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What 2021 draft prospects could fill the Packers’ gadget WR role?

A talented class features a plethora of options in some roles, but very few in others. Where does the Tyler Ervin role sit on that spectrum?

Nebraska v Purdue Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Welcome back to another exciting episode of the Green Bay Packers, the draft, and wide receivers, brought to you by the internet discourse and powered by readers like you. Thank you.

The 2021 wide receiver class has received wide acclaim for its depth of talent, which works out quite well for Green Bay since they currently have zero wide receivers under contract in 2022. It’s the expectation that Davante Adams will ink an extension at some point before training camp, but even after that, Allen Lazard will be a restricted free agent, Marquez Valdes-Scantling will be an unrestricted free agent, and the Packers currently have zero gadget slot weapons in the mold of Tyler Ervin. To say Green Bay could use a wide receiver in this draft may be an understatement.

It’s important to distinguish the different types of receivers that Green Bay needs, though. Adding someone to fill the Tyler Ervin role does very little to solve the long-term problem that exists at their WR2 spot opposite Davante Adams. So simply drafting a “wide receiver” may not actually solve the problem at the role we traditionally consider to be the wide receiver position. On the other hand, drafting a bigger bodied X or Z receiver will do little to fill the small hole left by Ervin, so it’s important we define these roles so that they can be appropriately filled as the catch-all term “wide receiver” does not do the job well enough.

Tyler Ervin role

To call this a slot receiver seems a bit disingenuous to how Matt LaFleur has used this player. The Packers have rotated a wide cast of characters into the slot depending on the formation and opponent, but have really only used a small handful of players in this specific role. I would imagine that LaFleur would like to employ someone in this role that can also do more traditional wide receiver things, but this is not the typical slot receiver. With this in mind, the Packers won’t be targeting Wes Welker types to fill this role. While we do not have a long history of players in this spot, there are a couple of things that became quite clear with Tyler Ervin and Tavon Austin being asked to fill it:

Speed, speed, speed

The primary function of this player in the scope of the offense has been to provide horizontal stretching of the defense through jet motion actions. Sometimes the player would get the ball, but often times it would be eye candy for linebackers and safeties to either open up holes in the zone game, or create extra space for receivers in the passing game off of the second and third level defenders’ hesitation. At a bare minimum, we’re looking for sub-4.5 forty yard dashes here, with sub-4.4 being preferred.

Open field skills are preferred

It’s kind of hard to quantify “open field skills” but there are some traits that can help us narrow down that group. Typically, more agile players tend to be better in space, so we’ll be looking for players with strong testing numbers in drills like the shuttle and three-cone. Another way to filter players out is if they had a meaningful number of kick or punt returns, or were used as a runner in their collegiate offense.

Legitimate receiver skills are a bonus

It seemed like LaFleur tried to use Tyler Ervin as a slot receiver for a short period of time, but the former running back was never really cut out for that role. I think it’s important that we remember that Tyler Ervin is most likely not the optimal way LaFleur wants to use this player. If he could get someone who can both be a horizontal spacer in the running game AND a meaningful contributor to normal wide receiver things, I’m sure he would love the prospect.

Special teams value is a plus

The Packers return game has been abysmal throughout the LaFleur era, with a brief respite in late 2019 when Tyler Ervin joined the team. Ervin’s lack of availability in 2020 led to the Packers deciding to just put Jamaal Williams back on kick returns to they could ensure the returner would not fumble the ball.

There are a few steps involved in determining which players qualify for the thresholds or types listed above. These players are generally going to be on the shorter side, as you don’t see many 6-foot-1 or larger players taking jet sweeps or returning kicks. For the purposes of this, I limited it to players under 6-foot-1. Speed is a big factor, so I’m only including players with sub 4.5 forty yard dashes. To threshold agility, the player would have to rank in at least the 70th percentile in either the shuttle or three-cone drill.

Players with a history of returning either punts or kicks will be noted and it gives them leg up. To get a feel for their effectiveness as a receiver, I will be using our own Paul Noonan’s WROPS. WROPS isn’t a perfect stat, but it can tell us about how efficient a receiver is with his targets. With this particular exercise, it’s important to note that WROPS does have a particular tendency to struggle with slot-types that have porous QB play. Keep that in mind for one potential Packers target in particular.

Gadget Targets

Name Height Weight 40 yard dash Shuttle 3 Cone Return Reps + Rushing Att WROPS
Name Height Weight 40 yard dash Shuttle 3 Cone Return Reps + Rushing Att WROPS
Kadarius Toney 5115 193 4.38 4.23 6.88 79 0.964
Elijah Moore 5094 178 4.35 4 6.65 60 0.964
Rondale Moore 5070 181 4.32 4.1 6.68 89 0.732
Tutu Atwell 5087 155 4.39 4.09 6.87 30 0.837
Shi Smith 5094 186 4.46 4.22 6.79 30 0.769
Jaelon Darden 5075 174 4.46 4.1 6.67 59 0.907
Marquez Stevenson 5101 180 4.48 4.21 6.86 64 N/A
Riley Lees 5115 192 4.47 4.16 6.78 122 0.669
Connor Wedington 6004 196 4.47 4.07 6.66 34 N/A

One name familiar to many Big Ten football fans on that list is Rondale Moore, who has a mediocre WROPS for 2020. If we look back to his freshman season (he lost 2019 to injury), it improves to 0.792. Rondale’s usage at Purdue was unique in that he was truly force-fed the ball. He was by far the best athlete Purdue had, so he received the ball in a lot of sub-optimal situations for efficiency, so keep that in mind.

Toney is a bit of a polarizing prospect. He rates quite well in WROPS and is a legit plus athlete, but he was only a starter for one season and had the benefit of playing next to Kyle Pitts. Nate Tice noted on The Athletic Football Show that Toney often didn’t know what route he was supposed to be running, or would try and out-juke the defender in the route and throw the timing of plays off. In an offense built on deception and timing like Green Bay’s, things like that cannot happen.

Elijah Moore might be the most obvious fit for the role since he was used in a gadget role at Ole Miss by Lane Kiffin. Elijah also has three years of production and broke AJ Brown’s school record for receptions in a season in just eight games.

There are options in the middle part of the draft that seem to be a tier or two down from that top group. Atwell would represent a change in role from what he did in college. He posted a very strong yards-per-reception of 18.4 in his sophomore season before posting a 13.6 mark in his shortened 2020. He did receive some designed touches, but also contributed heavily in the intermediate passing game. He could provide a potential best-of-both-worlds compromise. One downside with Atwell is that he has no return experience. Shi Smith, meanwhile, was a contributor on special teams and played primarily in a more traditional slot role for South Carolina. Darden’s experience as a punt returner is a plus, but his role seems destined to be more in the small vertical burner than the ball-carrier/gadget type. Stevenson’s explosive plays in college will catch your eye, but he has had durability concerns like many other undersized receivers.

In the UDFA category, Green Bay could look at running back-to-receiver converts like Riley Lees or Connor Wedington. Neither posted meaningful production in college, but their skillsets fit into what Green Bay is looking for and they are both legitimate plus athletes with return experience.

Green Bay will have options to fill the Tyler Ervin role, but to do so in a big way will likely require them to spend one of their top two picks on the role. If they do that, expect Matt LaFleur to expand the responsibilities of that role quite substantially. If they do draft a Toney or one of the Moores or even Atwell, it won’t just be jet handoffs and kick returns, they will quite likely get a meaningful number of normal wide receiver targets. It’s important that we don’t let what we’ve seen from Tyler Ervin make us think that that is the entirety of the role within LaFleur’s full offense. Meaningful capital spent on the spot won’t just be for a gadget toy, but rather a receiver with some added gadget benefits.