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
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