I will start a series of articles on what to watch out for in the upcoming football season. The intention of the articles will be to provide you with some insight for 2008, and to get you excited for a new chapter in Green Bay Packers history.
These are the top-five things to watch out for from our top-five receivers known as the “Big Five”. It is noted that Koren Robinson was an original member of the “Big Five”, but was released during the offseason. His spot will be taken by our second-round pick Jordy Nelson, from Kansas State.
1) Is Donald Driver fading, or will he return to his numbers of ’06?
Driver has lead the team in receiving the past three years, but his numbers have fallen since ’06. That year he caught 92 catches for 1,295 yards and eight touchdowns. This past year he caught 82 balls and only had 1,048 yards receiving. The biggest stat was the amount of touchdowns he caught, with two.
There are many good reasons for this, including the emergence of Greg Jennings as a star receiver, Wynn and Grant being strong on the goal line, and the solid play of Donald Lee at the TE position. However, there is no excuse for only two touchdowns when you play in all but one game. The breakaway speed was just not shown this year, minus the touchdown catch against the Giants in the NFC Championship game.
Yes, he does still have the ability to gain those extra yards through his hard work, but he needs to keep working the middle of the field and making one or two defenders miss. Driver is known for yards after the catch, so take that away from him, and he is not a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver on any team.
2) Will McCarthy continue with the five-wide formations even without Favre?
Last year, on Nov. 11, Coach McCarthy used a formation known as the five-wide with his top-five receivers on the depth chart. This included, from left to right on the field in different formations, Driver, Jennings, Jones, Martin, and Robinson. This would leave the QB in a shotgun formation, with no running back for protection.
The routes would consist of one player running a fly pattern, another two running slants, and the other two either running an up-and-out or a comeback. The formation would cause the defense to go into man coverage, and drop more men than usual. The intent of the offense is to find a weak defensive back who usually plays special teams, but is forced into the position because of the threat of a deep pass.
This offense required a quick-thinking quarterback and precise route-running by the receivers. It also requires the offensive line to have perfect pass-protection, because if one man gets beat, he is leaving his quarterback out to dry.
With the addition of Jordy Nelson to a solid group of receivers, it looks like McCarthy is keeping that page in the playbook. Rodgers is a smart quarterback, but can also buy extra time with his feet. Look for the Packers to use this formation to surprise opponents, and even get Jennings on a mismatch for a quick score.
3) Will James Jones continue to improve?
Jones was considered one of the best WR taken in the 2007 draft. We used our third-round pick on him, and he emerged as our No. 3 receiver on the depth chart.
When Green Bay fans see him play, all they can think of is Sterling Sharp. He has a solid build, but his hands are what remind fans of greatness. He uses his hands, not his body, to make plays, and he was very consistent throughout the season.
The only knock on him happened the night of our Sunday night game against the Bears. On back-to-back possessions he fumbled on catches that would have lead to scoring drives. For such a talented receiver, I don’t believe we should let one night ruin an impressive rookie season.
One stat that worries me is the decline of his numbers as the season went on. In his first five games he came out and impressed everyone with 24 catches. The last five games he had only seven. This may be due to his growing up in warm weather and playing in California.
When I attended the Packers-Raiders game this past December, I met a couple of his college teammates in the stadium. They were camped out in the men’s bathroom not leaving because they did not want to brave the cold. This was in the middle of the third quarter during an exiting high scoring game. Maybe it is no surprise he had zero catches that game, and spent more time near the heater on the sideline than running routes.
Jones needs to work hard this summer and come out strong at the beginning of the season. He will be given a lot of opportunity this year in Green Bay, and should be able to beat out Jordy Nelson for the third spot. If he can continue to run tight routes and improve his hands, he will emerge as the best No. 3 receiver in the league.
4) Is Greg Jennings the No. 1 receiver since Brett is gone and Driver was his favorite target?
If we are ranking the No. 1 position on our depth chart by present athletic abilities and numbers, then Jennings may be No. 1 on the depth chart. If we are ranking it by clutch plays, leadership, and heart, it is clear the position still belongs to number Driver.
Jennings had a big year in ’07, with 12 touchdown receptions and just under 1,000 yards receiving. This is after missing the first two games to injury and the last one because it was a meaningless game. He had the habit for game-winning plays, including the memorable game winner on the first play of overtime against Denver.
Jennings is still a young player, which is a good thing, we have many more years ahead of us, and a bad thing, he is not very experienced and sometimes makes rookie mistakes. Jennings also benefited from forming a relationship with Favre that made their slant pass one of the most dangerous routes in football.
In the end, I don’t think Jennings would be as good without Driver, which makes him the No. 1 receiver on this football team. In the next couple years, Jennings will assume the role of the Packers best receiver, and he should be invited to the Pro Bowl this year as one of the league’s best.
5) Will Ruvell Martin become the receiver he’s destined to be, or will Jordy Nelson become the star his first year in the league?
I honestly believe I am the biggest Ruvell Martin fan in the US. Well, maybe next to his mom and close friends. I have always been a supporter of this kid, and I think he can be great in the game of football.
Martin is a strong 6’4", and the media guide lists him at 215 pounds, but I think that is off after seeing him in person a few times. He is solid. He has a lot of athleticism, and when given the opportunity, makes plays. When you look at Martin, he looks like the perfect mold of a WR, which always frustrates me to see him only catch a ball or two a game.
He has had a tough path to the NFL, bouncing from team to team and playing overseas as well. In his two years as a Packer, he has had 37 catches and five TDs. Of those five, four were last year, which gives me hope he is getting comfortable with the offense. When you watch him, you notice he can play any position, and he is not afraid to go across the middle. He is coming into camp as the No. 4 receiver, but the rookie from Kansas St. will not let him have that without a fight.
I believe Jordy Nelson will be our slot receiver for the next decade. He is also blessed to be put in a position where he does not have to come out on day one and catch 10 passes and a TD. He will be able to learn the offense, and pick Donald Driver’s brain for the next couple months and mold into an ideal receiver.
Ruvell will continue to improve, but his learning curve is bigger than Nelson's who will probably end up taking his job half way through the season. If you haven’t seen Nelson play, look his name up on YouTube and watch in amazement.
I will continue to post my top things to watch out for in the upcoming season as the weeks go on. Let me know your thoughts on these five, and some of your other thoughts on our new “Big Five”
Here’s to leading the league in yards after catch.