GREEN BAY, Wis. - During his seven years with the Green Bay Packers, Greg Jennings came off as one of the team's all-time nice guys.
But who knew that the now-Minnesota Vikings wide receiver was this magnanimous?
It turns out that it wasn't the five-year, $45 million contract the Vikings gave him – a deal that contains $17.8 million in guaranteed money – that led him to sign with the Packers' NFC North border rivals in March.
And it wasn't the opportunity to be a team's clear-cut, undisputed No. 1 wide receiver – unlike in Green Bay, where the passing game spreads the wealth – that made it worth switching quarterbacks, from Aaron Rodgers to Christian Ponder (or, perhaps, Matt Cassel).
No, no. Jennings evidently signed with the Vikings because he was thinking about poor, poor Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jarrett Boykin, the pass-catchers waiting patiently in his shadow.
"When you bring guys in that can flourish, that have a ton of talent in Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver, the Jarrett Boykins who people don't even know about yet ... I'm not a selfish guy. It's not about me," Jennings said during an appearance earlier this week on ESPN's First Take. "It's more about giving guys an opportunity to do what they need to do. But at the same time, I'm not trying to not give myself an opportunity, so I had to remove myself from that situation to allow those guys to spread their wings."
(In fairness to Jennings, if you haven't seen his appearance, the show isn't exactly a traditional interview setting. But he also said what he said long before the yelling started.)
In truth, Cobb got the chance to spread his wings last season – his second in the NFL – when Jennings missed eight games and parts of two others with a lower abdominal muscle tear that eventually required surgery, leading in part to Cobb's team-high 80 receptions for 954 yards and eight touchdowns.
Jones, too, made the most of his opportunity, setting career highs in receptions (64), receiving yards (784) and touchdown catches (14, the most in the NFL last year), while Nelson missed four games with a hamstring injury and saw his numbers dip from 68 receptions for 1,263 yards (an 18.6-yard average) and 15 touchdowns to only 49 receptions for 745 yards (15.2-yard average) and seven TDs.
"I've always talked about making the most of our opportunities, and there's not going to be as many guys in the rotation this year," Cobb said. "Me, Jordy and James really look forward to being the primary guys and really are looking forward to taking on the challenge of being the three guys that are the primary targets."
Make no mistake: Jennings was a game-changer during his time in Green Bay, averaging 69 receptions for 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns over his first five seasons. In 2012, though, he started only five games and had career lows in receptions (36) and receiving yards (366).
There is even a school of thought that Nelson's breakthrough season in 2011 was fueled in part by the attention Jennings, on top of his game before a knee injury caused him to miss the final three weeks of the regular season, drew from opponents.
Even if Cobb becomes the superstar that Rodgers predicts he will, the Packers still will be counting on young players to develop quickly to provide depth – and, if injuries strike again, fill in. That wasn't really the case last year, when the top five were set (Jennings, Nelson, Jones, Cobb and Driver, who since retired as the franchise's all-time leading receiver) and Boykin was a pleasant surprise, making the team when general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy decided to keep a sixth wideout on the 53.
In nine drafts, Thompson has drafted 10 wide receivers, and used a third-round pick or higher on five of them: Terrence Murphy (second round, No. 58) in 2005; Jennings (second round, No. 52) in 2006; Jones (third round, No. 78) in 2007; Nelson (second round, No. 36) in 2008; and Cobb (second round, No. 64 overall) in 2011.
Jones, Nelson and Cobb remain, but after that, everyone else is young and unprove: Boykin (an undrafted free agent last year whom the Packers signed after he tried out at the rookie orientation camp after being cut by Jacksonville); returner Jeremy Ross (a street free agent who also went undrafted coming out of California); rookie seventh-round picks Kevin Dorsey and Charles Johnson (both of whom missed nearly all of the offseason with undisclosed injuries); and intriguing undrafted rookies Myles White and Tyrone Walker.
"They know what they're competing for," wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. "You said (there are) three (proven guys), but I look at it as everybody in that room's competing for a position. Just because the ‘Big Three' were last year, they have to earn it every day. That's the mind-set. You can't assume anything.
"If Randall Cobb would have assumed he wasn't going to play that much last year, where would we have been? You've got to assume, ‘You know what? I'm the guy, I'm the starter.' You have to prepare that way and practice that way so when it happens, boom, you're ready to jump in and play and be productive. If you sit back and say, ‘I'm going to wait and see what happens,' that's not the right attitude. You've got to prepare like you're the guy."
That said, Bennett recognizes that the offense will rely heavily on Cobb, Nelson and Jones, who enter the season knowing that they are Rodgers' 1-2-3 options, unlike last year, when Jennings suffered the abdominal tear late in the season-opening loss to San Francisco and was in and out of the lineup for a few weeks before having surgery. Driver, meanwhile, only played 153 snaps but no one could have predicted in training camp that he'd be buried quite that deep on the depth chart.
"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," Bennett said. "That gives the guys we already have more opportunities. I think they're excited about that, anxious to go out there and earn it and prove it every day, that they're capable."
Added Jones: "We know we have to be leaders to those guys and it's already starting. We're in those guys ears 24/7. I'm sure they're probably sick of hearing us all day, going home telling themselves, ‘These guys think they know everything,' but we in there 24/7 trying to get them right, trying to help them because we know the more ammo we got, the better we are. We definitely try to bring our young guys along."
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Will Greg Jennings be missed?
There are still plenty of NFL teams who would give anything to have a 1-2-3 of Cobb, Nelson and Jones, but the truth of the matter is that the Packers have been so deep at wide receiver – remember the unveiling of the Big Five a few years ago, when it was Jennings, Driver, Nelson, Jones and Ruvell Martin? – for so long that even having three players like those three atop the depth chart makes it seem like they're thin at the position. Whether Jennings left a significant void will be decided by two factors: How the new Big Three rise to the occasion, and whether the unproven talent behind them can overdeliver. The one player who'll be most intriguing might be Jones, who will try to replicate a career season – and if he does, could make himself some nice money as an unrestricted free agent in the spring. While Jones' suggestion that the Packers could have three 1,000-yard receivers is probably a stretch, another big season from him would more than ease the pain of the loss of Jennings.
On the rise
That might be hard to fathom given the way Cobb took off in his second season, (80 receptions, 954 yards, eight TDs), but both wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett and quarterback Rodgers swear it's true. "Tremendous strides (last year), but again, he can do so much more," Bennett said. "He can clean up certain areas and be even more fundamentally sound and be even more productive." Some of that productivity could shift from special teams, where Cobb's work led to him setting the franchise record for most combined net yards (2,342), to a greater concentration on offense. For that to happen, Ross or another potential returner will have to emerge, and if he does, Rodgers expects big things from an offense-only Cobb. "You can always improve. I've always said you can never really reach your full potential so I always try to continue to climb that mountain," Cobb said. "In the offseason, I've definitely worked a lot on my route running and trying to perfect my craft."
Player to watch
The 28-year-old Nelson, who came on late in the Packers' Super Bowl XLV-winning season of 2010, believes a return to his 2011 success is simply a matter of staying healthy – something he could not do last year because of a nagging hamstring injury that first flared up in the days leading up to an Oct. 28 victory over Jacksonville and plagued him for the rest of the year. He missed four games and played only 670 snaps (including playoffs) as a result. Will the hamstring issue disappear? Or will it turn into a chronic concern? Nelson, for his part, doesn't seem worried. "I just have to hope I stay healthy," he said. "I trained the same way I had my whole life. And last season, for some reason, the hamstrings weren't taking it. For whatever reason. It's just all about staying healthy. A lot of people think it's about big games, but if you stay healthy and play 16 games, you're going to have a good season no matter what. That's the key. So hopefully I'll be blessed enough to stay on the field."
No. 4 receiver.
A year ago at this time, there was debate whether the Packers would keep a sixth receiver on the roster, and while practices-squad holdovers Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel were the leading candidates, but it was Boykin who wound up winning the job. Later, Ross found his way onto the 53-man roster, and now it's Boykin and Ross battling it out for the No. 4 spot, which does get some meaningful play in this offense. They're the two who'll be battling to be the next man up, as the rookie class is green as grass. "I would say (Ross) is a very humble kid. He works his butt off," Rodgers said. "I think he has the confidence that he's starting to feel comfortable in that position, but I wouldn't say that he's walking around like he's making this team. I think he's got a big chip on his shoulder and I'm excited about him. He's a guy who, like Jarrett, stepped up last year and asked me multiple times for meetings on the side and really wanted to pick my brain and get better on the mental part of the game. It shows on the field because he looks stronger and he's running his routes with a lot of confidence. I think he's got a great shot at playing a big part in our offense."
Jones' 14 touchdown catches were one fewer than Nelson put up the year before, but they were still enough to make him the highest-scoring wide receiver in the league. Jones became the first Packers player to lead the NFL in TD catches since Sterling Sharpe did it in 1994 with a franchise-record 18 TDs, and only Sharpe, Don Hutson (17 in 1942), Nelson (15 in 2011) and Antonio Freeman (14 in 1998).
"Certainly with J.J. last year, anytime your peers vote you as the team captain (on offense for the playoffs), it speaks volumes. And I think that's something that he truly understands – the responsibility that goes along with that. I thought he had a phenomenal year last 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." – wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett, on James Jones' career year in 2012.
Next: Tight ends.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today," and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.