This offseason, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the youth of the Green Bay Packers’ pass-catching corps. We’ve waited for Brian Gutekunst to pounce on an aging free agent with a veteran minimum deal. However, it appears that the Packers will indeed have rookies and sophomores up and down the depth chart, led by Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs.
Watson and Doubs enter 2023 with high expectations. Watson broke out late last season with a barrage of house calls and explosive plays. Doubs has now stood out in two-straight training camps, and he is primed for a heavy workload in a full-time starting role.
With rookies Jayden Reed and Luke Musgrave starting alongside Watson and Doubs, Jordan Love will continue to develop alongside his receivers, who bring just two seasons’ worth of experience, combined. Only the Indianapolis Colts’ Anthony Richardson is in a similar situation, with five seasons spread between Michael Pittman, Alec Pierce, Josh Downs, and Kylen Granson. The top two picks of this year’s draft, Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud, will have a combined 20 and 17 years of experience on the other side of their passes, respectively. Eighteen surround Sam Howell, who is taking over in Washington.
Despite that, the Packers should have little trouble easing Love into things. He will play behind a stout offensive line and will have an excellent thunder-and-lightning duo in the backfield. A.J. Dillon and Aaron Jones excel in pass protection, receiving, and A-gap runs. But things could get tricky if injuries pop up.
Unfortunately, it appears like that time has come. With Watson and Doubs nursing hamstring injuries ahead of Week 1’s matchup against the Chicago Bears, it’s more evident than ever that the receiver room is again a house of cards, primed to collapse in a stiff breeze. Watson has already been officially ruled out; head coach Matt LaFleur characterized him as week-to-week.
The same hamstring kept Watson out of three contests in 2022 and heavily limited him in a handful more. Doubs also missed significant time with an ankle injury. It’s probably too early to label either of them as injury-prone; however, we’ve seen how hamstring injuries can linger. Getting hit with the injury bug before games start is a dire signal that Green Bay’s depth will be tested early and often again this year.
The problem? As unproven as the starters are, the depth pieces come with even more uncertainty. In a weak NFC and a division that lacks a true juggernaut, it would be costly for the offense to be as messy as it was last year, not to mention the importance of laying the foundation for what Love’s career is going to look like.
Undrafted rookie Malik Heath is behind Watson at the X position. Coming off a solid career at Ole Miss, Heath balled out in preseason with 12 receptions for 146 yards, showing strong hands and physicality, and making him impossible to waive. He made the roster over late-round pick Grant Dubose and practice squad returnee Bo Melton. Heath is a promising young player, but potentially having to immediately turn to him on Sunday is a pretty daunting challenge for both him and Love. It’s not an ideal situation for a team with legitimate playoff hopes.
The Packers have listed fifth-round rookie Dontayvion Wicks as Doubs’ backup. But, surprise, the rookie out of Virginia has been dealing with a hamstring issue of his own. Wicks’ return to practice, albeit in a limited capacity, is somewhat promising. But should he sit, most of Doubs’ vacated routes and targets will likely go to 2022 seventh-round pick Samori Toure. LaFleur described Toure as having “complete command” of the offense and being a guy who can line up anywhere from X to Z. He caught a few sniffs of action in the wake of the various injuries last season, most notably hauling in a long touchdown pass from Rodgers on an otherwise unfortunate night in Buffalo.
It remains to be seen if Reed will line up exclusively in the slot or will spend some time in two-receiver sets on the outside. Either way, he and Musgrave have the potential to be PPR monsters, stepping further into the spotlight in Watson’s absence, at least. It’s unclear who would provide the downfield pressure in that scenario, but it would play into Love’s preference for the middle of the field.
It’s ominous to see hints of the injury bug already popping up, especially having lost David Bakhtiari, Rashan Gary, Eric Stokes, and more for entire seasons in the final years of the Rodgers era. Injuries are obviously a huge part of football, but it feels like the Packers have had it particularly rough. The physicality of the game is what makes depth so important, and why teams spend on premier positions. Whether the Packers have serviceable receiving depth or not is completely up in the air. But just like last season, there won’t be many places to run if guys can’t step up.