The Green Bay Packers have been perennial Super Bowl contenders out of the NFC for the past several years, and when they fell short in the playoffs, the criticism was often that their receiving corps was too top-heavy and not strong enough outside of Davante Adams.
But Adams is no longer in the picture after Green Bay traded him to the Las Vegas Raiders in March .. The team now has to face life with what remains of that receiving corps plus the players added over the offseason.
The Packers were able to allocate resources elsewhere because of the savings from the Adams trade, and they could well have their best defense since the last time they won a Super Bowl. The real question, though, now becomes whether this team can win a championship with its current receivers.
Aaron Rodgers may not have always had an elite receiving corps throughout his career, but he has almost always had at least one elite receiver. Before Adams, it was Jordy Nelson. And before Nelson, it was Greg Jennings – and even Jennings was taking over the No. 1 job from Donald Driver at the point Rodgers became the starter. Sometimes those receivers overlapped and Rodgers had a great receiving corps, but even when they didn’t, he had one standout he could rely upon.
Without Adams, the Packers have no proven go-to target in 2022.
A newly signed Sammy Watkins teams up with veterans Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb and rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs in the hope they can form some kind of coherent group of targets for a quarterback coming off consecutive MVP awards.
The last 1,000-yard receiving season any of the veterans had was in 2015, the same year any of them cleared even 2.0 yards per route run. Adams hit that mark in each of the past four seasons and is at 1.98 for his entire career.
There have been glimpses that without Adams, Rodgers defaults to Lazard as its primary target. In a very small sample size of snaps with Adams off the field, Lazard’s target rate is over 20% of his routes and his yards per route run is 2.86 – figures Adams would be proud of. The problem is that Lazard’s skill isn’t conducive to sustaining that production. At 6-foot-5 and 227 pounds, he’s a huge target, but he measures in below the 50th percentile in the 40-yard dash, 10-yard split, short shuttle and three-cone.
Lazard may start the season as Rodgers’ favorite target, but if things stay that way over the course of the season, the offense is in trouble.
Watkins has the most natural X-receiver, No. 1 skill set on the roster, but injuries have blighted his NFL career. The only time he played every game of a season came in his rookie year. The following season began a career-long battle against a series of injuries that have left him some way short of the talent he once was.
Watkins has shown over the years that he’s still capable of big games, typically when defenses have their attention on a more pressing concern and leave him against favorable looks, but the days of Watkins going toe to toe with the best coverage a defense has to offer and winning consistently seem well in the past, or at least there seems no good reason to expect a return to them this season.
Randall Cobb was famously the receiver Rodgers hand-picked for a return to Green Bay, having enjoyed significant success there early in his career. Cobb once tallied almost 1,300 receiving yards in a season, catching 12 touchdowns, gaining 2.27 yards per route run and even getting some carries from the backfield. This version of Cobb just isn’t the same player, and his past two seasons put together still come up significantly short of that career high, even when he was reunited with Rodgers. He can still be a useful complementary piece in a strong receiving corps, but he can’t create the strength where none exists otherwise.
The hope for this group comes in the rookies, even if Rodgers developing an instant rapport with them is perhaps the least likely of its potential options.
North Dakota State product Christian Watson saw his draft hype take off when he posted excellent workout numbers at the combine at 6-foot-4 and 208 pounds. Watson has elite size and athleticism but ran a pretty spartan route tree in college in a run-heavy offense and had a questionable drop rate of over 13% for his college career. The tape shows him struggling with ball skills even beyond those drops. These are issues that don’t sit well with Rodgers developing immediate trust in a receiver.
One of the key elements of Rodgers’ game is preying on single coverage. When he reads defenses, if he can identify his favorite target in single coverage, it’s virtually an automatic pass. Over the past three years, no quarterback has earned a higher PFF passing grade when targeting receivers in single coverage than Rodgers, and a lot of that success relies on the receiver being on the same page, knowing when to expect back-shoulder ball location and being able to naturally adjust to it.
Watson has work to do to get on that kind of page with Rodgers, and that might open up early opportunities for Romeo Doubs, the team’s fourth-round draft pick. Doubs ran a far more diverse route tree than Watson and didn’t deal with drop issues. He doesn’t fight the football and may have an early advantage in earning the confidence of his quarterback. At 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds, Doubs has an impressive physical makeup in his own right, though he can’t match Watson’s straight-line speed.
Some NFL teams with weak wide receiver rooms make up for it with a superstar elsewhere. Green Bay’s tight ends are Robert Tonyan, Josiah Deguara and Marcedes Lewis – not the kind of group to strike fear into a defense. The best receiver on the roster might be running back Aaron Jones, who should probably be expected to have a huge year in the passing game. But if a running back is your best receiver, you are working against a lot of issues.
The bottom line is that the last (and only) time Rodgers had a receiving corps as weak on paper as this one looks was back in 2015. Jordy Nelson had torn his ACL in a preseason game, and Davante Adams wasn’t yet ready to assume his mantle as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Randall Cobb and James Jones were the team’s most targeted receivers.
Rodgers recorded the single worst PFF grade of his career that year, ranking 14th among quarterbacks. And though they won the division, the Packers lost in overtime to the Arizona Cardinals in their first playoff game. Rodgers had earned an overall PFF grade above 90.0 in each season on either side of that year.
With a dominant No. 1 receiver, Rodgers was able to play like one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but when he lost that and had to muddle through with a series of sub-standard options, he had the worst year of his career and the team never looked like a true contender. That is not a good omen for his chances this season as the team tries to find a solution to life without Davante Adams.