This is the third in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to training camp. The series continues with the wide receivers and tight ends.
GREEN BAY – Jordy Nelson is back. James Jones is not. Randall Cobb is again the Packers’ No. 2 receiver.
That’s all pretty clear-cut.
What isn’t so obvious is who will be Aaron Rodgers’ No. 3 target when the 2016 regular season begins. It likely will be the most-watched competition in training camp.
Five different candidates could conceivably make a bid for the job, and yet, there’s no guarantee all five will end the preseason with a job in Green Bay at all. That’s how wide open this is.
Davante Adams will be out to prove he can take on the added responsibility that appeared to be too big a burden last year in the wake of Nelson’s season-ending knee injury.
Adams injured an ankle in Week 2 last season, re-aggravated it at least twice and perhaps was never fully healthy until the wild-card playoff game at Washington, when he had four catches for 48 yards and a TD in the first two-plus quarters, but then got hurt again.
His 50 catches for 483 yards and a TD in the regular season were not the improvement expected over his rookie numbers (38-446-3), but the former second-round draft pick began his Year 3 offseason bigger and stronger, and with full knowledge of what’s at stake.
Namely, that a quartet of other draft picks – 2014 fifth- and seventh-rounders Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis, 2015 third-rounder Ty Montgomery and 2016 fifth-rounder Trevor Davis – are vying for their share of playing time, too.
Abbrederis and Janis both flashed promise in limited chances in the regular season last year, and then delivered in the playoffs when injuries forced them into bigger roles. Abbrederis had six catches for 69 yards plus a two-point reception in the two postseason games while Janis turned in one of the biggest and most memorable playoff performances by a receiver in franchise history in Arizona.
His seven catches for 145 yards and two TDs, including a pair of Hail Mary grabs for 60 and 41 yards on the game-tying drive, have Green Bay’s fan base eagerly anticipating his next act. Janis became a true pro on special teams in 2015, and Head Coach Mike McCarthy has said it’s now time for him to do the same at receiver in 2016.
Montgomery was off to a promising start last season as a rookie, with 15 catches for 136 yards and two scores in six games before he was shelved for good with an ankle injury. The subsequent surgery kept him sidelined throughout this past spring, and McCarthy made no guarantee he’d be ready for training camp. When he is medically cleared, how quickly he re-acclimates himself to Rodgers and the offense will determine where he fits in his second year.
Davis is the only one of the contenders without NFL experience, but he has the blow-by speed and reliable hands to make a mark in camp. The rookie from Cal could be a factor in the return game as well.
All that said, the Packers would have to take the unusual step of keeping seven receivers on the 53-man roster in order for everyone mentioned thus far to stick around, and that list doesn’t even include practice-squad holdovers Ed Williams and Jamel Johnson plus undrafted rookies Geronimo Allison and Herb Waters. The competition for roster spots promises to be intense.
As for Nelson and Cobb, the Packers would love to see the tandem repeat their 2014 campaign, which made the third target less of an issue. Their combined 189 catches for 2,806 yards and 25 TDs that year made for an epic season, the best by a receiving duo in team history.
All indications are Nelson will be full-go for training camp. He was running some routes during OTAs and sounded like a player who would have been practicing daily had it been up to him.
Cobb, meanwhile, made it clear he’s not happy about the falloff in his production in 2015 without Nelson as his running mate – from 1,287 yards to 829, from 12 TDs to six, and from a 14.1-yard average to 10.5. His displeasure suggested he doesn’t feel he’s living up to the big contract he signed a year ago, and he’s out to do so now.
Tight end doesn’t have as much intrigue in the pecking order, because the new guy in town was brought in to be featured.
Free-agent acquisition Jared Cook possesses the combination of size and speed the Packers haven’t had at the position since Jermichael Finley, and he has averaged roughly 40 catches for 500 yards and a couple of TDs in his seven-year career without anyone the caliber of Rodgers throwing to him.
If Cook can indeed stretch defenses as advertised – he missed the latter portion of OTAs with a foot injury but is expected back for camp – he becomes a healthy complement to third-year pro Richard Rodgers, who’s a reliable possession target (58 catches, 510 yards in 2015) and red-zone threat (eight TDs).
The battle for the third tight end will be between Justin Perillo, Kennard Backman, Mitchell Henry and Casey Pierce.
Perillo has the most NFL game experience of the four, but Backman and Henry bring a little more athleticism to the role, while Pierce is the one learning the Packers’ playbook for the first time after spending last season on Detroit’s practice squad. Special-teams ability will no doubt play a factor as that competition unfolds.
Countdown to Camp series
QB: It’s Hundley’s time to shine
RB: Spotlight remains on Lacy