Assessing the North: Wide receivers
Starters – Johnny Knox, Roy Williams. Backups – Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, Dane Sanzenbacher.
Knox started slowly and was somewhat of a disappointment. Then, shortly after a three-game stretch in which he caught 12 passes for 295 yards, he suffered a horrifying, season-ending back injury. He has deep speed and is a big-play threat, but it remains to be seen how well he recovers. Williams had 37 receptions, same as Knox, but Knox had 727 yards, 220 more than Williams, who was a disappointment in all phases.
Hester regressed as a wide receiver for the second straight season, and he might be better off focusing almost exclusively on punt and kickoff returns. He still seems uncertain as a route runner and has some inexplicable drops. Bennett has the most reliable hands of the group and is the best option underneath because of his toughness, but he missed more than a third of the season with a chest injury. He is more in sync with Cutler than anyone else is, but his production plummeted after Cutler was hurt. Sanzenbacher can be effective underneath with his quickness and smarts, but he needs to limit his drops.
Starters – Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson and Titus Young. Backups – Rashied Davis, Maurice Stovall, Stefan Logan.
Critics wondered how good Johnson could be if he had a quality quarterback throwing to him. How's this – 96 catches, 1,681 yards, 16 touchdowns. He saw every kind of junk coverage and tilted defense imaginable and he still managed to be that productive. The worry, though, is that his contract is up after 2012. His cap number is close to $20 million for next year, so it would behoove the Lions to work out a long-term deal for him now.
Burleson and Young gave offensive coordinator Scott Linehan what he's been yearning for the last two seasons – complementary weapons to make teams pay for over-covering Johnson. Both started slow but finished fast. Combined, they produced 121 catches, 1,364 yards and nine touchdowns.
Davis and Stovall were primarily used on special teams. Stovall was a bit of a disappointment. He had some drops early and the coaching staff lost confidence in him. Both are free agents, but the Lions will work to bring Davis back. Logan, aside from his return work, was used as a wideout and a running back.
Green Bay Packers
Starters – Greg Jennings, Donald Driver. Backups – Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb. Injured reserve: Shaky Smithson.
Rodgers' embarrassment of riches on the receiving end of his throws was exemplified by the production of the deepest collection of playmakers in the league. Each of the five wideouts had at least 25 receptions – a first in team history. Jennings earned a Pro Bowl nod for the second straight year with 67 receptions for 949 yards and nine touchdowns, but a fourth straight 1,000-yard season fell by the wayside because of a torn MCL that kept him out of the final three regular-season games before he returned for the playoffs.
Jennings' absence allowed Nelson to become the team's most productive receiver with breakout numbers of 68 catches for 1,263 yards (18.6 yards per catch) and 15 touchdowns. Nelson still was no better than No. 3 on the depth chart. Driver, the team's most-tenured player who completed his 13th season, was a starter in name only as his playing time and production (37 catches, 445 yards, six touchdowns) plummeted greatly. He turns 37 on Feb. 2 and may be bidding adieu to Green Bay, though he has a year left on his contract.
Jones made the most of his limited contributions with 38 catches for an average of 16.7 yards and seven TDs. Cobb split time with Driver in the slot, and the speedy rookie is adept at creating yards after the catch (average of 15 per reception). Undrafted rookies Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel spent all season on the practice squad and will push to make the 53-man roster next season.
Starters – Percy Harvin, Devin Aromashodu. Backups – Greg Camarillo, Emmanuel Arceneaux. Injured reserve – Michael Jenkins, Stephen Burton.
Harvin was the only legitimate starting-caliber receiver left on the 53-man roster when the season ended. And he's a small but tough slot receiver who's more suited as a No. 2- or No. 3-type threat. He caught a career-high 87 passes for 967 yards and six touchdowns. No one else on the receiver-depleted roster had more than 38 catches. The team desperately needs to find a legitimate No. 1 receiver that can play outside and create mismatches down the field. Jenkins is a big receiver, but doesn't have the speed or ball skills to be that mismatch. Because of a knee injury, he played only 11 games. Yet he still finished second on the team in catches with 38. He can help the team in 2012, but only as a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver.
Aromashodu is an unrestricted free agent and isn't a priority for a team that needs a major upgrade in talent at the position. Camarillo, an aging slot receiver, also is a free agent and won't be brought back. Emmanuel Arceneaux, a former CFL star, doesn't stand out and will be a long shot to make the team. Burton, a rookie who played in three games, did nothing to distinguish himself. Other than Harvin and Jenkins, the team could get by without the entire position and start over.
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