Dancing Around Driver's Future in Green Bay

The Packers expect "Dancing with the Stars" champion Donald Driver to return to his day job next week in Green Bay. But the chatter about his future in Green Bay has our Matt Tevsh wondering if some are counting out Driver a little too soon.

Donald Driver's run at a mirror ball trophy on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" ended on Tuesday night with a victory.

Will his run with the Packers be over soon?

Stories about the 13-year veteran on various Packers news Web sites in recent weeks have painted an outlook much less sparkling than the newest trophy he will be bringing back to Green Bay.

The Packers already have released two of their longtime veterans, Chad Clifton and Nick Collins, this offseason, and if the trend continues, some think Driver might be next.

But like his performance on the dance floor, Driver has plenty of game and should not yet be counted out. Some of the main reasons he may not be fit for a roster spot (listed below in bold headings) make sense, but only to a point.

Because he makes too much money for a backup

Driver was an expensive commodity last season considering his cap number was nearly $5 million as the No. 3 receiver (based on snap counts by Pro Football Focus). And he played just eight more snaps than No. 4 receiver James Jones, who put up similar statistics yet counted just $2.75 million against the cap.

Driver is scheduled to count $5 million against the cap in 2012 — which includes $2.6 million in base salary and a $2.2 million roster bonus — but he has said publicly he would take a pay cut. The Packers are likely to pursue this option. Driver's contract runs out after the season.

A smaller cap number for Driver would put him in a much different light with regard to his roster status. Instead of the Packers making a decision on his future based primarily on money, they could put him on more of a similar level to Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel, two young players projected to compete for backup spots.

With a reduced salary for Driver, the Packers would have the possibility of keeping six receivers on the roster without being taxed by salary at the position. They may want to anyway, considering how often they run multiple-receiver sets and how they move the football on offense.

Because he is among a wide receiver group loaded with equal or better talent

Clearly known for years as one of the top two receivers on the Packers, Driver no longer falls into that category. Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson are two of the best in the game, Jones has shown flashes of brilliance, and Cobb is a dynamic young talent. Gurley and Borel are basically rookies having spent last season on the practice squad, but each passed up opportunities elsewhere to stay in Green Bay for a chance.

That puts Driver in arguably the toughest competition for a roster spot since 1999, his rookie season.

But Driver always has been about beating the odds, and when push comes to shove, he delivers.

Without Driver, the Packers' receivers group becomes a little less loaded and a little less potent, even if one of the young receivers steps up. And should any receiver miss significant time due to injury, Driver has the ability to step in a produce at any spot better than anyone else.

Say, for example, Jennings or Nelson was lost for the season. Would the Packers be better off in their multiple-receiver formations with Gurley or Borel instead of Driver? Would their offense have to change to accommodate younger players? These are questions they have to ask.

Because of his age and declining skills

Driver is a fossil compared to his teammates. At 37, not only is he the oldest player on the team, but he dwarfs fellow receivers Jennings (28), Jones (28), Nelson (26), and Cobb (21) in age. Mid-to-late 30s is no place for a receiver in the NFL. Just ask Terrell Owens.

Somehow, however, Driver has bucked the trend. While maybe not being able to beat defensive backs straight down the field with his speed anymore, he has not lost his playmaking ability, toughness or wiggle, and has been a shining example of leadership to his position mates. His seven total touchdowns (including the playoffs) in 2011 was the fourth-best total of his 13-year career. And when the stakes were the highest in the playoffs, he was one of the few Packers receivers to make plays.

"It starts with your character," began receivers coach Edgar Bennett, "and he has tremendous character and a great attitude and can still play the game. You add it all together and what Driver has done over his career, and what he's been able to do, I mean, you look at the last game against the Giants and how productive he was. He's one of those guys that's going to make the most of his opportunities. And you think about the type of person, the type of man that he is and all those things add up."

While most of Driver's numbers were down in 2011, he was one of the most effective players in the league in the slot, a demanding spot that can be pivotal to keeping the chains moving. Based on Pro Football Focus statistics, Driver was fifth-best in the league in catch rate (74.4 percent) from the slot among those receivers that played at least 25 percent of their total snaps from the slot. That number was better than Wes Welker (74.0 percent), Victor Cruz (67.0 percent) and Jennings (67.3 percent) among other top receivers.

Though Driver has missed team workouts this offseason, his appearance on "Dancing with the Stars" is evidence enough that he is in great shape and ready to go in 2012. And his tweets would suggest the same.

Because he doesn't play special teams

The Packers might factor in special teams as much as any team when putting together their final roster. That could begin to explain why general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy have put together opening -game squads that included five tight ends and three fullbacks.

For most backup players on the Packers, special teams is part of the job. That puts Driver at a potential disadvantage in earning a roster spot.

But is there any doubt that if the Packers asked him, Driver would contribute on special teams? Could he not be one of the best gunners in the league on punt return coverage? Could he not return punts in a pinch with his knack of getting extra yardage?

The only special teams spot Driver has manned in recent years has been on the "hands" team for onside kick attempts. But if the Packers think outside the box, and consider Driver's intangible worth to this team, he might just be able to contribute elsewhere.


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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