The Green Bay Packers have a strong need at wide receiver, so it’s fair to assume the team will take at least one wideout in the first two rounds of this week’s draft. But that’s only the first step in rebuilding the room long-term. It’s even more imperative for them to have a plan for the rookie (or rookies) to come in and have an immediate impact, something the Packers haven’t needed with past prospects.
The Packers have used 20 rookie receivers since Aaron Rodgers became the starting quarterback in 2008. Only one, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, had more than 500 yards in his first year. Even players who turned out to be really good didn’t have much impact in Year 1. Davante Adams had 446 yards in 2014, Randall Cobb had 375 yards in 2011, and Jordy Nelson had 375 yards in 2008.
The difference is that the Packers already had other primary options when they drafted these young receivers. Therefore, they had time to adjust to the pro game and develop into better versions of themselves. While the Packers hope to develop a player or two for the long run, they also need production in 2022. The only receivers on the roster are Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, Randall Cobb, and Amari Rodgers.
Therefore, they have to buck two trends. One is taking a receiver or two early in the draft, something they haven’t done since 2014. The other is having a plan to integrate them immediately.
Before the 2020 NFL Draft, the Packers were expected to take a receiver early. Instead, they went with quarterback Jordan Love and running back A.J. Dillon in the first two rounds. At the time, general manager Brian Gutekunst said it was a challenge to have an immediate impact from receivers.
“There’s really what we call a football intelligence part of it, and a lot of that is experience, where they come from, and where their knowledge base is,” Gutekunst said. “There’s obviously the capacity of how much they can really learn. So we spend a lot of time on that.”
“The NFL’s not very kind with the patience part of it,” Gutekunst added, “but that is part of what we’re trying to do here is develop these guys because it doesn’t happen overnight for most.”
Saying wide receivers take time to develop was probably the best argument for the Packers to draft a player at the position in 2020, knowing Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Allen Lazard would be free agents two years later. If they had drafted Michael Pittman or Tee Higgins instead of Love, they would have contributed right away and probably would be somewhere near ready to take a step up as the primary receiving weapon. But Green Bay opted not to take a receiver two years ago, so they need the young player to produce right away. For the present and future, the Packers will have to discover a way to integrate a rookie receiver quickly.
MVS created a blueprint for how a receiver can make an immediate impact in Green Bay. He came in as a fifth-round pick in a year where the Packers drafted three receivers. But he was the most productive – not only among the three but among all rookie receivers since Aaron Rodgers became the starter. And that’s not because Valdes-Scantling was ready or had the potential to be a star in the NFL, but because he had a defined role in the offense. He was the designated deep threat.
D.K. Metcalf is another good example. He had an impressive combination of size and speed, but he fell to the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft because he was underwhelming in agility drills. The Seattle Seahawks gladly took him with the 64th pick and transformed him into one of the best young receivers in football.
But it wasn’t something magical or immediate. Seattle used Metcalf in a limited role as a rookie to maximize his skill set. Initially, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer designed downfield opportunities for the young receiver so he could make an immediate contribution. And it worked. Metcalf had 900 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie. Later, his role got bigger as he evolved as a player.
Aaron Rodgers likes experienced receivers. In the past, he criticized rookie receivers who didn’t know some aspects or details of the offense. And that’s the second part that demands change. Although it’s fair for the quarterback to expect a high understanding of the offense from his teammates, Rodgers will have to know that this year is an exception and that the young pass-catchers will be more important than ever. They will need a specific role in the offense, designed by head coach Matt LaFleur, and support and confidence from their quarterback.
It’s a new era for the Packers’ receiving room. Everybody needs to act accordingly.