Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers generally haven’t really had a good deep passing game since 2014, and it’s been a disturbing trend over the last three seasons. Before 2015, Aaron Rodgers never had a yards per attempt (YPA) below 8 outside of his first year as a starter, but over the past three seasons, he’s struggled to crack 7.0 YPA. In their primes, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, and Jermichael Finley were all outstanding deep threats, but after Nelson blew out his ACL, that dimension has been completely absent in Green Bay. Davante Adams can be effective deep, but he’s most effective as a catch-and-run bulldozer. Cobb is a dink and dunk specialist, and potential deep threats like Trevor Davis and Jeff Janis never materialized.
The Packers’ offense has been a problem more often than most people realize, even with Rodgers at the helm. In 2015 without Nelson, they were bad, and in a rare role-reversal, the offense undid a lot of good work by the defense. 2016 was bolstered by a phenomenal performance by Rodgers in the red zone, and while that’s a nice skill to have, the offense was pedestrian between the 20s. The fact is that some defenses are going to stymie the Packer offense if they have no ability to take the top off.
Some of you probably swore at the mention of Alvin Harper just now. When the Cowboys were thwarting the Packers in the playoffs every single year in the early 90s, Harper was the constant ticking time bomb. While Emmitt Smith was annoyingly gaining 5 yards before even being touched, and Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek were picking up first downs seemingly at will, it was that bomb to Harper that you knew was going to hit at some point and blow the game open.
Do you want to hear a fun fact about Alvin Harper? He never caught more than 36 passes in a season for the Cowboys, and he only caught more than 50% of his targets once. Now, he did also average 25 yards per reception one year which is amazing, but Harper was mostly just a 6-3 burner who could do one thing, and that one thing was almost always open because the defense was occupied with a bunch of Hall of Fame level guys and Troy Aikman. Harper was a one-trick pony, but it was a pretty good trick, and he was effective immediately as a rookie, catching 20 balls for 326 yards (16.3 yards per catch).
The cliche is that rookie wide receivers take two or three seasons before they really develop, and you don’t need to look any further than Davante Adams for support, but Adams is a complete, technically fantastic receiver. If you’re looking for guy to go and get deep balls, rookies can handle it without too much trouble. For example, Kenny Golladay was a 3rd round pick of the Lions last year, and while he only caught 28 balls (in an injury shortened, 11-game season), he averaged 17 yards per catch. Golladay may turn into a complete receiver down the line, but he was a dangerous deep threat immediately.
The Jaguars were actually a functional offense last season partially because of rookie Keelan Cole. Cole was an undrafted free agent speed demon who caught 42 Bortles-thrown passes at a clip of 17.8 yards per reception.
Deep routes are simple routes, and many receivers enter the league adept at running them. If you need to buy this specific skill-set, loading up on a few burners late in the draft isn’t a bad way to go. Recent late-round rookies to make immediate impacts as deep threats include Taylor Gabriel (36 catches, 17.25 YPC), Louis Murphy (34 catches, 15.32 YPC), Snoop Minnis (33 catches, 15.48 YPC), Denarius Moore (33 catches, 18.73 YPC), Kenny Stills (32 catches, 20 YPC), Brian Hartline (31 catches, 16.36 YPC), and Charles Johnson (31 catches, 15.32 yards per reception).
The Packers Bought The Skillset
J’Mon Moore - 6-3, 207 lbs., 15.7 YPC, 4.48 40 (Pro Day)
Marquez Valdes-Scantling - 6-4, 206 lbs., 15.4 YPC, 4.37 40
Equanimeous St. Brown - 6-5, 214 lbs., 16.1 YPC, 4.48 40
The wideouts taken by the Packers in this year’s draft may turn into All-Pro level contributors at some point in their careers. However, as rookies, all have the ability to contribute immediately as deep threats. ESB’s closest Mockdraftable comparable is the aforementioned Kenny Golladay. All MVS did in college was run either fly routes or bubble screens, and as a big receiver with unmatched speed, he should at least attract attention down the field. Moore is the most likely to turn into a complete receiver and his downfield tools don’t jump out quite as much, but he’s the best physical receiver of the group, and his advanced route running and body control should allow him to do damage in the deep secondary.
Between Adams, Cobb, and Graham, along with some nifty receiving backs, the Packers have the short-to-medium space covered. They needed to buy bomb runners, and that’s exactly what they did. The Packers haven’t had a receiver catch over 25 balls with a 15 YPC average since James Jones in 2015, and no one outside of James Jones or Jordy Nelson has accomplished the feat since 2011. Don’t be surprised if one of the kids winds up as Alvin Harper to Davante’s Michael Irvin this season. That’s really all they need to blow the doors off of the league.