With 11 days until the start of training camp, we continue our position previews with the wide receivers.
Starters: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams. Backups: Ty Montgomery, Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis, Trevor Davis, Ed Williams, Jamel Johnson, Geronimo Allison, Herb Waters.
Coming: Davis (fifth round), Allison (undrafted), Waters (undrafted). Going: None.
No. 3: There’s no doubt that Nelson and Cobb are the starting pair, but who will join them in the team’s preferred three-receiver sets?
Adams, a second-round pick in 2014, held that role in each of his first two seasons. However, after an abysmal second season in which he caught 50 passes for 483 yards and one touchdown with six drops, that 50-snaps-per-game role won’t be handed to him.
Just how bad was his season from a historical perspective? Pro Football Reference provides the ugly answers in this comparison of all wide receivers with at least 50 catches since 2000. Adams’ 9.66-yard average per catch would be the 15th-lowest. Adams and Peter Warrick (Cincinnati, 2001) are the only receivers with an average of 9.7 yards or less and a catch rate of 54 percent or less. Finally, Adams averaged 5.14 yards per passing target — the sixth-lowest figure over the past 16 seasons.
The question? Is Adams just not very good, as those numbers would indicate? Or were his struggles linked to an early-season ankle injury and he has a chance to live up to last year’s hype?
The list of challengers appears strong, and it’s possible the Packers might divide the No. 3 reps between two or three players rather than going with a true No. 3.
Janis has delivered at times — two catches for 79 yards vs. San Diego and, of course, seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the playoff loss at Arizona. But he caught just 2-of-12 targeted passes during the season, and his weekly preparation failed to give him opportunities for extended playing time.
“It’s about route-running and taking that jump in a comfort level out there,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “When he can stop thinking so much and react more, you see the athletic ability. He’s obviously gifted very well with his athleticism, his jumping ability and his speed. He just needs to get to a level where he’s not thinking as much and his instincts take over.”
Abbrederis has delivered when healthy, but injuries have been an ongoing issue. For instance, he caught four passes for 57 yards in the failed comeback vs. Detroit, but sustained a chest/rib injury in that game and missed the next two games. He’s focused on getting stronger so he can withstand the punishment.
“I’d still like to gain a little bit coming up here,” he said. “This offseason, I tried to work on the more intricate smaller muscles within the larger groups just to help with injury prevention. I think a lot of the times you can try to focus on the ones that look good, but I really tried to focus on the more intricate ones to hopefully help with injury prevention.”
Speaking of injuries, Montgomery looked like a budding standout as a rookie until he sustained an ankle injury in the sixth game that eventually landed him on injured reserve. He averaged 9.1 yards on 15 receptions, 4.7 yards on three rushes and a sizzling 31.1 yards on seven kickoff returns.
Can the rookie Davis get into the mix? He was one of the fastest players at the Scouting Combine, with a 4.42-second 40-yard dash, but he’s more than just speed. Davis had a strong senior season at Cal, with his 9.6 yards after the catch per catch leading the entire receiver class and his drop rate of 1.85 percent ranking fourth among receivers with at least 30 receptions. Davis impressed during offseason practices, but that wasn’t against the physical press coverage he’ll see on a daily basis once the pads are on.
“His mentality and approach is awesome,” first-year receivers coach Luke Getsy said. “He’s working really hard. It matters a lot to him, you can tell. And he’s attacking everything every single day. I love his mentality.”
End of depth chart: The Packers probably will keep six receivers, but it’s going to be hard to keep all of the aforementioned seven because the long-term uncertainty on the offensive line and the excellent depth at that position might necessitate the team keeping nine or 10 blockers. Who makes it? Nelson and Cobb are locks, and Janis (special teams) and Montgomery (versatility) probably are, too. If everyone stays healthy, that means Adams, Abbrederis and Davis are the front-runners in what could be a battle for two spots.
“I think he has a lot of potential,” Rodgers said of Adams. “He’s a talented guy. He’s very athletic. He can do a lot of things out there. For him, it’s just continue to stack confidence. If you look at the receiving corps, it’s very deep and there’s some good young guys. But after Jordy and Randall, we’re looking for guys to step up and fill those voids. I think there’s going to be some incredible competition this year between the young guys. There’s a lot of guys who are going to be in the mix, and it’s going to come down to preparation and confidence and playing with confidence and if they’re contributing on special teams. I look forward to seeing that shake out.”
IF THIS HAPPENS ...
If Nelson returns to form following last year’s torn ACL, this offense could border on unstoppable. Nelson was nothing short of dominant in 2014, with 98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2014 — one of only seven seasons in NFL history with at least those numbers in those three categories. Moreover, Nelson caught five touchdown passes of at least 59 yards. That was more 59-yard catches — touchdown or nontouchdown — than 30 of the other 31 teams. The result? Green Bay led the NFL in scoring. Without Nelson? The Packers scored 118 fewer points, gained 825 yards and tumbled from 47.2 percent on third down to 33.7 percent.
Expect the team to bring him along slowly — much to Nelson’s frustration — especially with an extra week of training camp.
“I don’t think you can be scared of it,” Nelson said. “I wasn’t scared of it before it happened. I won’t be scared of it to happen again. The way it happened in Pittsburgh, you can’t prevent that. You can’t run from it. Eventually, you have to practice. Eventually, you have to play in a game, and I’m going to play in the preseason, so I need it. Everyone’s scared of it, but I’m not. You can’t run from it. You have to get out there sometime.”
Cobb: Without Nelson, the pressure was on Cobb — and his huge new contract — to carry the passing game. He couldn’t do it. Part of it was early-season injuries, specifically a preseason shoulder injury. Part of it was the fallout of the Nelson injuries, with defenses no longer fearing the long ball and therefore taking away the underneath game.
Cobb went from 91 receptions for 1,287 yards (14.1 average) and 12 touchdowns in 2014 to 79 receptions for 829 yards (10.5 average) and six touchdowns in 2015. That’s a reduction of 12 receptions, 458 yards, 3.6 yards per reception and six touchdowns. Cobb scored just two touchdowns over the final 13 regular-season games. Moreover, he went from a 71.7 percent catch rate to 61.2 percent, 10.1 yards per target to 6.4, and 6.8 yards after the catch per catch to 5.7.
“I’m really excited. I’m really excited about this year,” Cobb said. “Yeah, there was a lot of things going on last year but none of that stuff matters. I didn’t perform at the capacity that I know I can perform at. At the end of the day, nobody cares about what you had going on. Did you play well or did you not? I’m the only one who can change that.”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.