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.