The Green Bay Packers went from having arguably the most talented and productive receiving corps in the league to a roster with just two standout receivers in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb in just a few years' time.
Rodgers can thank Ted Thompson for that, who, with one eye on the salary cap and another on receiver draft prospects, has rebuilt Green Bay's receiving corps after letting cap-jeopardizing stars Greg Jennings and James Jones walk in free agency.
At the end of the 2011 season, one year removed from their Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Packers finished No. 3 overall in receiving offense, with 5,161 total yards and an average of 322.6 receiving yards per game. They led the league in touchdowns, with 51.
Nelson and Greg Jennings both finished in the top 10 among all receivers in touchdowns, with 15 and nine, respectively. Green Bay was the only team in the league to have three pass-catchers in the top 20 in touchdowns; tight end Jermichael Finley added another eight.
Much of Green Bay's success in 2011, a season in which it finished with 15 wins and just one loss, can be attributed to Aaron Rodgers. But Green Bay's receiving corps of Nelson, Jennings, Finley, Jones, Donald Driver and Cobb combined for 4,434 yards, yet only Nelson had more than 1,000.
The Packers proved in 2011, if there was any doubt, that they were an offense with no true No. 1 receiver. Green Bay pass-catchers, whom Mike McCarthy uses often in four-wide sets, are expected to be able to run every or almost every route on the tree—slant, post, fade or otherwise.
A No. 1 receiver typically means something more than just a go-to target. It generally means a receiver who lines up at the X position, on the outside, more often than the Z or the Y. The reason Nelson is not considered a No. 1 is not because he lacks elite skills, but rather because he lines up all over the field and is not restricted to the X role the way a Larry Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson is.
Of course, to utilize the spread offense effectively, the Packers have to have the personnel. The play below from Week 8 in 2013 showcases Green Bay's receiving corps' versatility; Nelson runs a go route out of the slot while tight end Andrew Quarless is split out wide to the left, Myles White runs a quick comeback route and Jarrett Boykin runs a post.
Driver retired after the 2012 season, which saw him targeted just 13 times despite playing in 13 games. Jennings also had a quiet year in 2012, playing in just eight regular-season games due to a torn abdominal muscle. He finished the season with a career-low 366 receiving yards.
Jennings apparently didn't get the deal he was looking for from the Packers that offseason, after they made an offer averaging about $8 million per season. He accepted a five-year deal worth up to $47.5 million from division rival Minnesota.
Driver and Jennings, a huge part of Green Bay's spread offense, were gone.
In the 2012 season, Finley had played in just six games when he injured his neck after colliding with Cleveland Browns safety Tashaun Gipson. Though Finley had only 300 yards to that point, he had been targeted 34 times—on pace to match his career-high targets in 2011 of 93.
Then, Thompson let Jones—who led the league in touchdowns in 2012, with 14—test the market in free agency. He was slow to receive offers at first, leading some to believe he might return to re-sign with Green Bay, but finally signed a three-year deal worth $11.3 million.
It was surprising that a sum in that neighborhood caused Thompson to shy away from a deal, but it did—and then the Packers were without Finley and Jones.
But Thompson had other plans.
That Thompson has been a keen drafter of receivers in his nine-year tenure in Green Bay has been obvious. Nearly every one of his second-round receiver selections since 2005 has become a starter and a major contributor. Jones was a third-round pickup.
|Ted Thompson's Second-Round WR Selections Since 2005|
|Year||Player||Games Played||Career Yards||Career TDs|
|2005||Terrence Murphy||3 (*neck injury)||36||0|
Plus, there was the surprise emergence of Boykin in 2013, who stepped in after Finley, Cobb and Jones all missed time with injuries. Boykin originally signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars on May 4, 2012, as an undrafted free agent, and when the team waived him on May 8, the Packers signed him one week later.
Though Boykin had a shaky start in his first significant regular-season action against Baltimore in 2013, in which Rodgers targeted him six times but he was only able to bring in one catch, visibly frustrating the quarterback, he quickly found his stride.
By the end of 2013, Boykin had amassed 681 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 13.9 yards per reception. And he improved on his drops; his average catch rate was 65.3 percent, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That was better than 70 percent of receivers who played at least 25 percent of the total snaps.
Heading into the 2014 draft, Thompson knew he could comfortably start Nelson, Cobb and Boykin and that he had Kevin Dorsey, Alex Gillett, Chris Harper and White on the 90-man offseason roster to take into training camp.
But he needed more starters.
So when Fresno State wideout Davante Adams was available at pick No. 53 in Round 2 of the draft, Thompson saw an opportunity for his next receiver success story.
Thompson, Green Bay's scouts and receivers coach Edgar Bennett all felt that Adams had the one skill that all Thompson's second-round receiver selections have had since 2005: ball skills.
"If you get back to it, their ball skills are all remarkable," Thompson said, per Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Jordy and Randall and Greg and those guys. And that's the first and foremost thing we look for. If I was going to get stuck on one thing it would be that."
And now, Adams? Per Silverstein, Thompson was "enamored with" Adams' ball skills. In just two seasons at Fresno State, Adams totaled 233 receptions and 3,030 yards from teammate and now-Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
As for Adams' ability to find the end zone, his tape says it all.
Most important, in terms of Adams' fit in the Packers organization, is his versatility. Bennett said that Adams ran the full route tree at Fresno state—something he may very likely be asked to do in Green Bay.
But Thompson didn't stop at Adams. By the end of the draft, he would add two more receivers and a tight end to give Rodgers the weapons he needs to run Green Bay's spread-style offense.
Wisconsin native Jared Abbrederis—Thompson's first-ever drafted Badger—may have been a huge steal in the fifth round. Before the draft, scouts feared that concussions—as many as three or four—could hurt Abbrederis' draft stock, per Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel. Abbrederis insists he has only had one.
Slightly on the smaller side for Green Bay's outside receivers, at 6'1" and 195 pounds, Thompson may have drafted Abbrederis with his return capabilities in mind. In his career at Wisconsin, Abbrederis returned 55 punts for 587 yards and a score, per Sports-Reference.com.
As for tight end Richard Rodgers, Green Bay's third-round tight end pickup, could he be the pass-catching threat and red-zone target the Packers have been missing in Finley's absence? He joins a group of tight ends which includes the newly re-signed Quarless, Brandon Bostick and Jake Stoneburner, and he would likely have to compete for snaps.
When Thompson added yet another receiver in the seventh round in Saginaw Valley State's Jeff Janis, it was less that he felt the need was there and more that he couldn't pass up the value.
Janis was projected by NFL.com to be taken as high as Rounds 3 or 4. Thompson, who called Janis a "remarkably gifted athlete," per the Journal Sentinel's Lori Nickel, simply couldn't resist the steal.
At 6'3" and 219 pounds, Janis is built similarly to the 6'3", 216-pound Nelson. However, Janis' hands aren't nearly as soft as Nelson's, and he plays bigger and with less finesse. Still, if he makes the roster, he could be an excellent upgrade to the offense in terms of size. Every other receiver currently on the roster is 6'1" or shorter.
The rest of the NFC North continues to improve its receiving corps—Chicago with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett; Detroit with Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Brandon Pettigrew and rookie Eric Ebron; and Minnesota with Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph.
Were it not for Thompson's shrewd ability to fortify an offense that lost the majority of its stars over two seasons, Green Bay could have suddenly found itself with the least dynamic receiving corps in its division. But Thompson understands what ESPN.com's David Newton found after the 2013 season: A No. 1 receiver is not critical to success.
In fact, out of the 12 teams in the NFL that can be considered to have No. 1 receivers, seven finished at or worse than .500.
"Successful offenses are more about successful schemes and balance," Newton wrote. "The teams that achieve balance typically don't need a true No. 1."
As the Packers prepare to start a roster of up to three receivers and two tight ends who did not wear green and gold even two years ago, McCarthy will stress balance and versatility above all else.
"We move our players around. That's the beauty of our receiver group that I've talked about time and time again," McCarthy said in early 2013, per Jim Owczarski of OnMilwaukee.com.
"They give us great flexibility in game planning as far as taking away tendencies of who's in the slot, who's in the 1 spot and so forth. The route trees are diverse—one guy doesn't just run just three routes and one guy doesn't just line up in the number two position. And, that won't change."
McCarthy was right. Because Thompson gave him new weapons in Boykin, Adams, Abbrederis, Richard Rodgers and Janis, the compounded losses of Driver, Jennings, Jones and Finley won't change McCarthy's play-calling or the look of Green Bay's offense in 2014.
Aaron Rodgers has weapons all over the field, and the Packers' new young, cap-friendly receiving corps could keep this team competitive for years to come.