GREEN BAY — When it comes to putting together the pecking order of his wide receivers, Matt LaFleur likes to use another sport — the one he was playing when he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon this offseason — to describe his vision.
“The way I look at the receiver group is kind of like filling out a basketball roster,” the Green Bay Packers first-year head coach explained during the offseason program. “You need guys that are at a certain area of expertise, and then it’s our job as coaches to put those guys into position where they can showcase that skill set.
“We do have a lot of young receivers. We’re just trying to see them improve on a daily basis.”
It’s a philosophy that permeates the schemes employed by the NFL’s hot young offensive-minded head coaches, from the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay and San Francisco 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan to LaFleur, who was the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator last season, and new Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, both of whom spent time on McVay’s staff.
Obviously, No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams is the Packers’ leading scorer — their Giannis Antetokounmpo, if you will. In 15 games last season, he caught a remarkable 111 passes for 1,386 yards and 13 touchdowns — and quarterback Aaron Rodgers said this offseason that he’d like to target Adams even more often this year.
The issue is whether the Packers have put enough talent on the floor around Adams and given quarterback Aaron Rodgers enough additional weaponry — especially in the wake of the team moving on from two of his favorite targets, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, in successive offseasons — to get his game back to its customary levels.
“Davante, we can move him around anywhere. He can play outside, off the ball, on the ball, in the slot,” Rodgers said. “In these offenses you’re seeing run in L.A., San Fran, Atlanta, Matt in Tennessee and now here, those guys all had slot guys who can really go. So we need to find who that guy is.”
Throughout the Packers’ offseason practices, that guy was fourth-year man Geronimo Allison, who missed most of last season following surgery to repair a core muscle injury. Allison was on pace for a 1,000-yard season at the time of the injury.
Consistency has long been a crucial word in Rodgers’ vocabulary when discussion his connection with wide receivers, and it’s hard to tell if the team’s three rookies from last season — Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and J’Mon Moore — have made significant strides in that department. During the offseason program, the player Rodgers spoke most glowingly about when discussing consistency was former UW-Whitewater star Jake Kumerow, who became one of Rodgers’ favorite young receivers during training camp a year ago.
Here’s a closer look at the wide receiver position as the Packers prepare for training camp, which kicks off with its first practice on July 25:
Will the young guys make the Year 2 jump?
When general manager Brian Gutekunst said following the April draft that he was “content” with what he had at wide receiver, he wasn’t saying that he was OK with where each of his young receivers were in their development – only that he didn’t think the Packers needed to add any more competition to the group because he liked the youngsters’ potential. But without any really proven pass-catchers on the roster after Adams, he’d better hope that the kids are all right.
During offseason practices, Valdes-Scantling worked as the third receiver after Adams and Allison in practices open to reporters, and when Adams missed time with a minor injury, Kumerow was the next man up with the 1s. While they enter camp ahead of the others, the competition is wide open, LaFleur said.
On the rise
Rodgers has been raving about the former Warhawks standout for nearly a year now, having identified him as a player to watch during training camp last summer. Kumerow might have parlayed the strong impression he made on the two-time MVP into a significant role in the offense once the season started if not for a shoulder injury he suffered while diving across the goal line at the end of an 82-yard touchdown in the second preseason game.
Now healthy, and part of a receiver group with no clear-cut roles after Adams, Kumerow will have another chance to grow his connection with Rodgers and earn more playing time.
Player to watch
Having caught 20 passes for 303 yards and a pair of touchdowns before his injury, Allison was on his way to a 1,000-yard season and proving to be a worthy replacement for Nelson. Instead, he landed on season-ending injured reserve and now enters a contract year with a huge opportunity to cash in in free agency if he can stay healthy. A healthy, productive Allison would also give the Packers passing game an added dimension, especially with LaFleur having given Allison the first crack at the slot receiver spot that Cobb used to man.
While the 6-foot-3 Allison doesn’t look like the typical undersized, waterbug-like slot receiver most teams use, Allison said LaFleur told him that he fits the mold for a slot receiver in this offense.
The Packers haven’t been afraid of imbalanced rosters coming out of past training camps, having willingly kept seven wide receivers on the 53-man roster when they felt it was justified. The question this year is just how many receivers will earn their keep, and entering camp, it’s hard to predict.
Was the positive impression Trevor Davis made during the offseason a sign of things to come, or meaningless shorts-and-helmets practice productivity? Will Moore, the forgotten man in last year’s three-receiver draft class, take advantage of a new offense that puts him back on somewhat level ground with his fellow second-year receivers? Can the speedy Valdes-Scantling build on the most impressive resume of the three 2018 receiver draft picks? Will St. Brown, who had a quiet offseason, jump out once the pads come on? LaFleur is as curious as anyone.