Dougherty: Difficult WR decisions loom for Packers

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson (right) is congratulated by fellow receivers Davante Adams (17) and Randall Cobb after Nelson's TD catch in the season opener against the Seahawks.

No matter what the Green Bay Packers do about Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb this offseason, they have a problem at wide receiver.

They’re another Davante Adams concussion away from trouble.

The Packers signed Adams to a lucrative contract extension a couple of weeks ago knowing he has sustained three concussions in the last 15 months, including two this season on brutal, illegal hits to the head. They looked at his history of quick recoveries and took the chance on a new four-year deal.

Hard to blame them, he has become one of their best players.

But with or without Nelson and Cobb, the Packers don’t have the depth at receiver and tight end to withstand a serious injury to their newest big-contract receiver.

Nelson and Cobb are two of the biggest offseason decisions facing new general manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Mike McCarthy.

Both veteran receivers have been important players for the franchise for years. But both are showing the inevitable effects of age and attrition, and also command big salaries – Nelson is set to make about $10.2 million this year, and Cobb about $9.5 million.

Some of the hardest and most important personnel decisions are when to move on from good players. The old aphorism that it’s better to do it a year early than a year late is as true today as ever. And that’s what Gutekunst and McCarthy have to think about here.

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Nelson has had a tremendous career, and his chemistry with Aaron Rodgers is off the charts. But Rodgers’ broken collarbone revealed the extent of Nelson’s physical decline. He still knows how to play, but the physical gifts are waning.

Yes, Nelson is a different and much more effective player with Rodgers at the helm. But Nelson also turns 33 in the offseason, so the arrow on his athleticism is pointing down. The Packers can’t assume that in 2018 he’ll be the guy who led the league in touchdown passes (six) before Rodgers was injured in Week 6, or a guy they want on the field down after down after down. When the end comes, it can come fast in the NFL, so the Packers should beware.

Those touchdowns very well might be enough for Gutekunst and McCarthy to bring back Nelson in 2018. Nelson still can be an effective red-zone target, and on third downs as well. But it seems a given that if he’s back, it’s at a lower salary and reduced role. The Packers no longer can view him as a starter, and if Gutekunst and McCarthy decide to move on, nobody should be surprised.

Cobb has more miles left (28 years old next season), but the flip side of his admirable toughness is that he has taken a beating in his seven NFL seasons. That happens to small receivers. Of course, he too is a better player with Rodgers at quarterback – who isn’t? But he was averaging only 9.5 yards a catch before Rodgers was felled. Cobb is a complementary player, too, and needs Adams on the field.

Again, the Packers could justify bringing Cobb back, but only at a reduced salary and role. If they decide to move on, it would only be a mild surprise.

Now, it’s important to say that any salary or rosters cuts with Nelson and Cobb would mean nothing without corresponding moves. If the Packers don’t spend the money saved on new talent, than what’s the point? Just drafting a receiver in the fourth or fifth round won’t do.

Because you can’t say the Packers have a ready-made replacement for their two veteran receivers, either.

Geronimo Allison might be – he’s a big target (6-3) and runs well after the catch for a guy his size. But he has to get past some reliability issues, such as his fumble with just under two minutes to play at Carolina that ended a potential game-tying scoring drive.

The 6-6 Michael Clark is an interesting prospect as well, but he’s too raw to anoint as a regular for the rotation in 2018, let alone a starting-caliber performer.

The Packers will be looking to get both those young players on the field next season. But Gutekunst needs to upgrade his receivers nonetheless.

For that matter, the GM could look to tight end.

McCarthy talks often about how important it is with today’s rules protecting receivers to have big targets to exploit the middle of the field.

Last season it looked like the Packers might have something going in that way after signing tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks as free agents. But Bennett was a bust and Kendricks wasn’t the value signing he looked like he might be. McCarthy got next to nothing out of that position in 2017.

There’s no getting around pass rusher and cornerback ranking high on Gutekunst’s offseason agenda, both in the draft and free agency. But he needs to help the other side of the ball as well.

The Packers need a new receiver or two with wheels, or too much of 2018 will ride on the precarious health of Davante Adams.

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