Note: This is the fourth in a series of positional stories focused on the big story lines entering Week 1 of the NFL season.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers’ receiver corps has been gashed by a number of slings and arrows over the years.
Once upon a time, it was the slowest group of receivers in the NFL. During Aaron Rodgers’ career, he’s completed seven passes to receivers drafted in the first round. And it wasn’t just a game-breaking talent he lacked. Headed into this year’s NFL Draft, the Packers were the only team to not select a receiver in the first three rounds of the previous five drafts.
Added together, the receivers were viewed as Davante Adams and the Seven Dwarfs.
Some things haven’t changed. Rodgers still doesn’t have a first-round receiver to catch passes. The team did draft a receiver with a premium draft pick this year, third-rounder Amari Rodgers, but he’s unlikely to make a sudden impact.
What has changed is the perception of this receiver corps, a group that can beat defenses any which way imaginable.
Need a big play? There’s Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Since entering the league in 2018, he leads the NFL with his 17.8-yard average and is second in 40-yard touchdowns (seven) and 40-yard catches (15). Last year, he led the NFL with a 20.9-yard average and caught four touchdowns of 40-plus yards. He also dropped seven passes. However, his lack of drops was one of the big developments of training camp. He dropped only one, during a 2-minute drill.
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“The same as it’s always been – high,” he said of his confidence. “There’s no time where my confidence is low. Contrary to popular belief, my confidence is always high. No matter what’s going on, no matter if it’s a dropped ball or a missed block, confidence is always going to be high, because you can’t play this position without confidence. I’m always going to believe in myself, and not one person on this planet can be harder on me than I can be on myself.”
Need a big man? There’s Allen Lazard. “I like to call him our goon, and he’s an enforcer,” coach Matt LaFleur said recently.
Listed at 6-foot-5 and 227 pounds, Lazard is as capable of reeling in a big reception as delivering a big third-down block. He had a massive night in a primetime victory at New Orleans with six catches for 146 yards and one touchdown. In the playoffs against the Rams, he tallied seven catches for 158 yards, including the deep touchdown that clinched the victory. Meanwhile, the Packers’ running game was 0.98 yards per carry better with Lazard on the field than when he was off.
“Allen Lazard has gone from a guy on the other field working with the 3s and 2s to an integral part of what we’re doing,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He does the dirty work. He’s a tough, gritty player, great human being, super-interesting guy off the field and just a true pro on the field.”
Need a slot threat? There’s the return of Cobb and the potential impact of Amari Rodgers. While his 38 receptions for 441 yards and three touchdowns last season in Houston were a far cry from the four consecutive seasons of 60-plus catches for the Packers from 2014 through 2017, his 79.2 percent catch rate was his best since his rookie season of 2011.
“I think he’s just a really great veteran that knows how to separate and knows how to attack,” LaFleur said before Monday’s practice. “You see it all the time when he’s out there, how he attacks leverages of whoever’s in front of him. He’s very good at that, at being able to get an edge on a guy, and put his foot down and separate. And, certainly, I think the rapport is there with Aaron. He definitely has a great feel for how he’s going to break off some of his routes. We’re going to use him in the rotation. I don’t want to wear him out.”
Oh, and there’s the indomitable Davante Adams to lead the band. Adams in 2020 led the NFL with 98.1 receiving yards per game and 18 touchdowns. More than just a one-man show whose production was based on volume alone, his 77.2 percent catch rate was his first time at 66-plus percent and ranked second among receivers with at least 40 receptions.
To be sure, his presence makes everything go. But, so long as Lazard stays healthy, Valdes-Scantling can take his sticky hands into the regular season and Cobb proves Rodgers right, this will be a receiver corps that is overlooked at opponents’ peril.