rookie in 2018.
Of the group, only Allison’s immediate future with the team is in doubt as he enters unrestricted free agency.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys with some talent I’m pretty excited to see out there, and then we’ll see what kind of additions we can make to that group,” Gutekunst said. “There are some guys in house I’m excited to see continue to develop and see where they go.”
The Packers saw rookie receivers contribute up close last season as they faced Washington’s Terry McLaurin, Oakland’s Hunter Renfrow, the New York Giants’ Darius Slayton, Seattle’s DK Metcalf and San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel.
All were a part of the group of 10 rookie receivers from the 2019 draft class who caught at least 30 passes. While none caught 60 passes and one topped 1,000 yards (Tennessee’s A.J. Brown), 11 scored at least three touchdowns.
But to put development in perspective, Valdes-Scantling is No. 8 in receptions (64) and yards (1,033) of the 34-member receiver class from 2018. Despite missing a full year, St. Brown ranks 20th in receptions out of that class.
From 2014-18, 165 wide receivers were drafted. Of that lot, only 44 have caught at least 100 career passes — a group that includes former Packers running back Ty Montgomery, who was initially listed as a wide receiver coming out of Stanford in 2015.
And 14 of those 44 were picked in the first round. So while there may be a receiver in this draft who could step onto the field and find a role, the Packers are preaching patience not just with their own receivers but for anyone they may bring in come the April draft.
“It’s no different than freshmen coming into college; the stuff takes time, and it takes time to learn it and then to apply it and to apply it at a high level,” Gutekunst said. “The NFL’s not very kind with the patience part of it, but that is part of what we’re trying to do here is develop these guys because it doesn’t happen overnight for most.”