GREEN BAY - Aaron Rodgers may like to say that he doesn't get paid to be the GM, but that doesn't mean the Green Bay Packers quarterback can't do the math.
As he looked at the depth chart at wide receiver this offseason, he found two big, game-changing names (Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb), a young veteran on the rise (Jarrett Boykin), three rookie draft picks (second-rounder Davante Adams, fifth-rounder Jared Abbrederis and seventh-rounder Jeff Janis) and a bevy of intriguing young holdovers from a year ago who could make things interesting in camp (Chris Harper, Myles White, Kevin Dorsey and Alex Gillett).
As a result, he believes the position might merit an extra roster spot.
So, even as Rodgers was claiming that he prefers to "be easy on my prognostications about some of these guys," it was clear that in the same breath, he was getting his hopes up about their potential. Even though there are some very, very familiar names – Greg Jennings (Minnesota) and Donald Driver (retirement) departed two years ago; James Jones (Oakland) left in March – no longer on the roster, Rodgers genuinely sounded like he was feeling confident about the largely unproven cast of characters he'll be throwing to. Then came the relatively bold – for him, anyway – prediction.
"I'm excited," Rodgers confessed during organized team activities practices – and continued to say so as the offseason wore on. "I'm excited about the guys we brought in, also excited about the possibility of some guys coming back. Jarrett came off a season where he really improved, Myles did some really nice things and Chris Harper showed signs as well during practice.
"It's a deep group. I think it could be as deep a group as we've had here. It might not be the big names like we had in the past when we had the whole stable of guys, but I think you could definitely see us keeping six guys there in that position because we are pretty deep group."
Rodgers has kept that keep-six-receivers narrative going throughout the offseason – he mentioned it twice more during media sessions during offseason practices and again brought it up in various interviews from the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship in Lake Tahoe this week. And evidently, he's not alone in that opinion.
"There's going to be outstanding competition, and the guys who finally make it are going to be very good players," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "The wide receiver group – that's probably the deepest that I can recall."
While one could question whether that's just happy talk – what else are they going to say, right? – neither Rodgers nor Clements are prone to say things for effect without actually believing what they're saying. Thus, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. And there is precedent: While Ted Thompson hadn't kept six wide receivers coming out of camp in his first seven years as GM, he did keep six – Jennings, Nelson, Cobb, Jones, Driver and Boykin – on the 53-man roster entering the 2012 season.
But regardless of how enamored Rodgers and Clements might be with the depth at the third through fifth – uh, sixth – spots, it all starts with Cobb and Nelson, who'll have to play like the stars of the offense that they are with so much unproven talent around them, at both receiver and tight end. Although each has been the team's leading receiver in the past two years – Cobb's 80 catches for 954 yards led the team in 2012, and Nelson's 85 receptions for 1,314 yards were tops last year – they'll not only have to shoulder the production load, but become even greater leaders of a young unit. Wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett called the departed Jones "a tremendous leader," and Nelson acknowledged as much.
"It's going to be different without James. To be honest with you, I think it will be the hardest out of all three of them that have left in the last two years just because of his character and the way he was being a character and everything," Nelson said. "He brought excitement to our room and he had a fun time with it, that was great. We're going to miss him. We are."
They'll also miss his consistent production – Jones caught 59 passes for a career-best 817 yards last year, and the year before he had a career-best 64 receptions for 784 yards and an NFL-leading 14 touchdowns – and that's where one of the young replacements will have to step up.
"I don't know about immediately, but we need them to develop," Nelson said. "At some point in time this year, they're going to have an impact in a game -- good or bad. They need to be prepared to go in there and do that. We talked about it a lot last year. It's very hard to go through a whole season healthy. They're going to get that opportunity, one way or another, so those guys need to be prepared -- whether it's early, if it's midseason or it's late. Eventually, we're going to rely on them and we expect them to step up and fill that void."
That's what Boykin did last season when Cobb (fractured tibia) and Jones (knee sprain) went down, and now he must continue his rise.
"I've never believed that I can be stopped. You can't ask a receiver, ‘Do you think someone's going to stop you?' What are they going to say, yes?" Boykin said. "No, you've got to have that [confidence], even if you have to trick your mind or whatever. That's my mentality."
While Boykin isn't guaranteed the No. 3 spot, he'd have to fail spectacularly in camp – or a player like Adams would have to have a meteoric rise in the 17 open practices the team will hold starting next Saturday. Whatever the case, it won't be dull.
"It should be an interesting training camp," Bennett said. "For us to get the three kids we got in the draft, it was, we were fortunate. They all bring something different to the table, they're all unique in their own way. You see them excited about the opportunity and wanting to make the most of the opportunity.
"Certainly, the more the merrier in my room. If that's the case, that's great. Our role and our responsibility is to do everything we can to make those decisions difficult as far as wanting to keep that extra guy in our room based on what we've shown."
QUICK READ: WIDE RECEIVERS
Saginaw Valley St.
Will Nelson and Cobb get their new deals before season's end?
Each of the past two years, the team has allowed a longtime, productive wide receiver walk in free agency. Two years ago, it was Greg Jennings, who got a five-year, $47.5 million deal from Minnesota. In March, it was James Jones, who went to Oakland for an affordable three-year, $10 million ($3.65 million guaranteed). While the Packers could have done more to keep each player, in the end it was clear they were saving their pennies for Nelson and Cobb, both of whom are in contract years. While Nelson was open about how much he wants to stay in Green Bay and how he's not worried about breaking the bank, Cobb has been more coy when asked about his contract situation. Still, it would seem to be a case of when, not if, in terms of new deals for each. It would make sense for the Packers to get something done with Nelson before the season begins, then get to work on Cobb. Last year, the team extended safety Morgan Burnett before camp opened, but there were no indications that a Nelson deal was imminent with training camp a week away.
"Obviously you want to get it done as soon as possible. But there are a lot of other people involved in that. It's a process; we'll just have to wait and see how it goes," Nelson said. "Trust me. What I got in that last deal, I'll never spend it all anyway, so I'm not worried about it."
On the rise
Early on last season, when it was looking like Jones' prediction that he, Nelson and Cobb would each amass 1,000 receiving yards would come true, Boykin was persona non grata in the Packers offense. But when Cobb and Jones went down, Boykin rose up. He finished with 49 receptions for 681 yards and three touchdowns, had a heads-up play to score a crucial touchdown in the regular-season finale at Chicago on a seemingly dead ball, and surely looked the part of an NFL receiver when called upon. Now, he must elevate his game and be a consistent contributor, something the Packers clearly were expecting when they let Jones walk. For his part, he believes he's more than ready.
"Of course, it helps being in the system for a few years. You just try and progress and get better and keep doing whatever you can. I feel real comfortable," Boykin said. "I'm going to have the same mentality as I did when I came in Day 1 as a rookie. If you take the same mentality, everything will work out fine."
Player to watch
A second-round pick, the rookie from Fresno State should compete for the No. 3 receiver job with Boykin, and if injuries strike, he'll be expected to be a significant contributor. Through no fault of his own, Adams' first few weeks as a pro were a challenge, as he wasn't able to come to Green Bay for rookie orientation week until just before the minicamp started because of NFL rules about his college still being in session, and then he missed more time when he was one of the draft picks selected for the NFL Players Association's "Rookie Premiere" event. While the time he missed may not seem like much, in order to be ready for prime time, he'll need all the work he can get.
"There's a lot of information. There's a lot to learn. And obviously the schemes, the concepts that goes along with that, the fundamentals and the techniques," Bennett replied when asked why most rookie wide receivers struggle to have an impact early. "You have to understand coverage, and then there's the chemistry with the quarterbacks that you are working with – and certainly [one] the caliber of Aaron Rodgers, one of the best to ever play the game. There's chemistry involved in that, and that's why it's so important to make the most of your opportunities in practice."
Third and fourth receiver.
Boykin certainly rose to the occasion when called upon last year after injuries to Jones and Cobb, and while he's a good bet to be the third receiver, the job isn't simply being handed to him, as Adams should challenge him. It gets even more interesting further down the depth chart, as holdovers like White, Dorsey (who spent last year on IR) and the intriguing Chris Harper will battle rookies Abbrederis and Janis for the final spots. But in this offense, the No. 3 receiver is vital – and can move up the pecking order quickly when injuries strike – so that competition should be the most closely monitored.
"You can never take anything for granted. You have to continue to earn it every day," Bennett said of Boykin. "That's the mentality of that room. Never get comfortable. Show us improvement every day, show us what you're about every day, show why you love doing what you're doing, why you deserve to be in that room, why you want to be on a championship team. Show it with your actions versus talking."
Nelson may not get his due nationally, but when you look at the numbers he's put up the past three seasons, it's hard to argue that he isn't an elite NFL receiver. His 30 touchdowns over the past three years rank sixth in the NFL (only Jimmy Graham, Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson, Eric Decker and Rob Gronkowski have more) and among his career-high 85 receptions for a career-best 1,314 yards were 19 catches of 25 or more yards – the most in the NFL.
"He seems to be a really good route runner. [I] watched him in college; [he] did a lot of nice things for Wisconsin. I try and be easy on my prognostications about some of these guys, especially until you put the pads on. His biggest thing just like any young player is to be able to learn the offense quickly, be able to play fast and think so. If he can do that, on our offense there's always a place for guys like that." – Rodgers on Abbrederis, the ex-University of Wisconsin walk-on whom the quarterback has nicknamed "Magic."
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.