GREEN BAY, Wis. – Going into their biggest game in three seasons, the Green Bay Packers will try to beat the Minnesota Vikings’ vaunted defense with a formula that’s as uneasy as one, two, three.
That’s one star receiver surrounded by two past-their-prime tight ends and three undrafted receivers.
If that’s not a daunting enough challenge, the Packers made a key personnel decision this week by moving Jake Kumerow – one of those undrafted receivers – up the pecking order.
For years, the Packers’ offensive juggernaut rested on the right arm of Aaron Rodgers and the prolific hands and legs of his receivers. Most recently, it was Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams. With considerable talent and the stability built with thousands upon thousands of snaps together, that was as good a trio as there was in the league.
Now, heading into the final two games of the regular season and the playoffs, that lack of stability would seem at least a little disconcerting.
“I think that might be the negative way to look at it,” Rodgers said on Thursday. “I think if you’re spinning it the right way, it’s just different opportunities for guys. I think every week we’re putting guys in situations to have opportunities, and then based on the result or the performance or the efficiency, different guys get different opportunities week to week.”
Video: The Best of Jake Kumerow
Maybe elevating Kumerow will be just what the doctor ordered to resuscitate a feeble offense. Rodgers won two MVP awards and amassed Hall of Fame-worthy numbers from 2009 through 2016 in part because of his star-studded receiver corps. In 2009, Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson amassed almost 3,000 receiving yards. In 2011, when Rodgers won his first MVP, his list of pass catchers was so good that Cobb, a rookie at the time, finished seventh on the team in receptions. Nelson, Jennings, Jones, Driver and Cobb recorded 3,667 yards and 38 touchdowns. In 2014, when Rodgers won a second MVP, Nelson and Cobb combined for 189 catches, 2,806 yards and 25 touchdowns. Throw in Adams’ rookie contributions, and Green Bay’s three leading receivers combined for 3,250 yards and 28 scores. In 2016, when Rodgers carried the Packers to an NFC Championship Game, Nelson, Adams and Cobb tallied 2,864 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Those were great receiver corps. Jennings, Nelson, Cobb and Adams were second-round picks, Jones was a third-round choice and Driver went from seventh-round pick to Packers Hall of Famer.
The perimeter talent slowly eroded. Former general manager Ted Thompson used draft pick after draft pick in a never-ending attempt to fix a chronically broken defense. His successor, Brian Gutekunst, threw picks at the defense in his first two drafts and tens of millions of dollars on free agents this past offseason. While it’s possible to build an elite passing attack without using premium draft picks on receivers – the Vikings are the perfect example with fifth-round pick Stefon Diggs and undrafted Adam Thielen forming a premier tandem – it’s obviously a lot more difficult. And while it’s true the Patriots have put up explosive numbers without always having elite receivers, Rob Gronkowski was the X-factor as one of the best tight ends in NFL history.
The Packers don’t have a receiver or tight end capable of taking the slightest bit of the defense’s focus off Adams. The reason is obvious. From 2015 through 2019, the Packers had 16 selections in the first three rounds of those five drafts. A dozen of those picks were used on the defense. The others were receiver-turned-running back Ty Montgomery at the end of the third round in 2015, offensive tackle Jason Spriggs in the second round in 2016, nobody in 2017 and 2018, and guard Elgton Jenkins in the second round and tight end Jace Sternberger in the third round in 2019. Montgomery never quite panned out, Spriggs was a bust, Jenkins appears to be a hit and Sternberger was drafted more for 2020 than 2019.
Over the last five years, no team spent fewer first-, second- or third-round picks on running backs, receivers and tight ends than the Packers. Dallas, Indianapolis and Green Bay each invested a league-low two picks. However, the Cowboys fortified their offense by acquiring receiver Amari Cooper in a trade with Oakland and the Colts made a big free-agent signing with tight end Eric Ebron. The Packers made a big splash, too, on tight end Jimmy Graham. In their two seasons with their teams, Cooper has 124 receptions and 14 touchdowns in 23 games, Ebron has 97 catches and 16 touchdowns in 27 games and Graham has 88 receptions and five touchdowns in 30 games.
That’s left the personnel department scrambling to find diamonds in the rough outside the draft’s Top 100 players. In 2017, Thompson triple-dipped with Day 3 running backs and knocked it out of the park with Jamaal Williams in the fourth round and Aaron Jones in the fifth round. Gutekunst tried something similar in 2018 with a triple-dip of Day 3 receivers. Fourth-round pick J’Mon Moore was a colossal miss, fifth-round pick Marquez Valdes-Scantling has fallen off the radar and sixth-round pick Equanimeous St. Brown has spent the season on injured reserve.
This isn’t a criticism of the defense-first (second and third) approach to personnel. It’s simply pointing out the reality that attempts to fix the defense meant reinforcements weren’t added on offense. Those personnel decisions have put the Packers in quite a predicament. Adams is one of the top receivers in the league but help has been fleeting.
The Packers put all the eggs in Valdes-Scantling’s basket during the offseason and training camp, only for the basket to be dropped. The final pick in the fifth round of the 2018 draft, he has just two catches in the last eight games. Geronimo Allison, an undrafted free agent in 2016, was on an 1,100-yard pace to start last season before a core-muscle injury sent him to injured reserve. Back on a one-year, $2.8 million contract, he enters the week ranked 99th out of 102 receivers in yards per target, according to Pro Football Focus, and hasn’t had a catch of longer than 15 yards in eight weeks. Allen Lazard, an undrafted free agent in 2018 who started this season on the practice squad, has been semi-reliable. He had three catches for 103 yards and one touchdown against the Giants, a monster performance sandwiched between three games of five catches for 40 yards. Enter Kumerow, an undrafted free agent in 2015 who didn’t catch his first NFL pass until last season. He had a terrific catch-and-run gain of 49 yards last week against Chicago. However, in the previous three games, Kumerow wasn’t even targeted in the passing game.
With that meager resume, the Packers are hoping Kumerow can provide some kind of spark.
“Opportunities aren’t just in the pass game,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “They’re also within other routes within the pass game, whether he was running a good route on the back side or a complimentary route or he understood the scheme. So, there are so many more things than just the actual ball being thrown to you. We always talk about it takes all 11, and that’s the truth. I think that Jake’s been a great 1/11th for our offense.”
The only sure thing entering Monday night is Adams will be the focal point of Green Bay’s passing attack. From there, only LaFleur knows how he will divvy up the rest of the snaps. Will Lazard be the No. 2 and Kumerow the No. 3? Will snaps be split relatively evenly between Lazard, Kumerow and Allison? Will Valdes-Scantling see the field at all after dropping what should have been a 70-yard touchdown to start the Chicago game?
The “negative way to look at” the situation, to borrow Rodgers’ words, is that if a team has a bunch of receivers in the mix to be the No. 2 receiver, it really doesn’t have a No. 2 receiver. Rodgers, however, continues to see the positives. It’s gotten the team to 11-3, after all. Besides, there’s no reason to grumble about the situation because the 2014 version of Nelson, who had 1,519 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns, isn’t coming through the doors.
“It has been different people every week, and that’s based on what we see in practice, maybe, what we don’t see in the game or what we do see in the game from guys from the previous week,” Rodgers said. “And I think guys like Jake and Allen have earned opportunities based on what they’ve done not just in the game, when they’ve been getting their limited opportunities, but the way they play on special teams. The way they practice. I think Matt values that stuff and that’s why those guys might get more opportunities.”