Examining the 2011 Green Bay Packers: Wide Receivers

Over the past week, Evan ably covered the QB position, and Kevin broke down the situation at RB.  Today, the third installment of this extended series of position evaluations takes on the wide receiver position.  Green Bay's precision passing attack couldn't work without receivers that excel at timing-based routes, intermediate crossing patterns, and gaining yards after the catch.  As the league now knows, we have two that are excellent and two more that are improving at a fast rate.  So how does the WR corps look long-term?

Wide Receivers (5): Donald Driver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Brett Swain

#80 Donald Driver

Player Progression (progress/stagnate/regress from 2010): Regress

Team Standing (expanded/same/diminshed role): Diminished role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: Poor

Let's get one thing straight: Donald Driver is the effing MAN.  Since 2002, he's averaged 73 catches, 1009 yards, 5.5 touchdowns, 47 first downs, and 13.8 yards per catch.  Best receiver in Green Bay history?  Statistically, he's only 42 yards away, but he's definitely within the top 3.  Packer Hall of Famer?  Absolutely.  League Hall of Famer?  A super-duper-extra long shot, but if the selection committee values charity appearances, grittiness, and smiles over catches and scores, he'd be a shoo-in.

But this is what a WR in the late twilight of his career looks like.  A nagging quad injury hampered his effectiveness for all of 2010, and his age (36) is going to start working against him even more next year.  He won't get cut or traded, but he's certainly in danger of relinquishing his starting job.  After he gets the yardage he needs to mark his place in franchise history, look for his playing time to get scaled back as the next two guys jockey for his starting gig.  

#89 James Jones

Player Progression: Progress

Team Standing: Same role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: Average to high

Jones had his best campaign since his 2007 rookie year (50 catches, 679 yards, 5 TDs), but his overall performance was mixed.  He tied his career high in fumbles (3) and had roughly a gazillion drops, at least five of which were of the perfectly-thrown-in-stride-where-all-he-had-to-do-was-catch-and-run-for-a-score variety.  Peaks and valleys notwithstanding, Jones has the best physical package of the Green Bay receivers, with enough size to bully smaller DBs in the red zone, the speed needed to abuse linebackers and safeties, and (crazily enough) hands that actually CAN catch a football most of the time.

The biggest challenge towards bringing Jones back is his (likely) status as an unrestricted free agent, depending on the terms of the new CBA.  Teams envying Green Bay's aerial attack might try to woo Jones with more money and a guaranteed starting job, and Thompson's not the guy to pay a penny higher than fair market value for someone he deems ultimately replaceable.  However, Thompson ought to know what kind of talent Jones has, and Jones ought to recognize the opportunity he has to be a part of a dynamic offense for years to come.  Couple that with his close relationship with Greg Jennings, and I play the optimist and say that he's staying for a while as one of the best #3 receivers in the league.

#87 Jordy Nelson

Player Progression: Progress

Team Standing: Expanded role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: High

Jordy Nelson is hard to figure out.  He's just good at everything.  He's a big receiver, but not the biggest.  He's a strong runner, but not the strongest.  Faster than he looks, but looks slow as molasses.  Runs good routes, has good hands, blocks pretty well, but isn't the best in any of those regards.  HIs game isn't about maximizing any one strength, but allowing the offense to use him in any role necessary.

Don't take this as a knock on Jordy, though.  He's a good receiver, and I believe will get a shot at the #2 job alongside Greg Jennings.  He certainly proved his worth in the Super Bowl, despite the drops.  (Then again, which receiver didn't have drops this year?)  He could put up 1,000 yards if the offense needed him to.  He could catch 10 balls a game if he was open enough times.  He can (and often times does) block a DB downfield on an extended run play to his side.  He's the definition of a role player: don't ask him to carry the offense (even though he probably could if asked), but as far as complimentary players go, he's a great fit for this system.

#85 Greg Jennings

Player Progression: Stagnate

Team Standing: Diminished role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: High

 

At the beginning of the season, Jennings was performing slightly worse than most predicted.  After Jermichael Finley was lost to injury, the offensive focus turned to him, and he went on a tear worthy of any of the other top NFL receivers.  After week 6, he had one game where he posted less than 50 yards (Week 15 @NE).  He had at least 4 catches in each game.  He scored nine touchdowns, including the ridiculous line he put up against Minnesota in week 11 (7 for 152 and 3 scores).  I guess opportunity really is everything?

He's a versatile receiver who can do just about everything; the only limit he has is his average size.  If he shakes off the 2010 season that was plagued by drops from all the receivers, he'll be more efficient, but don't expect him to put up Pro Bowl numbers again with Jermichael Finley around.  He won't have to.  Thankfully, Jennings is level-headed enough to accept that, and he will continue to lead Green Bay's dynamic passing game for years to come.

#16 Brett Swain

Player Progession: Stagnate

Team Standing: Same role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: Poor

Not all of our seventh round picks can turn out like Donald Driver.  Some of them are destined to be special teams contributors and not much more.  It's not really anybody's fault; Swain is a limited player who knows his role and does exactly what's asked of him.  If he lines up on offense and is open, Rodgers will throw him the ball.  But with Jennings, Nelson, Driver, Jones (hopefully) ahead of him on the depth chart, and Jermichael Finley returning in 2011 (YOTTO!), there aren't many snaps left for Swain.

If Thompson keeps the WR corps the way it is, I wouldn't complain.  If he brings in a WR and Swain is the odd man out, I wouldn't complain.  Let's just hope this Brett's eventual departure is more amicable than the last.

* * *

Altogether, the APC staff determined that wide receiver is a position of moderate importance in terms of adding players during the offseason.  If an opportunity presents itself to bring in a much-needed kick return specialist that also plays wide-out, the team will likely make room and part ways with Brett Swain while keeping the WR roster count at 5.  Jennings has a nice long contract, but Driver's assumed retirement after 2011 and Jones' status as a (likely) free agent make the WR position less of a sure thing going forward.  

In my opinion, the smart move would be to lock up Jones long-term to keep your top three spots set for the next 4-5 years, and looking at prospects to eventually fill that #4 WR role.  If you can find that player this year, and he also happens to be a dynamic kick returner (somebody in the mold of Jeremy Maclin would be PERFECT), stash him in the #5 spot until Driver retires.  The passing attack should be deadly for years with weapons like Jennings, Finley, Nelson, Jones, and WR/KR (fill in name here).

So am I spot on, or completely bonkers?  Poll!
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