GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jason Vrable had a message to his Green Bay Packers receivers, an unheralded group that must somehow replace the production provided by All-Pro Davante Adams.
“I talked to the guys,” Vrable said on Thursday. “I said, ‘Look at all the balls that went to ‘Tae.’ I talked to them, I said, ‘Look at the opportunity that is ahead of you. 12’s a Hall of Famer. He’s throwing the ball to somebody. We play three guys a lot of times and I’m like, ‘There’s three No. 1 spots, so who’s going to take it?’”
Between returning players, free agency and the draft, Vrable has a lot of options to help replace Adams’ 123 receptions, 1,553 yards and 11 touchdowns from last season. Whether any of them will be good enough to keep a championship-contending team a championship contender is anyone’s guess.
It starts at the top with Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, the two returning players with proven production in coach Matt LaFleur’s offense.
Lazard is coming off the best season of his career with 40 receptions, 513 yards, eight touchdowns and a drop rate of 1.7 percent, according to Pro Football Reference. Benefitting from the presence of Adams but also from his size and physicality, his career catch rate is 68.6 percent.
(Allen Lazard vs. Cleveland/USA Today Sports)
Cobb returned at the start of training camp and caught 28 passes for 375 yards and five touchdowns. It was his most touchdowns since 2014 and passes thrown his way produced a passer rating of 141.5, but he forced only one broken tackle. He’ll turn 32 during training camp.
(Randall Cobb scores vs. Arizona/USA Today Sports)
The arrival of Cobb blocked the path to playing time for Amari Rodgers, a third-round pick last year who was hand-picked by general manager Brian Gutekunst for slot duty. He caught only four passes for 45 yards.
Even with Cobb missing the final five games following a core-muscle injury, Rodgers wasn’t an option. He played only 10 snaps in the first four of those games and then 31 in the meaningless finale at Detroit.
“I don't give Amari the out that Randall was here because it's your job to beat Randall out or to beat our Z out,” Vrable said. “His performance just wasn't on their level and that's the reality of it. It wasn't that he was bad, but he wasn't doing the high-level things that Randall was doing.”
The key will be for Rodgers to take that Year 2 jump. The way-too-early signs are encouraging.
“Cobby bumped me the other day and was like, ‘Yo. You can feel it from him,’” Vrable said. “I smiled and was like, ‘Hey, it’s just the start right now. We’ll see where it’s at when the pads come on and the lights are on.’”
(Amari Rodgers vs. the Saints/USA Today Sports)
The same is true for the returning duo of Malik Taylor and Juwann Winfree. Winfree, a sixth-round pick by Denver in 2019, caught the first eight passes of his career for 58 yards but fumbled twice and had one drop. Taylor caught two passes for 14 yards at the end of the blowout Week 1 loss to New Orleans and never saw the ball the rest of the season.
“I feel really good about the direction of the room from a competitive standpoint and just buying into what we’re looking for,” Vrable said. “Right now, I’ve seen Malik and Juwann and Amari, who look night and day compared to what they did last year. I think it’s all the way they worked in the offseason, the way they understand the playbook and the way they’re flying around out there. It’s a totally different speed. So, I feel really good about them right now.”
(Juwann Winfree vs. the Cardinals/USA Today Sports)
Sammy Watkins was the lone veteran addition. The fourth pick of the 2014 draft by Buffalo – Vrable was an assistant coach with the Bills at the time – he looked like the next great receiver when he caught 125 passes for 2,029 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Since then, he has only one season of more than 40 receptions. While he caught eight touchdowns with the Rams in 2017 – LaFleur was the offensive coordinator of that team – he’s scored only nine times the past four seasons.
“The way he was running some routes and catching, it reminded me of when he first walked on the field,” Vrable said. “The biggest thing had been some injuries. He’s here doing all the workouts right now in conditioning. He feels good where his body is at. One thing you’ll see with him is he plucks the ball different. He has hands where you’ll hear the pluck and running through catch, and his play strength. There’s a reason why we drafted him that high and he’s had a lot of successful years in his career.”
(Sammy Watkins vs. Sam Shields/USA Today Sports)
Gutekunst drafted three players last month. He traded his two second-round picks to rival Minnesota to zoom up to No. 34 overall to land North Dakota State’s Christian Watson. In Day 3, he added Nevada’s Romeo Doubs in the fourth round and Nebraska’s Samori Toure in the seventh round.
At 6-foot-4 and with 4.36 speed in the 40, Watson has the potential to be a star.
“He’s going to be a problem once he figures things out,” offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich said.
Whether it’s Lazard showing he can be more than a complementary piece, Rodgers taking a huge Year 2 jump, Watkins turning back the clock or one of the rookies stepping to the forefront, Green Bay is going to need major contributions from its new-look receiver corps if it’s going to make a run at a Super Bowl.
Rodgers’ excellence will help, as will LaFleur’s proven system. But, ultimately, in the big moments, someone must get open and make a play.
Said Vrable: “We’ve got to install the confidence, we’ve got to get the job done at a high level and hold the standard of our room and let’s go find a way to get that Lombardi at the end.
(Christian Watson/North Dakota State Athletics)