Reasonable doubts

Green Bay's wide receivers have been criticized this season.Yet, many times they've come through. Wide receiver is the number one weak spot on the team as it heads toward free agency and the NFL draft, but the Packers ranked third in the league in passing last year.<p>

Is the cup half full, or has it sprung a leak?

That's one question that Mike Sherman and his staff will have to answer. By all indications, the Packers will beef up the competition at this position by drafting players, and possibly signing a big-name free agent. Just who is anybody's guess at this point. But the Packers definitely could use a receiver with game-breaking ability that Brett Favre has lacked since Antonio Freeman was in his prime in the mid-1990s.

With Bill Schroeder and Corey Bradford due to become unrestricted free agents, and a high salary cap number ahead for Freeman, the Packers will probably have some new faces catching passes from Favre in the upcoming season.

Freeman almost certainly will have to renegotiate the seven-year, $42 million contract that he signed prior to the 1999 season if he is going to remain with the Packers. He is scheduled to count at least $5.7 million against the Packers' salary cap next season. Schroeder has been the Packers' most consistent performer in recent seasons, but may have reached his full potential. Bradford, who missed all but two games of the 2000 season, bounced back to have his best season since 1999, but he has been inconsistent in his four seasons with the Packers.

That leaves Donald Driver, Charles Lee and Robert Ferguson. The three had a combined 16 catches in the regular season. Of the three, Driver came on strong toward the end of the season, not only showing an ability to sacrifice his body and catch passes over the middle, but running the ball on reverses. Lee played in seven games and caught three passes. Ferguson, the team's No. 2 draft pick last year, basically had a red-shirt season. He was used as the team's punt returner against Jacksonville and had one snap from scrimmage. That's it.

Bradford and Driver were used more in the offense late in the season and playoffs, which is a sign that the Packers' coaching staff is gaining more confidence in them. Both have superior physical attributes with big upsides, but the Packers have only seen snapshots of that potential in recent seasons. Lee and Ferguson can shine in practice, but have yet to parlay their practice performances to the network highlight reel.

"With guys like that, it's just getting an opportunity," said Packers offensive coordinator Tom Rossley of Bradford and Driver. "Getting a chance to play. They've practiced hard, they've worked hard. They make plays in practice, they make plays in the game. We've got no doubts to put them in at any time. We've got them plugged in for certain plays and they've responded whenever we've gone to them."

Teasers, for sure, with their youth and talent. But will Bradford, Driver, Lee and Ferguson show enough over the upcoming off-season minicamps and training camp to prove that they can please the Packers and their fans on Sundays in 2002? Can they push Freeman and Schroeder for starting spots? If Freeman is released because of his high salary cap figure, have Bradford and Driver shown enough to take the next step up and start?

They certainly do not lack confidence in their ability.

"Everyone talked about how good their receivers are," said Bradford after he had two catches for 56 yards against the 49ers in the Wild Card playoff. "Have you seen our receivers? We have good receivers. We have six receivers who can step up and start."

Despite Freeman, the Packers have a fast group of receivers. But one dimension isn't always enough to make the necessary separation from defensive backs consistently in the NFL. For the second straight season, running back Ahman Green led the Packers in receiving. That may be the case in the upcoming season as well as more and more teams in the NFL are featuring running backs as part of the short passing game. Or has Favre been dumping the ball off because no one else is getting open?

In order to open up the running game and keep the offense balanced, the Packers have to throw down the field. Last year the Packers receivers benefitted from Favre's ability, experience, feet and arm strength to connect on some longer passes.

"They are guys that Brett (Favre) puts in position to make a lot of plays," said Rams cornerback Dexter McCleon, who has one of six interceptions in St. Louis' NFC Divisional playoff win over Green Bay. "They are hard working guys, they are speed guys and he puts the ball up there and they go up and make plays for him."

Freeman and Schroeder

Sometimes a solid off-season of minicamps and training camp can make all the difference with a younger player who got a taste of the action in the previous season. That could ring true with Green Bay's younger receivers. But it is clear that Freeman's role as the No. 1 receiver has diminished mainly because he does not have the speed that he once had.

"He finds openings, and he finds seams," said McLeon. "He has been there before, he has played on the two Super Bowl teams, so he is going to find a way to get open and make plays for them."

Freeman's attitude has changed for the better. He has realized that he can help the team in other ways besides catching the football. "I just go out and play football," Freeman said after he had six catches for 84 yards and a touchdown against the 49ers.

"When the ball comes my way, you catch it. You run after the catch. That's that. I can't control whatever's going to take place. Right now, I'm a Green Bay Packer. My football team needed me, and I need to be there for them. When it's all said and done, we'll see how it pans out then."

Whether Freeman stays or goes, it is clear that the Packers would be wise to retain Schroeder, who has averaged 989 yards receiving in the last three seasons. Green Bay's offense is difficult to learn and Schroeder has learned it well. He is a straight-line receiver with good speed, and is dangerous catching the ball underneath pass coverages in the middle. When he's mentally into the game, he's the closest thing to a go-to guy that the Packers have. But he has hurt the Packers, especially in a loss to Atlanta this season, with a reluctance to take a hit over the middle from a defensive back, or going all out consistently on pass routes.

Schroeder suffered an ankle sprain that caused him to miss two games this season. When he came back, he seemed to take the easy way out and head for the sideline after catches instead of turning upfield for extra yards.

The rest of 'em

It is uncertain how hard the Packers will pursue re-signing Bradford this off-season. There probably is interest among a number of other teams in him, especially after strong performances in Week 17 against the New York Giants and in the Wild Card playoff against San Francisco. Bradford had three catches for 111 yards and a touchdown against New York, then caught a 51-yard bomb from Favre against San Francisco to set up a touchdown.

Right now, Bradford is one-dimensional – he can go deep and beat almost anybody. If he can become a better route-runner in the off-season, he'll have a chance of starting either for the Packers or whatever team he signs with.

Like Bradford, Driver can jump high and has great speed. As the season has progressed, he has improved in getting open against zone coverages to make key catches. A quadriceps injury hindered his progress midway through the season, causing him to miss three straight games. He had three catches against Baltimore for a season-high 69 yards, but never more than two catches in any other game as the Packers entered their playoff game against St. Louis.

Lee and Ferguson have to improve this off-season or risk being waived or traded. As a high draft pick, Ferguson should be able to contribute in the near future. Ferguson's progress was slowed because of a back injury during minicamp and training camp. When he returned to get his most extensive action in the final preseason game against Oakland, he was the victim of a cheap shot over the middle and suffered a concussion.

Ferguson is only 22 years old. But he needs to make a move in the off-season, or he could be moved off the roster. Same with Lee. Through two seasons he has shown the ability in practice. When he's gotten his chance in games, that ability has never come to the surface.

Lee is a big receiver (6-foot-2, 205) and could be a great target for Favre. He had three catches and his first-ever touchdown in garbage time against Minnesota last October. Lee then caught two passes for 29 yards against Tampa Bay the following week, including a 23-yard catch. But then he wasn't asked to suit up for five of the last six regular season games and the playoffs.

Lee's fate with the Packers is up for grabs. When he gets an opportunity in the upcoming preseason, he's going to have to make the most of it.

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