Battle No. 1: Who’s No. 4?
This is a key battle, based on history alone.
During Aaron Rodgers’ first six seasons as the starting quarterback, the team’s fourth-leading wide receivers -- Cobb (31 in 2013), Greg Jennings (36 in 2012), Donald Driver (37 in 2011), Nelson (45 in 2010), Nelson (22 in 2009) and James Jones (20 in 2008) -- combined to average 31.8 receptions.
Whoever emerges as that fourth receiver, inexperience is going to be an issue. Beyond the Big Three of Nelson, Cobb and Boykin, there are three second-year players (Myles White, Kevin Dorsey and Chris Harper), a first-year player (Alex Gillett) and three rookies (second-rounder Davante Adams, fifth-rounder Jared Abbrederis and seventh-rounder Jeff Janis). Whether it’s injuries or the potential lack of an impact tight end, one of those young receivers will have to be ready to play.
“That’s why, mindset-wise, you’re always thinking, ‘At some point, I’m the guy,’” receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. “Unfortunately in this business, injuries occur, so you can never sit in that room thinking, ‘I’ve got time.’ Because if you sit in that room thinking you’ve got time, No. 1, you’re going to leave the room — you are, you’re going to leave the room — and No. 2, you’re not going to be mentally ready. You may have some understanding of what we want you to do, but you’re not going to be mentally ready to go when your opportunity strikes. You’ve got to go in there each and every day thinking, ‘I’m the guy.’ When I turn that tape on and I watch Jordy Nelson run a route, I’m learning from that. ‘How would I react in that same situation? Would I use that same release? Am I going to use that same hand to get off that press? Am I going to accelerate and get the guy off his grasp?’ They have to literally jump in that position and learn from that mental rep and then do it out on the practice field.”
That’s exactly what Boykin did last season. Last season, he started the season as No. 4 on the depth chart and barely saw any action on offense in the first four games. Due to injuries, he caught 49 passes for 681 yards and three touchdowns during the final 12 games.
Boykin presumably will be the No. 3 receiver due to Jones’ free-agent departure, so who’s No. 4? The Packers have plenty of options, led by rookies Adams and Abbrederis, who could share the role as fourth receiver due to their varied skill-sets.
Adams put up ridiculous numbers in two numbers at Fresno State. With Derek Carr (second round, Oakland) throwing the ball in a pass-happy spread offense, Adams caught 233 passes for 3,030 yards and 38 touchdowns. In terms of touchdowns per career game, Adams ranks among the all-time NCAA leaders. NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas called Adams “James Jones Jr.” due to the similarities in their styles. Adams isn’t fast but he’s big, powerful and knows how to pile up yards after the catch.
“When I say I’m competing against myself, it’s because I know I’m going to go out there and I’m going to catch the ball,” Adams said. “But you’ve got to keeping showing the coaches things and keep showing your quarterback and you’ve got make sure you instill faith in all your teammates that you’re going to go out there and keep making plays for them. Otherwise, you’re not going to get the ball and they’re going to forget about you.”
Adams dropped too many passes during the offseason practices, which was an issue pointed out by Thomas before the draft, but Bennett didn’t sound concerned.
“He has good hands,” Bennett said. “He has good hands, strong hands, shows all the ability to catch the ball away from his body, pin the ball, go up and attack the ball at the high point. Shows the flexibility to adjust to the football. Overall, we felt like he had good hands.”
While big things are expected from Adams, perhaps Abbrederis will have the bigger impact as a rookie because of his ability to play a Wes Welker-style role as a slot receiver. Abbrederis, a former walk-on who tied the Wisconsin school record with 202 career catches, isn’t big and he isn’t fast but he’s quick, smart and has excellent hands. Unless one of the tight ends emerges (or Jermichael Finley is able to resume his career and re-signs), the Packers might run more four-receiver sets than in past seasons. While Nelson has the versatility to play in the slot, their best four-receiver grouping might wind up being Nelson and Boykin on the outside and Cobb and Abbrederis in the slot.
Battle No. 2: Who’s No. 5 (and 6)?
While the No. 4 receiver is a big deal, the Packers haven’t gone to their fifth receiver too often. White (nine in 2013), Donald Driver (eight in 2012), Cobb (25 in 2011), Brett Swain (six in 2010) and Ruvell Martin (15 in 2008), who finished fifth among the wide receivers in those seasons, combined to average 12.6 receptions during Rodgers’ tenure. The fifth receiver didn’t even catch a pass in 2009.
It’s a good bet that Adams and Abbrederis will be Nos. 4 and 5 but they are rookies and, more often than not, rookies struggle during their rookie seasons. So, it certainly wouldn’t be a shock for White, Harper or Dorsey to make a run at playing time.
Beyond the Big Three, only White has caught a pass in a regular-season game. In seven games as an undrafted rookie last season, he caught nine passes for 66 yards, including a five-reception game at Minnesota. He might be the fastest receiver on the roster, and his bulked-up frame should be better able to handle the rigors of the NFL.
“Myles is a smaller guy, but he’s gotten a little bigger. He’s quick, he’s hard to handle in there in the slot because of his quickness,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said.
Dorsey, a seventh-round pick last year, spent the season on injured reserve. He’s got a nice combination of size and speed. Harper, a fourth-round pick by Seattle last season who failed to stick with the Seahawks and 49ers before joining the Packers at midseason, is from the same mold as Boykin and Adams as a powerful receiver with good hands. He was starting to open some eyes before he missed the last three weeks of offseason practices with an injured hamstring.
“The competition is good but I don’t ever look at it,” Harper said. “I know I’m competing with them in my head but I’m trying to start with Jordy and Randall and those guys. It’s not like I’m trying to play a numbers game or looking at it like that, because I want to play. You’re a team but you want to be on the field every play. That’s the way I look at it.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com, and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.