One of the few pleasant surprises in the Green Bay Packers’ 2016 season is Davante Adams’ recent play.
For the last few games, he has been their best receiver. That’s a big development. As recently as six weeks ago, the third-year pro still was looking like a draft bust. Now there’s reason to think he’ll help this team going forward.
Still, that doesn’t change a fundamental revelation from 2016: The Packers need a No. 1 receiver. Draft, free agency, whatever, they have to make a priority of adding a receiver in the offseason who threatens defenses more than anyone they have. They have to get more explosive.
Adams, for all he has shown recently, is not a big-play guy (4.56-second 40). He’s now looking like a legit starter on the outside, but he’s more of a possession receiver. We’ll also get a better feel Sunday for just how far he really has come, because Houston has better cornerback depth than he has faced in the past month or more.
As for the other key members of the Packers’ receiving corps, neither Jordy Nelson nor Randall Cobb has shown the same explosiveness they had a couple years ago. Both have taken physical beatings – Nelson the torn ACL in 2015, Cobb an accumulation of injuries as a smaller player – that have robbed them of some of their juice.
That’s not to say they can’t play. Both will have to be part of the solution this season if the Packers are to go on a run to make the playoffs down the stretch. The quick-rhythm passing game coach Mike McCarthy used from the start against Philadelphia is the team’s best hope, and Nelson and Cobb will have to be a be big part of making that work.
But their performance this season will have repercussions for next year, because Nelson signed a new contract in July 2014 as a No. 1 receiver, and Cobb re-signed in March of 2015 as a highly productive No. 2. They aren’t the same players as when they signed those deals, and that’s among the reasons the Packers are 5-6.
Nelson’s injury has cost him some speed, and because of his age there’s little reason to think it’s coming back. His post-surgical knee will be a year stronger in 2017, but he’ll also be a year deeper into his 30s (32 in May). Time is not on his side.
But this season is showing that while Nelson isn’t as good an outside receiver as he was, he still can be highly effective from the slot. The Packers are using him more and more from various slot-type positions, where his size (6-3, 217) and sophisticated route-running skills make him an extremely difficult matchup working the entire width of the field.
Cobb also is a slot receiver. He has been at his most effective this season catching short, quick throws that keep the chains moving. But he’s not the big-play threat he was earlier in his career, when he often turned short catches into bigger gains. In 2014 he had 24 receptions of 20 yards or more, but in ’15 that dropped to 11, and this season he has had only six in the 10 games he has played.
This offseason, the Packers will have some hard decisions because of their salaries. Nelson is scheduled to make $9.25 million in salary and bonuses in 2017, and Cobb slightly more at $9.5 million. That’s untenable.
It’s hard to see this any other way: The Packers will have to approach at least one and maybe both for a pay cut. Those kinds of deals usually involve some guaranteed money for the player and the ability to earn back much of the difference in performance incentives.
If the Packers can keep only one of the two, it would have to be Nelson. Though Cobb is much younger (26 to Nelson’s 31), Nelson is the more dangerous slot player because of his size and skill. Cobb (5-10, 192) has proven to be courageous working the middle of the field and tough playing through injuries, but he’s a small target (5-10, 192) and not as dynamic as he was. Nelson is the tougher cover, and probably will be for the next couple of years.
At lower salaries there might be room for both on the roster, though that also could depend on the receiver the team adds in the offseason. If it’s an immediate starter outside, then maybe not. And at their scheduled salaries for ’17, there’s definitely not room for both.
As for someone else emerging from lower on the depth chart, as recently as last offseason it looked like Jeff Janis at least was a possible starter down the road. That’s a long shot now. He still might have something to offer because of his size and speed, but he’s probably not natural or complete enough for a major role. And fifth-round pick Trevor Davis hasn’t played enough to make any kind of call on him. Ty Montgomery is a niche player, a hybrid receiver-running back.
Ted Thompson’s general scorn for free agency is well known by this point in his tenure as general manager, and he never even has sniffed around in signings for prime players the first few days of free agency. But just in case he changes his thinking for a receiver, there are two prospective free agents who could be of interest: Alshon Jeffery and Terrelle Pryor.
Jeffery is playing this season on Chicago’s franchise tag at a salary of $14.6 million. He’s currently serving a four-game PED suspension. The Bears probably won’t franchise him again this offseason because of the cost (120 percent of this year’s tag, or $17.5 million), though the presumption is they’ll try hard to re-sign him before free agency starts.
Those deals get done more often than not, but you never know. Jeffery’s speed is OK though he’s not a burner – he reportedly ran the 40 in 4.48 seconds in his campus workout coming out of college. But he has great size (6-3, 218), makes plays downfield (14.9-yard average per catch in his career, 15.8 yards this season) and is only 26.
Pryor has been a revelation for Cleveland this season. The former quarterback is in only his second season as a full-time receiver, yet he ranks No. 8 in the NFL in receiving yards (855) and No. 12 in receptions (62).
He has an extraordinary combination of size and speed – 6-4, 230 and a 4.38-second 40 coming out of college. The Packers got an early glimpse of his big-play ability in the preseason when on the Browns’ first play from scrimmage he caught a 49-yard go route over Damarious Randall.
Again, you’d think the Browns would try hard to re-sign him. But you never know how that will go.
More likely, the Packers will have to look to the draft. The problem is that even a lot of good receivers don’t do much as rookies. But if that’s the route they take, they’ll have to find one who can help right away.
Either way, there has to be some action with the Packers’ receivers in the offseason. They need to be harder to defend than they are now.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.