Packers receivers ready for roles
James Jones still talks to Donald Driver and Greg Jennings on an almost daily basis, so the Green Bay Packers most veteran wide receiver left behind after Driver’s retirement and Jennings’ free-agent defection to the Minnesota Vikings hasn’t been lamenting the loss of his old friends.
“There won’t be a moment where it’s like, ‘Oh, I miss those guys,’” Jones promised earlier this week after the first open organized team activity practice of the offseason.
In fact, Jones wasn’t feeling the least bit sentimental about his old pal Jennings, who inked a five-year, $47.5 million deal with the archrival Vikings, who’ll face the Packers on Oct. 27 at Mall of America Field at the Metrodome, and on Nov. 24 at Lambeau Field.
“I don’t care too much about Greg,” Jones said. “I just want our DBs to lock him on down and let’s get the victory.”
Jones casual air aside, there’s no denying that the Packers’ receiving corps look different without Driver, the franchise’s all-time leader in catches and receiving yardage, and Jennings, a two-time Pro Bowler who averaged 68.8 catches, 1,107 receiving yards and 9.2 touchdowns per year from 2007 through 2011 before an injury-riddled 2012.
“It is different. Those are some great guys,” second-year wide receiver Jeremy Ross said. “Even in our meeting rooms, we had a lot of fun hanging out with those guys and they brought a lot of good character to the room. Not having those guys there is a little different. I was kind of bummed, but we’ve got a good group of guys here now.”
That’s certainly the feeling quarterback Aaron Rodgers has about Jones, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, the three proven holdovers at the position.
Last season, Jones played a receiver-high 1,149 snaps and set career highs in every category, catching 64 passes for 784 yards and an NFL-leading 14 touchdowns. He’s entering the final year of his contract.
Cobb made an enormous jump in his second NFL season, as the coaches turned him into the offensive Swiss Army knife. With Jennings out with a torn abdominal muscle, Cobb played 733 snaps and caught a team-high 80 passes for 954 yards and added eight touchdowns, second only to Jones.
Nelson was unable to replicate his breakout 2011 in large part due to injuries (hamstring, ankle, knee) but was still the team’s best deep-ball threat (team-leading 15.2 yards per reception) while catching 49 passes for 745 yards and seven TDs in 670 snaps.
“I still like the guys we've got,” Rodgers said after practice. “We have a lot of talent at that position. I think Randall Cobb is a guy who could be a 100-plus catch guy every year. James Jones led the league in touchdown receptions last year. (And) Jordy has had some real big years for us.”
After the big three, the Packers have Jarrett Boykin, who came to the rookie orientation camp a year ago as a tryout player after being cut by Jacksonville and earned a spot on the 53-man roster coming out of training camp as the sixth receiver. The rookie caught only five passes for 27 yards in regular-season play, but his final catch was a big one: A critical 7-yard grab on fourth down against Minnesota in the regular-season finale that kept a late scoring drive alive. The coaches like his size (6-foot-2, 218 pounds) and detailed approach to the game.
Ross is also in the mix, although his biggest contributions could be on special teams, where he could take the load off of Cobb on returns if he’s sufficiently recovered from the devastating muffed punt that gave away a touchdown in the team’s NFC Divisional Playoff loss to San Francisco. Although he did not have a regular-season catch, he did play eight snaps from scrimmage and could be in the mix.
“I like what Jarrett Boykin brings. He's a big, physical receiver who's going to get some opportunities this year,” Rodgers said. “And I think he really has a great approach to the game, as does Jeremy Ross. Both those guys last year really stepped up and cared about it enough to put in a lot of extra time.”
The Packers also added Maryland’s Kevin Dorsey and Grand Valley State’s Charles Johnson in the seventh round of the NFL Draft, but both players were not practicing on Tuesday when the session was open to reporters and fans.
“I think the young players we brought in and drafted in free agency will do a lot for themselves if they take the same kind of approach (Boykin and Ross) did to making this team and bettering themselves,” Rodgers said. “If they do, then we'll have a really deep receiving corps."
After all, it’s not as if the Packers didn’t get an idea of what a Jennings-less and Driver-less offense would look like. Jennings’ abdominal muscle injury cost him eight games and parts of two others, and he finished with 36 receptions for 366 yards and four touchdowns in regular season and before catching a team-high 10 passes for 115 yards and a TD in two playoff games. He played only 531 snaps, including playoffs.
Driver, meanwhile, caught only eight passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns and was charged with three drops out of 13 targets by ProFootballFocus.com. He played only 154 snaps and was inactive for four games, including the NFC Wild Card playoff victory over Minnesota.
“Certainly with Donald, what he was able to accomplish during his career spoke for itself. Greg, again, a talented player, was extremely productive, and obviously he decided to make the change and go to Minnesota. That gives the guys we already have more opportunities,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said.
“I think they’re excited about that, anxious to go out there and earn it and prove it every day, that they’re capable. Certainly with J.J. last year, I thought he had a phenomenal year, and this year he’s going to be even better than what he was last year. I think he understands that and I think knows what he’s capable of doing. I thought last year was just a starting point for James.
“Same with Randall – tremendous strides, but again, he can do so much more. He can clean up certain areas and be even more fundamentally sound and be even more productive. Jordy, coming back from injuries and fighting and playing through it, (he) still (was) productive but (he knows) what he’s capable of doing. And now we’ve got some young guys that are biting at the bit to prove that they’re worthy of getting out there and being productive in this offense and earning that place.”
With training camp still two months away, the biggest change so far is in the environment, where Jones, Cobb and Nelson must take the lead.
“We know we have to be leaders to those guys, and it’s already starting. We’re in those guys’ ears 24/7,” Jones said. “I’m sure they’re probably sick of hearing us all day, going home telling themselves, ‘These guys think they know everything.’
“But we know the more ammo we got, the better we are. We definitely try to bring our young guys along.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.