Dougherty: Packers smart to seek explosive wide receivers

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Los Angeles Rams receiver Sammy Watkins (12) scores a touchdown during the second half on Dec. 2 against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium.

If Brian Gutekunst wants to make a bold move to improve the Green Bay Packers, how about this: Sign Sammy Watkins or Allen Robinson.

The Packers general manager has plenty of other immediate needs (think cornerback, among others), but he could add some punch to his offense by signing either Watkins or Robinson, the two most talented receivers on the open market.

Of course, to do so Gutekunst would have to cut either Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb. So be it. This move makes too much sense not to consider. When I texted a front-office executive in the league late last week about swapping out Nelson or Cobb for one of the two free agents, his response was yes.

“I like both (Watkins and Robinson),” he said.

Would Gutekunst make such a big move? On Monday afternoon, we learned it’s at least a possibility. The NFL Network reported the Packers have shown interest in both. It’s hard to imagine this would have been even a possibility under the Packers’ previous regime.

Of course, signing either Watkins or Robinson carries more than the usual risk, mostly on the injury front.

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Watkins has never produced up to his draft status (No. 4 overall in the 2014 draft), and in 2016 he missed eight games because of a Jones fracture in his foot that required two surgeries. That kind of injury always is a concern at a position that has to run as much a receiver.

He also has never caught more than 65 passes in any of his four seasons, and caught only 39 last year after the Buffalo Bills traded him to the Los Angeles Rams in training camp.

On the other hand, Watkins has really good size (6-0¾, 211 pounds coming out of college) and speed (4.43 40). He also has 25 touchdown catches in 52 NFL games and a career average of 15.9 yards per reception. He’s a true big-play threat. He’s also young (25 in June).

Watkins brings to mind the Packers’ signing of Jared Cook two years ago. Like Cook, Watkins has underachieved while playing with lower-caliber quarterbacks — in Buffalo his quarterbacks were Kyle Orton, EJ Manuel and Tyrod Taylor, and with the Rams, it was the promising but still young Jared Goff.

Once Cook recovered from a bad ankle injury in his lone season with the Packers, he thrived playing with Aaron Rodgers and became a key part of coach Mike McCarthy’s offense. Watkins very well could do the same. You have think he’d find the possibility attractive.

Green Bay Packers cornerback Quinten Rollins (24) defends Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson (15) in the fourth quarter on Sept. 10, 2016, at EverBank Field.

Robinson, on the other hand, is coming back from a torn ACL in last season’s opener. He should have a good shot at being ready by the start of training camp but probably won’t take part in any offseason work.

He’s young also — turns 25 in August — so it’s not like this injury is going to end his career. But you never know how much a player will lose after ACL surgery, and players often say they don’t feel like their old selves until two years after surgery. So there’s some real risk here.

On the other hand, though Robinson doesn’t have anything like Watkins’ speed and ran only a 4.60 40 coming out of Penn State, he has tremendous size (6-2⅝, 220) and leaping ability (39-inch vertical). In 2015, he caught 80 passes for 14 touchdowns and had a 17.5-yard average, and in ’16 he had 73 catches, though only six touchdowns and a 12.1-yard average. And that’s with Blake Bortles as his quarterback.

As for what either Watkins or Robinson will get on the open market, their recent histories might mean they’re better off signing short-term deals. One possibility is that either or both will be willing to sign a one-year, prove-it contract. Then if they play well, they’ll hit it big on the open market again next offseason.

If that’s the case, you’d have to think the Packers would be very appealing because of Rodgers. What better way to give yourself the best possible shot at a big season than playing with him?

Even if it’s a one-year deal, though, they’re still probably going to sign for big money. The best guess is they’ll come in anywhere from $10 million to maybe $14 million each. Watkins should be the more expensive of the two because he’s healthy.

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The Packers have just under $21 million in cap space at the start of free agency, but they have plenty of needs, so that’s not a lot of money to work with. Gutekunst needs to sign a starting cornerback, probably another backup, and a starting tight end. He also could use a bargain fallback starter at right guard and maybe right tackle, and he’s trying to sign former New York Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, who won’t be cheap.

So to add either Watkins or Robinson, the Packers would have to clear big money off their cap by cutting Nelson or Cobb. Cutting Nelson would save above $10.25 million, and Cobb about $9.5 million.

Basically, the question comes down to, would the Packers rather have Watkins or Robinson (both 25 at the start of next season) at the cost of an extra couple million dollars, instead of Nelson (33 in May) or Cobb (28 in August)? Is that really a tough call?

As we’ve said here before, Nelson and Cobb have played really good football for the Packers for a long time and helped win a lot of games. Both have displayed toughness to go with talent and are guys you want in your locker room.

But to sustain winning in the NFL, you have to move on from feeling loyalty to players you like.

Maybe, just maybe, this is why the Packers haven’t done anything with either Nelson or Cobb so far. Maybe Gutekunst is waiting to see whether he can sign Watkins or Robinson (or another receiver) before deciding on his own guys.

As for whom to cut if this by chance comes to pass, it could go either way, because either can play slot receiver with Davante Adams and the new guy manning the outside. I’d probably cut Nelson because of his age, but there’s nearly as good an argument to keep him for one more year because of his chemistry with Rodgers.

Maybe, too, Gutekunst would retain Nelson on the contingency that he takes a pay cut that would free up even more cap room. Late last season Nelson said he was open to the possibility. Cobb, on the other hand, might balk at a pay cut and prefer to be released, thinking he’s young enough to get a good contract on the open market.

These are interesting days around the Packers. We’re going to learn a lot about Gutekunst in his first offseason calling the personnel shots. He has a chance to make a bold and unexpected move at receiver. Will he do it?


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