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Friday Mailbag: Pass-Rushers and Receivers

Hey, we have a mailbag now!

NFC Championship - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Acme Packing Company has started a weekly mailbag that you can contribute questions to. For the first week, all questions were solicited from Twitter, but starting next week questions will also be pulled from the comment section. If you want your question(s) answered, drop a comment to this post.

Good question! Going into the 2019 free agency, Za’Darius Smith had posted quality film as an interior pass-rusher, but the major question in his game was whether or not he could generate pressure on the edge. In Baltimore, a good amount of his splash plays came when he lined up inside of the offensive tackles, instead of outside of them, but he has gone from steady growth early on in his career to leading the league in pressures over the last two seasons.

Smith went from being an underrated situational pass-rusher who got a surprising amount of money on the open market to blossoming into a full-blown star, as playing more reps on the edge has not become a problem for him in Green Bay. I couldn’t be happier to be wrong about the signing. If you shot the Packers front office with truth serum, they’d probably tell you that they’re underpaying Smith relative to what he’s brought to the table over the past few years. Good on both Smith and the Packers front office for proving everyone else wrong.

More pass rush talk. Love it. I think this question breaks pretty clearly. The optimism in Gary’s career currently is that he was playing his best ball in his career from the mid-to-late season in 2020. He is clearly a talented bull rusher and might be one of the best in the league in that specific aspect of pass-rushing. The cause for concern is twofold:

1) Can Gary fill in some of the gaps of his game to allow him to maximize his bull-rushing ability down to down?

2) Though he’s only a 23-year-old, is the former 12th overall pick going to start games in his third season in the league?

This is a really important question and something the Packers must absolutely think about in the construction of their 53-man roster. In an outside zone-heavy offense like Green Bay’s (or San Francisco’s or the Rams’), it’s no surprise that wide receivers are bigger and stronger as they are asked to be key perimeter blockers. If you’re running outside, you simply need to be able to get a hat on a hat with your wide receivers. That’s the world you’re choosing to live in, allowing you to hit teams with bootleg play-action passes.

To get speed on the field, you must be creative. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, we’ve seen the likes of Marquise Goodwin and Brandin Cooks essentially becoming designated deep threats to match the bully-style receivers on the field. Green Bay’s approach of not sacrificing length or perimeter blocking (MVS blocks his ass off!) with the hopes of developing rare size and speed out of a young receiver is slightly different. With that being said, if Marquez Valdes-Scantling does go down I would not be surprised if Equanimeous St. Brown or Malik Taylor see the field as designated deep threats in his absence. Taylor, who was seeing first-team reps as a punt gunner in minicamp, might be the best bet, as he has clear special teams value to make the 53-man roster and the 46-man gameday roster.

I believe some of the best traits head coach Matt LaFleur has shown over his time in Green Bay are that he’ll ride a hot hand and he won’t treat players like they all “win” in the same way. Tyler Ervin becomes a key player for a playoff team because of his unique ability to make plays on jet sweeps. When Ervin missed games, the team turned to running back Aaron Jones as their lateral stretch threat out of split back gun looks. He didn’t force another receiver to get those touches out of the slot, because he simply didn’t have another receiver who could do what Ervin could uniquely do. Another example is Davante Adams, who may be the best receiver in the league at turning quick or “now” screens into positive plays. LaFleur doesn’t waste his time running plays to skill players whose traits don’t match the touches designated for them.

I’m not sure Amari Rodgers sees the slot full-time, at least as long as Allen Lazard is on an extremely team-friendly deal. Rodgers may see those types of touches in absence of Lazard, but I think it’s a lot more likely that you see him as a Z receiver who runs jets sweeps, or sees catch-and-run opportunities over the middle when Marquez Valdes-Scantling is off of the field. The Z receiver designation just means he’s off of the line of scrimmage, making him eligible to go in motion. This is important context as Davante Adams is often the X receiver (on the line of scrimmage) as he is isolated by himself to one side of the field, allowing him to catch those quick and “now” screens on the backside of run plays.

I would think about Rodgers in this way: He’s a lateral stretch option to supplement when you don’t have a vertical stretch on the field. I would guess that if a speed receiver (namely Valdes-Scantling) is not on the field, you’re going to see Rodgers become a featured lateral stretch option out of single-back looks while Jones is a lateral stretch option out of two-back looks. With three “starting-caliber” “stretch” options, this puts Green Bay in a situation where they can mix up personnel based on matchups and can survive an injury or two before they have to soul search for a new offensive identity.