Packers by Position: WRs

Forget this idea of the Green Bay Packers keeping six wide receivers on their 53-man roster when the season kicks off Sept. 9.

How about seven?

There is very little debate as to whether the Packers’ top five wideouts – Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb and Donald Driver – comprise the best group in the league (New Orleans, after losing Robert Meachem in free agency, can’t make as strong of an argument as previously).

But to hear wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett tell it, the team not only has three young holdovers from last year – Tori Gurley, Diondre Borel and Shaky Smithson – but also some rookies who will make decisions tough when training camp kicks off next Thursday.

“It’s going to be interesting with those guys,” Bennett said with a smile.

Jennings, a two-time Pro Bowl selection entering a contract year, is among the league’s best. Despite missing the final three regular-season games after a knee injury, he finished with 67 receptions for 949 yards and nine touchdowns. His innate feel for quarterback Aaron Rodgers was taken for granted until the playoff loss to the New York Giants in January, when Jennings returned to action but the connection with his quarterback wasn’t there after the layoff.

Asked how Jennings can improve, Bennett replied, “We all can improve, now. When we get to the point where we feel we’ve got it all figured out, that’s when we’re going to start declining. We all have room to improve.”

And while Bennett called Jennings “outstanding” and made it clear that he believes Jennings is among the NFL’s elite wide receivers, he quickly added, “I wouldn’t drift too far in that conversation without mentioning Jordy Nelson though.”

Indeed, Nelson had a monster, breakout season in 2011, catching 68 passes for 1,263 yards and an astronomical 15 touchdowns, numbers that won’t be easy to surpass, despite Nelson’s track record of incremental improvement each year since arriving as a second-round pick in 2008.

“If you look back, it’s been a continual, gradual climb. Every year he’s gotten better and better and better,” Bennett said. “You talk about detail, you talk about passion, you talk about playing at a high level and being consistent, that’s Jordy Nelson. You talk about smart, now, this dude is smart.”

But of all his receivers, Bennett said James Jones had the best offseason of the group. Jones made the most of limited opportunities in 2011, catching 38 passes for 635 yards and seven touchdowns while putting his drop problems of 2010 behind him.

“Great attitude. I think the world of James, and I hope he knows that. I think the world – seriously. Seriously. The world. Great attitude,” Bennett said. “I’ll say this: Out of all our guys coming back, you talk about a guy who’s made a significant jump in OTAs, he had a hell of an offseason. He really did. He made a ton of plays, was very consistent. It’s almost like he just picked up and kept getting better and better every day he stepped on the practice field. He practiced with purpose.”

Bennett gushed similarly about second-year receiver Randall Cobb, who caught 25 passes for 375 yards and a touchdown as a rookie and looks like the next skill position player in line to have a breakout season.

“Wow. Wow. Wow. You know what? It’s going to be fun to watch, fun to watch that young player continue to develop and become the player he’s capable of becoming,” Bennett said. “We never label our guys as far as, ‘He’s a slot receiver,’ but … He’s outstanding in the slot, but he’s not one-dimensional. This guy is a really good football player, and I think moving forward, you’ll see why. When you look at some of the things we have in place for him, he’s a really good football player. Not a really good receiver, really good football player. I’m talking about tough, smart, savvy. It’ll be fun to watch.”

That leaves Driver, who returned from his Dancing With the Stars championship with a restructured deal that would seem to contain enough guaranteed money to assure a roster spot. But barring injuries higher on the depth chart, it seems unlikely that Driver will have a significant role.

“When I’m watching ‘Drive’ out at practice, this guy still goes out and competes at a high, high level,” Bennett said. “He’s always been productive. It goes back to when your number’s called, make plays.”

The question is, what number of receivers will have their numbers called? Much has been made of Borel and Gurley turning down 53-man roster spots with other teams to stay with the Packers on the practice squad (each with bumps in salary), but both players will have to earn their keep with strong training camps and preseason games both at receiver and on special teams.

“I think it’s really a collection of their production as receivers as well as special teams play. Because those guys that are in those slots on game day, when they’re on the 53, have to be productive special teams players,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “Those young guys that you mentioned didn’t have the benefit of the offseason program last year, so training camp was very fast for them and we started playing games and went to the 53. … I think we’re in a critical time for those guys’ development.”

But despite the discussion about how many receivers will stick – it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Borel and Gurley earn spots, even though the Packers have never kept more than five receivers coming out of training camp during general manager Ted Thompson’s tenure – how the guys at the top of the depth chart perform will matter most.

“It’s gotten better every year we’ve been here, but we’ve always had outstanding receivers. It’s hard for a team to defend,” new offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “Those guys work hard and they understand there’s only one ball. One guy gets doubled one game, the other guy may have a lot of catches. Then someone else has to step up. The biggest thing, what our goal is and what I think everybody recognizes, is we want to be the best we can be and win a championship and the more talent you have, the better chance you have.

“Competition makes everybody better. And it’s going to make us better as a team. That’s important for us. I think we’re going to have competition not just at receiver but at other positions offensively and defensively. Hopefully that makes us better.”