For the first time since Mike Sherman's stomach-turning 2004 draft, the Packers didn't draft a single skill-position player in the 2009 draft. (No offense to block-first fullback Quinn Johnson.)
But that doesn't mean that Ted Thompson and Co. didn't add any skill players to the mix. After the draft, the Packers signed a whopping four wide receivers, even though that position is the strongest on the team. Throw in practice-squad holdovers Brett Swain, Jake Allen and Lorne Sam, and the Packers have 12 receivers on their roster.
Or, perhaps more accurately, they have seven players gunning for Ruvell Martin's spot on the roster.
The 6-foot-4 Martin scratched and clawed his way to the NFL. An undrafted free agent out of Division II Saginaw Valley State, Martin failed to make the San Diego Chargers' roster in 2004 and 2005.
In 2006, he hauled in 21 passes for 358 yards (17.0 average) and one touchdown. He followed that in 2007 with 16 catches for 242 yards (15.1 average) and an impressive four touchdowns.
Another solid year was expected in 2008. Not only was Martin another year more experienced, but his good friend Aaron Rodgers was the quarterback. Both talked about the chemistry they had developed running the scout teams the previous two years. Instead, Martin managed just 15 catches for 149 yards (9.9 average) and one touchdown. His longest reception was 17 yards — the same figure as his average catch in 2006.
With the regular season still 12 weeks away, it would be an upset if Martin — retained with the lowest restricted free agent tender of $1.01 million — doesn't return and give the Packers their same receiving quintet as a year ago. He remains a useful role player and a solid blocker. But while his spot on the roster was all but a formality last summer, he'll face more than a few challengers this year.
Leading the charge will be Swain, the forgotten seventh-round pick from last year's draft. Last year at this time, he was a 6-foot, 194-pound rookie from San Diego State, his head swimming while trying to digest the playbook. Now, he's up to 203 pounds. He's noticeably stronger in the upper body, which will help him beat press coverage, and he says core training has improved his quickness and agility. Plus, he's much more confident in his knowledge of the offense, and he's doing the extra work it takes to be a pro.
"I think Brett had a very, very good year on the practice squad," receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said at the end of last season. "He's a guy who has a lot of natural tools. He catches the ball well. He's quick, he's fast. He just needs to play. He had a full year of practicing every day against a pretty good secondary."
Joining Swain on the practice squad for the entire season was Jake Allen. The former Division III star from Mississippi College is an intriguing target at 6-foot-4. Like Swain last year, Allen made his share of mental and physical errors during training camp, but tall receivers who can run don't grow on trees. His potential was evident when he outjumped defenders to catch a 22-yard touchdown as time expired in the preseason finale against Tennessee.
Sam joined Swain and Allen on the practice squad in December. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by Denver following the 2008 draft. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder was a reserve wide receiver at Florida State before transferring to Texas-El Paso, where he played running back and quarterback. His size and genes — brother P.K. Sam has bounced around the league and is now with Buffalo — make him worth a look.
Williams (6-foot-1, 204 pounds) finished his career with 107 receptions for 1,116 yards and three touchdowns, including career highs of 30 receptions, 322 yards and two touchdowns as a senior. The Packers like his hands.
Harris (6-foot, 193) and Heckendorf (6-2, 191) played at Football Championship Subdivision schools, so they'll be facing big jumps in competition.
Harris has football in his genes — his dad was drafted by the Vikings and his cousin is Jerry Rice. As a senior, he caught 70 passes for 966 yards and 11 touchdowns. Maybe more importantly for his prospects, he averaged 23.2 yards on 13 kickoff returns last season and returned one for a touchdown as a freshman. The Packers need to improve last year's last-ranked kickoff return.
Heckendorf, who grew up a Packers fan in the north-central Wisconsin community of Mosinee, is the school's career leader with 178 receptions for 2,732 yards. He scored 17 touchdowns as a four-year starter. The Packers thought enough of him to give him a $4,000 signing bonus, but with his rail-thin frame, he might need a year of seasoning on the practice squad.
Perhaps the biggest challenger for a roster spot — physically and literally — is Simmons. At 6-foot-2 and 231 pounds, he doesn't look like a receiver, but he was extremely productive at Western Michigan. He broke three of Greg Jennings' school records with 104 receptions for 1,276 yards as a senior and 260 career catches. He had monster games against Illinois as a senior and Florida State as a junior, and Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit was stunned that he didn't get drafted.
With Martin being a known quantity, the odds are against any of the young receivers breaking into the lineup. But they're all talented enough to break through.
"It's not where you start, it's where you finish," coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's a legitimate opportunity, no doubt about it. Now, they may not be the first guy in line. They may be the second guy or third guy, but every single one of those guys will be given an opportunity."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.