Jennings battles the odds

Packers depending on rookie to contribute in 2006, but history says it will be a challenge

When the Green Bay Packers traded wide receiver Javon Walker to Denver it officially left a huge void in the Packers' passing game – who's the big-time playmaker?

Some may say Donald Driver, but the veteran is a quality No. 2 receiver, who in a pinch can be No. 1 (for a short time). However, Driver, who'll enter 2006 as the Packers' go-to guy, isn't Walker (when healthy), Steve Smith, Randy Moss, Tory Holt, Terrell Owens or even Joe Horn.

With that in mind, what will the Packers' passing game look like? Nobody knows for sure, but the Packers took a step in trying to make up for Walker's loss in the second round of the NFL draft by selecting Western Michigan wide receiver Greg Jennings, who some teams rated as the No. 2 receiver in the draft behind Ohio State's Santonio Holmes.

Jennings led the nation last season, averaging 8.91 catches per game and was second in yards, 114.45 per game. Impressive numbers, but most point out that came against the likes of Ball State, Miami (Ohio), Central Michigan and others in the Mid-American Conference.

If these numbers came in the Big Ten or ACC, then we'd be talking about a first-round gem. Instead, Jennings will have to prove he's a diamond in the rough, capable of helping the Packers this season. Is this realistic?

Packers history tells us no.

The last three wide receivers selected in the second round by the Packers were Terrence Murphy (2005), Robert Ferguson (2001) and Derrick Mayes (1996).

Murphy was released this off-season after sustaining a spinal injury last season, which has at least put his career on hold if not on ice. Prior to that, Murphy was a spot player and caught three passes.

Ferguson has been an underachiever, who in his rookie season barely played after showing a work ethic comparable to a corpse. He had no catches as a rookie.

Mayes had great hands (all you had to do was ask him), but he had six catches as a rookie as the Packers won the Super Bowl.

This doesn't mean Jennings is destined to have a quiet rookie season, but it shows how difficult it is for a rookie to make an impact as a wide receiver. What Jennings has going for him is the Packers desperately need him to play like he did in college.

The Packers' receiving corps outside of Driver is a joke. Rod Gardner is a former No. 1 pick, who has seen two teams (Washington and Carolina) give up on him. Marc Boerigter is a possession receiver, which is a nice was of saying he has no speed. And Ferguson will get hurt. It's as automatic as Brett Favre starting at quarterback. Jennings has everything in his favor, except that he's a rookie.

Assuming Jennings comes along slowly in the passing game, let's go back to the original question of this column: what will the passing game look like?

Without a true deep threat, or go-to guy, Favre might be able to get away with throwing passes with the arm strength of a Danny Wuerffel, who couldn't throw a football through a wet paper sack in his hey day.

The passing game will likely be one of slants, flat passes to running backs and seam passes to tight ends. The "home-run" ball Favre likes to throw (too much sometimes) might be as ancient as Barry Bonds' head size dipping below a 9. Receivers will have to gain yards after the catch, which isn't always easy. Jennings, though, has that skill.

"I take a lot of pride in my route running and also running after the catch and being a playmaker," Jennings said. "That was one of the things Brett needed last year, and hopefully I can and will be able to give it to him."

If Jennings can't infuse some spark, this is a concern, because if the Packers can't force the defense to respect passing plays beyond 20 yards, the defense will gang up on receivers, bump them, having no fear of getting beat deep. Also, the running backs will see a lot of safeties creep up near the line of scrimmage to make plays. Jennings was productive in college, recording three straight 1,000-yard seasons, but being productive in college is one thing, making it happen in the NFL is completely different. All Jennings has to do is look at Gardner as an example.

Be that as it may, Jennings has a chance maybe no other rookie wide receiver has this season - he has a chance to become a focal point of his team's passing game. History says he won't do it, but the Packers need him to. It's the only way the passing game can become explosive.

Doug Ritchay

Editor's note: Doug Ritchay is a regular contributor to E-mail him at

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