GREEN BAY, Wis. — Wide receiver has been one of the deepest and most talented areas of the Green Bay Packers’ roster since Aaron Rodgers took over as starting quarterback five years ago. It was such an impressive group that, at times, there weren’t enough snaps to go around.
That depth dwindled quickly this offseason, though. While Donald Driver’s NFL career was practically over a year ago, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver officially retired in February. Six weeks later, Greg Jennings signed a free-agent deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
Just like that, Rodgers’ two favorite targets in his first two years as Green Bay’s starter were gone. Jennings and Driver both surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in 2008 and 2009 with Rodgers throwing them the ball, with Jennings exceeding that mark again in 2010.
Losing two players of that caliber would be a huge blow for most NFL teams, but general manager Ted Thompson has kept the Packers prepared for it to happen.
Randall Cobb, still only 22 years old, was Rodgers’ top receiver last season with 954 yards. Cobb’s ability out of the slot made Jennings somewhat expendable, especially if the 2011 second-round pick can continue to improve at the rapid rate he has thus far early in his career.
Jordy Nelson had an injury filled 2012 season, but he still had 745 yards despite missing four games. Nelson’s breakout year came a season earlier when he led the team with 1,263 receiving yards.
James Jones was a touchdown-scoring machine last season, leading the entire NFL with 14 touchdown receptions. His 784 receiving yards were nowhere near the top of the league, but elite wideouts Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson didn’t even combine to match Jones’ incredible touchdown total.
With Cobb, Nelson and Jones all back for next season, the Packers still have the luxury of having three go-to receivers for Rodgers in 2013. There could be a problem, however, in the team’s depth behind those three.
Nelson had multiple injuries last season and Cobb missed the regular-season finale, so Thompson needed to address this issue sooner than later. Recognizing that deficiency on the depth chart, Thompson drafted two receivers in the seventh round.
First, Green Bay selected Charles Johnson out of Grand Valley State. Johnson wasn’t on the NFL radar a few months ago, not being invited to the Scouting Combine. But, after a terrific Pro Day workout that included multiple athletic testing results that were off the charts, Johnson was suddenly being discussed as a possible fourth-round pick. When he fell to the seventh round, Thompson picked him up.
Receivers like Johnson who are 6-foot-2 and can run a 4.39 40-yard dash aren’t usually available in the seventh round, but he came from a very small college and bounced around a bit — including a stint at a junior college — prior to that, which negatively affected his draft stock.
“Charles had a really good Pro Day workout,” Thompson said. “He’s got good height, length, he can run. He’s got really good flexibility in and out of his cuts. He catches the ball well. We think he’s a good receiver, obviously.”
Johnson understood just how important his testing results were to him getting drafted, even if it was in the final round.
“I think it turned a lot of people’s heads and it drew a lot of attention,” Johnson said. “I’m sure it shocked a lot of people like, ‘Dang, this guy can play. He can do it off the field. What he does on the field correlates to what he did at the Pro Day.'”
Four picks later, the Packers drafted Maryland receiver Kevin Dorsey. One glance at Dorsey’s production as a senior doesn’t suggest a very talented player, totaling just 18 catches and 311 yards. Those statistics don’t tell the whole story, though, as Dorsey had a poor group of quarterbacks at Maryland attempting to get him the ball.
“I don’t mean to speak poorly of them, but they had a number of injuries at the quarterback position at Maryland this year and it was quite a chore being a receiver,” Thompson said. “So the numbers weren’t that impressive. But, again, when you watch him work and meet him and see his build and strength and that sort of thing, he’s impressive.”
Dorsey, like Johnson, is 6-foot-2. And, unlike in college, Dorsey won’t have to worry about not having good quarterback play anymore.
“It was definitely difficult having so little production and having a new guy in there (at quarterback) almost every week or every two weeks,” Dorsey said. “It was something you had to adjust to and fight through.”
Johnson and Dorsey are both very low-risk, high-reward type prospects, too, providing immediate depth while also potentially becoming future difference-makers on offense. Jarrett Boykin and Jeremy Ross, both undrafted free-agent pickups last season, will also be an important part of that.
When Thompson drafted Cobb two years ago, the writing was on the wall with Driver’s best days being behind him. It was also entirely possible that Jennings’ upcoming free-agent price would be steeper than the Packers were willing to pay, which it turned out to be.
Thompson now has a new challenge at the receiver position. Sure, Green Bay is set for 2013, but if Johnson and Dorsey don’t pan out, Rodgers’ options at receiver could become a problem in the near future. Jones will be a free agent next offseason and will turn 30 years old. Even if he is re-signed at that time, it wouldn’t be a long-term type of solution. Nelson will turn 28 at the end of May and has two years left on his contract. Cobb is really the only young player left in that group.
As Rodgers’ record-setting contract continues eating up a big chunk of salary cap space for years to come, Thompson will have to continue freshening up the receivers around his $110 million quarterback.