Tom Oates: Packers’ lack of depth at receiver is alarming
At one point during the Green Bay Packers’ offseason practices, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb were out and the first-team offense lined up with Geronimo Allison, DeAngelo Yancey and Jake Kumerow at wide receiver.
Granted, it was just an OTA workout in May, but having that group of inexperienced wide receivers atop the depth chart, however temporarily, should send shivers through the Packers brain trust as the team prepares for training camp in late July.
Of all the hints and clues about the 2018 season that emerged from Green Bay’s rookie camp, OTAs and minicamp, the most unnerving might be this: The Packers are one injury away from a potential disaster at wide receiver.
While that might sound a bit alarmist, the possibility is very real, especially for a team that has an elite quarterback and relies heavily on the passing game. Following the release of longtime starter Jordy Nelson, the wide receiving corps consists of Adams, Cobb and a whole bunch of question marks.
With new general manager Brian Gutekunst thankfully using all of the tools at his disposal, the Packers have filled many holes in their roster since March. Gutekunst’s latest budget free agent signings — offensive lineman Byron Bell and tight end Marcedes Lewis — shored up other potential weak spots in the roster with longtime NFL starters. A few areas of concern remain, but none looks as potentially debilitating as wide receiver.
In evaluating rosters at this time of year, a good approach is to look for areas where a team is so thin in talent or experience that an injury or two could undermine the entire season. At various times in recent years, injuries have hamstrung the Packers at key positions such as safety, offensive tackle, running back, cornerback and quarterback. And wasn’t it just three years ago that Nelson’s season-ending knee injury slowed the offense to a crawl?
For the Packers this summer, the vulnerable position is wide receiver. They use sets with three wide receivers about 75 percent of the time and if Adams and/or Cobb miss games due to injury during the regular season, quarterback Aaron Rodgers might end up throwing to a group consisting of recent mid-round draft picks and former undrafted free agents, all untested.
As Packers, Cobb and Adams have combined for 669 receptions, 7,952 yards and 65 touchdowns. The other eight wide receivers with a chance to make the roster have 47 catches, 590 yards and three touchdowns.
Most of that production has come from Allison, a former undrafted free agent who had been an adequate though inconsistent fill-in for two seasons. Trevor Davis, a fifth-round pick in 2016, has flashed great speed on special teams but not on offense. Michael Clark, a basketball player in college, is an intriguing prospect but played only one season of college football and two games for Green Bay late last season. Yancey, a fifth-round pick in 2017, and UW-Whitewater alum Kumerow were on the practice squad last year but haven’t played in an NFL game.
Gutekunst added to that group during the draft when he picked J’Mon Moore in the fourth round, Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the fifth and Equanimeous St. Brown in the sixth. All possess height and speed but none was projected as an instant-impact player in the NFL.
Allison is the de facto replacement for Nelson in three-receiver sets with Adams and Cobb, leaving the remaining jobs to players who have seen little or no NFL action. Of all the potential backups, the three drafted rookies might have the most talent, especially Moore, who is very smooth. As expected, though, all were inconsistent during workouts.
Problem is, rookies seldom thrive in the complex Packers offense coordinated by coach Mike McCarthy and managed by Rodgers. Even second- and third-round picks such as Greg Jennings, James Jones, Nelson, Cobb, Adams and Ty Montgomery were relegated to secondary roles as rookies, though Jennings picked up the offense faster than most.
Given that, it’s hard to expect mid-round rookies such as Moore, Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown to step in and thrive if called upon.
Jim Hostler, the passing game coordinator, said last week that rookies at perimeter positions typically struggle in the NFL, meaning the odds are against one of the Packers’ rookie wide receivers doing anything of significance right away.
There are ways around a potential shortage of wide receivers, of course. One is to increase the role of the tight ends, something the Packers are equipped to do with free agents Lewis and Jimmy Graham joining holdover Lance Kendricks.
People are fond of saying the 6-foot-7 Graham is little more than a glorified wide receiver anyway, but let’s be realistic here. Graham is 31 and has the wear and tear of eight NFL seasons on his body. The Packers’ problem the past two years has been stretching the field vertically and at this point in his career Graham is much better suited to do that inside than outside.
As for Montgomery possibly switching back to wide receiver, McCarthy has made it clear through words and actions that he considers Montgomery a running back now. In fact, it appears he’s grooming Montgomery for an increased role as a third-down back.
Since it doesn’t appear the Packers have even the slightest interest in Dallas castoff Dez Bryant, they likely will be crossing their fingers throughout the season hoping their top wide receivers stay healthy. As we’ve seen in past seasons, that doesn’t always work.