June in the NFL is a time for shorts, helmets and unbounded optimism.
The Green Bay Packers are no exception.
After three rounds of organized team activities (OTAs) and a mandatory minicamp, both quarterback Aaron Rodgers and offensive coordinator Tom Clements—two men not known to make outlandish comments, regardless of the time of year—have thrown around great praise for Green Bay's newly constructed set of wide receivers.
Each respected student of the game believes the Packers' receivers in 2014 could be as strong from top to bottom as any in the Rodgers era.
“It’s a deep group,” Rodgers said following OTAs last week, via Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee. “I think it could be as deep a group as we’ve had here.”
Rodgers, a first-round pick of the Packers in 2005, became Green Bay's starter in 2008. Clements joined the Packers coaching staff in 2006.
“We have a large group now at receiver,” Clements said Tuesday, via Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "There’s going to be outstanding competition and the guys who finally make it are going to be very good players. So I think the wide receiver group is probably the deepest that I can recall. There are some young guys who are performing well."
Both sets of comments must be considered the highest praise from Rodgers and Clements, who have each worked with a number of talented and deep receiving groups over the last decade or so. But does the 2014 batch have any chance at beating the outputs seen in Green Bay in 2007, 2010-11 or 2012?
|Packers WRs, 2008-2013|
In 2007, Driver (1,048), Jennings (920) and Jones (676) all broke 600 yards. Three years later, in 2010, Jennings, Driver, Jones and Nelson all caught at least 45 passes for 500 or more yards. The four caught 23 of team's 31 touchdown passes that season.
By 2011, Cobb was taking away snaps from Driver, but the Packers still received 1,263 yards from Nelson, 949 from Jennings, 635 from Jones, 474 from Driver and 375 from Cobb. No five receivers in the NFL had more combined yards or touchdowns.
The next season, the Packers added Jarrett Boykin as the team's sixth receiver. The depth was so good that Driver, the franchise's all-time leader in receptions but who was then 37 years old, caught just eight passes the entire season.
Needless to say, past receiving groups in Green Bay have set the bar high for the crew in 2014.
The Packers should enter training camp in late July with the following receivers on the 90-man roster, sorted by NFL experience: Nelson, Cobb, Boykin, Chris Harper, Kevin Dorsey, Myles White, Alex Gillett, Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis.
There's a case to be made for all 10 receivers and their individual chances of making the final 53-man club.
Nelson, Cobb and Boykin are locks, while Adams, a second-round pick in May's draft, might as well be. If Adams pans out—and Packers' receivers picked in the second round historically have—Green Bay will possess one of the NFL's best receiver groups from one to four.
Nelson is a verified No. 1, with two 1,200-yard seasons and 30 touchdowns since 2011. Maybe no receiver—including Greg Jennings and Donald Driver—has earned a bigger share of Rodgers' trust. His numbers reflect the quarterback-receiver connection; Nelson sits at No. 13 in the NFL in receiving yards and sixth in touchdowns over the last three seasons.
Cobb has all the makings of a 1a receiver, provided he's on the field. After catching 80 passes for 954 yards and eight scores in 2012, his first season in a full-time role, Cobb began 2013 on a 100-catch, 1,300-yard pace—only to suffer a broken leg in Week 6. He missed 10 games but still finished with 433 yards and four touchdowns in six games.
Boykin seized his opportunity with Cobb out last season, establishing himself as a legitimate No. 3 for the Packers offense and giving general manager Ted Thompson freedom to let James Jones walk in free agency. The former undrafted free agent caught 49 passes for 681 yards and three scores. While not straight-line fast, Boykin impressed with a number of acrobatic catches in big situations in 2013.
Adams rounds out the four-man group that should see the most action from Rodgers next season. The NCAA's leader in catches (132) last season, Adams brings production and potential to the next level. He plays the game in a similar fashion as Jones, the man he's replacing in Green Bay. But there's also flashes in his college tape of Dez Bryant, Michael Crabtree and Hakeem Nicks, a tantalizing blend of top NFL receivers from which to mold a rookie from.
Bleacher Report's Chris Simms and Adam Lefkoe broke down Adams' potential impact in the video below:
Considering the relative security of the first four positions, the big decisions for the Packers will come in filling in out the No. 5 and 6 receiver slots. Given the depth of talent in the group, it seems very likely Thompson will keep six receivers come the end of August.
Picking just two players out of the remaining five receivers won't be easy.
Harper, a fourth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 who Thompson made a rare waiver claim on last October, brings a big body (6'1", almost 230 pounds) and NFL-ready athleticism to the group. He's made a handful of impressive plays to open this summer, prompting Packers head coach Mike McCarthy to comment on his second-year jump.
"Chris has really improved," McCarthy said, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN. "I mean, I think you saw the first snap there in the team period, I mean, he runs a great post and Aaron hits him right in stride. I mean, that's the kind of explosiveness that he has."
Dorsey was a seventh-round pick of the Packers last May, but he suffered through injuries in training camp and was eventually shut down for the season with a foot injury. At 6'1" and 207 pounds, Dorsey ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds and posted a vertical leap of 38" ahead of last year's draft.
"Kevin is the body type you like, he's explosive, he can run," Clements said, via Lori Nickel of the Journal Sentinel. "He works hard. It's good to see him out there; he's improved."
White wasn't drafted in 2013, but he made his way onto Green Bay's practice squad to start last season. Eventually, the Packers called him up to the 53-man roster, where he made nine catches for 66 yards over seven games.
While small (he weighs roughly 182 pounds at 6'0"), White is quick—a strong attribute for a slot receiver—and also straight-line fast. In his second year in the offense, he should be better able to show off more of his athleticism.
Abbrederis and Janis bring that new car smell to the group.
A fifth-round pick from nearby UW-Madison, Abbrederis figures to have the best opportunity to make the club. He was a Big Ten standout for the Badgers, and his ability to play inside and out—while also returning punts and kicks—gives him the kind of versatility the Packers covet at the position. He could contribute to the Green Bay offense immediately.
Janis is an athletic freak from FCS school Saginaw Valley State. At the combine, the 6'3", 219-pound Janis ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds, did 20 reps on the bench press, posted a vertical leap of 37.5" and had one of the top times in the three-cone drill (6.64 seconds). He's raw, but early returns from OTAs provided a glimpse of what Janis could be down the road. There's Nelson-like talent to develop.
Gillett—who, to his credit, is heading into his second summer in Green Bay—is the longest shot of the 10 to make the team. But no player can be ruled out when a receiver like Boykin, who was cut after a Jaguars rookie camp in 2012, cracked the Packers' 53-man roster that same summer.
Overall, the 10 receivers that will come back for training camp in late July rival any group the Packers have brought to camp in the Rodgers era. There's no arguing with Rodgers or Clements on the point of depth of the group.
The best set of receivers, however? That's much harder to debate.
It's difficult envisioning any group of present or future receivers matching the firepower of Jennings, Nelson, Driver, Cobb and Jermichael Finley from the 2011-12 years. Rodgers would be great regardless of who was catching the football, but the numbers from that two-year stretch speak for themselves: 67.7 completion percentage, 84 touchdowns, 8.5 yards per attempt, 288.5 yards per game, 114.9 passer rating. No other two-year span of Rodgers' career comes close to matching those incredible statistics, and the receivers he had at his disposal are certainly part of the reason why.
That's not to say this group is a slouch. Far from it. Nelson and Cobb are difference-makers, and each is entering a contract year. Boykin performed like a No. 1 receiver for a stretch last season, catching 28 passes for 410 yards over a five-game period following Cobb's injury. Down the road, Adams has 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown potential. The Packers may run the football more in 2014, but there's enough individual talent at receiver for Green Bay's top four to all flirt with the 45-catch, 500-yard milestone achieved by the 2010 group.
Also, few would be overly surprised if Abredderis somehow caught 25 or more passes as a rookie. And Janis and Harper—two players who can win with athleticism—ooze with intrigue.
A few things are certain. First, Rodgers appears to be once again spoiled with pass-catchers. And two, general manager Ted Thompson has some very difficult decisions to make later this summer.
Both are good problems to have.
It wouldn't be fair to call this group the best of the Rodgers era, but it's certainly in the discussion for the deepest. And in June, when football is played in shorts and helmets and training camp is still off in the distance, that's all that really matters.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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