There has been much twitter ink spilled ridiculing those of us who were critical of the Green Bay Packers’ draft because the offense has been so good in spite of not adding any new receivers. Indeed, it’s hard to say they should have done anything differently given how much they’ve rolled opposing defenses, and given the fact that they destroyed a decent Saints defense without Davante Adams. If all it takes is having Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur on the same page, why not gamble on a luxury pick or two?
I’d like to offer a word of warning on that front, and highlight the reason they are still deficient and how it could serve to bite them at some point in the future. That problem is Marquez Valdes-Scantling. It may not seem like your 3rd receiver is that big of a problem, especially when Davante Adams is great, and Allen Lazard is currently first overall in DVOA, but MVS (and the rest of the receivers) could be a bigger problem than you think.
MVS is Bad
Let’s first establish that Valdes-Scantling is still not good. While we all got excited about a few big bombs earlier this season that he happened to haul in, it’s worth remembering that he still drops a ton of catchable balls and he’s still a very poor route-runner on anything that isn’t a shot play. While he can be useful to the team as long as LaFleur’s scheme continues to get guys “college open,” even among deep threats he’s not catching enough balls. Among receivers with at least 10 targets and who average over 15 yards per catch, MVS ranks 19th out of 22 in catch percentage, with only Lions Qunitez Cephus and Danny Amendola, and the Bears’ Anthony Miller behind him. Cephus is a rookie who was forced to start prematurely in Kenny Golladay’s absence, and Danny Amendola is a slot receiver who doesn’t generally work down the field this much. Miller has been dealing with Mitch Trubisky passes. To be this low with Aaron Rodgers throwing to you is inexcusable.
MVS’s yards-per-catch is over 20, which is great, but the YPC of deep threats varies greatly in small sample sizes based on how much field happens to be in front of them. By DVOA he currently ranks 46th, and his Defense-Adjusted Yards above Average (DYAR) so far is only 6, which also ranks 46th. (Allen Lazard is also #1 in DYAR with 146.) While MVS has made plenty of big plays, he’s so inefficient on the rest of his targets that he’s barely provided any net value.
If you just look at his 2020 numbers compared to his career numbers, they’re pretty much the same as they always are. He hasn’t gotten better even while the scheme around him has. This is a problem.
Why This Is A Problem
The obvious counter to this is that MVS barely matters. He’s a bit player, and if necessary Aaron Rodgers can just hit Davante Adams/Lazard/Aaron Jones/Tight Ends if MVS is struggling. In short, “Who cares?”
Fair point, but the problem is only partially MVS. Behind him on the depth chart we have Darrius Shepherd and Malik Taylor while Equanimeous St. Brown recovers from a knee injury. MVS is the best of a bad lot, which means you have a bad lot. When you’re playing mostly 12 and 21 personnel the receivers on the bench don’t matter that much in normal times, but it’s worth remembering that often when the Packers lose in the playoffs, it’s because they run into someone doing something not normal.
The 49ers beat the Packers last year by exploiting their incredibly bad run defense, but it’s worth noting that that also did a nice job bottling up the offense, holding Green Bay to 20 mostly garbage time points and picking Rodgers off twice. That Packer offense is not this Packer offense, but the 49ers are one of a few elite teams built to stop teams like the Packers.
The Packer offense is good because the vast majority of teams (including the Packers) like to play nickel-or-lighter defenses. They do this to combat what has become an extremely pass heavy league where running the ball is generally less efficient. The genius of the Shanahan/LaFLeur systems is in continuing to pass our of heavy personnel, but flipping to power running using the exact same personnel if the defense goes too light against them. It’s an incredibly difficult riddle to solve unless, on defense, you have your own big guys who can cover, which the 49ers (and a few other teams) happen to have. The Packers won’t run into this often, but when and if they do, it’s likely to be in the playoffs, in a game that matters.
And that’s where lack of depth at receiver could hurt them. The lack of receiver depth makes them vulnerable against teams that are vulnerable against 11 personnel (or lighter), and with Davante Adams’ injury record, that depth is even shorter than many think. It’s one thing to mash teams with Adams/Lazard/Tonyan/Jones/Lewis, but what if a team is vulnerable against 4 wide with Adams/Lazard/MVS/Shepherd? And what if Adams happens to miss that game?
It hasn’t hurt them yet because Mike Zimmer doesn’t have the personnel and Matt Patricia doesn’t have the brains to stop them. Even the Saints, who do have a decent defense and decent linebackers, haven’t figured this out. But there are teams that can stop it like SF and Baltimore (who still have a good defense even if they were beaten up by Kansas City), and in the playoffs, it only takes one.
It’s a testament to Matt LaFleur that his offense is so great despite the receiver depth. He’s matched his scheme to his personnel brilliantly, which is honestly all I want from a coach and one of my biggest issues with Mike Pettine. The scheme will work the vast majority of the time, and the brilliance of Rodgers may mean it doesn’t matter. But receivers are important, and it’s still a weakness that someone can and will exploit. It’s something to keep in mind come January when AJ Dillon and Jordan Love are just sitting on the bench and Darrius Shepherd is playing.