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How big a concern are the Packers skill position players heading into 2018?

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A recent ESPN ranking put Green Bay’s offensive weapons in the bottom 10 in the league. Is that fair?

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Carolina Panthers
Randall Cobb and Davante Adams still form one of the better 1-2 punches at receiver in the league.
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Separating skill players from their ecosystem—the quarterback, coaching, and offensive line—would be like saying “I know you love guacamole, but how good is avocado on its own?”

Turns out, you need that other stuff. And more to the point, I’m never going to sit down for a bowl of chips and avocado so who really cares? That said, it is important to use quality avocado and fresh lime juice to make your guac, or it’s probably not going to end up being very good. There is value is trying to assess the quality of the individual products relative to other like items.

When ESPN’s Bill Barnwell ranked skill players independent of their other determining factors, he essentially set out to pit avocado against avocado but based on the guacamole. OK, I’ll play. Barnwell is one of the brightest people covering the sport. Let’s see what he comes up with.

The Packers came in at 23 on his list and though that felt somewhat low, it didn’t feel crazy. Aside from Davante Adams, this offense doesn’t have a cadre of players coming off great 2017 seasons. They’re going to rely heavily on Geronimo Allison and a band of unproven young players opposite him. This isn’t the 2011 skill group.

But then I saw some of the teams they’re behind—the Titans, Cardinals, Panthers, Raiders, and Broncos—and scrunched my face in bemusement. Huh?

The Broncos tried to trade each of their starting receivers in the offseason, in part because Emmannuel Sanders in particular was flat out bad last season. Plus, they have no tight end or running back to speak of.

Carolina has one skill player worth talking about and he’s a 33-year-old tight end who is already moonlighting as an analyst and who only played seven games last year with an injury. Their receivers are a garbage fire (Torrey Smith says what’s up) and Christian McCaffrey proved little when he wasn’t playing Dom Capers.

The Cardinals’ best skill player is coming off a serious wrist injury and Larry Fitzgerald turns 35 this year. They have no backup runners or tight ends of any consequence so they have what exactly over the Packers?

Tennessee mounts the strongest challenge, boasting a pair of quality running backs and a very good tight end, but Delanie Walker will be 34 this season and his best trait is that he can play in both phases offensively, not that he’s a dynamic weapon. Rishard Matthews is a nice player, but he’s not going in the sober rounds of anyone’s fantasy draft. And we have no idea what Corey Davis or Taywan Taylor are or can be. Somehow they came in at 14th on the list.

That brings us to the Packers.

While the aforementioned issues certainly stand, let’s not overlook the quality of the players on this roster, despite some underwhelming ‘17 seasons from two key contributors. There are important factors that could fundamentally alter their trajectories for 2018.

Let’s start with Adams, whose 15th ranked in DYAR among receivers would put him at the top of any receiver depth chart among the teams we discussed. For all the struggles of Brett Hundley last season when throwing to guys like Nelson, Cobb et al, Adams finished third in the NFL in passer rating when targeted. He’s a Pro Bowl player with legitimate No. 1 receiver ability and not just the “Well I guess he’s the top target and it’s Aaron Rodgers,” kind.

Plenty of Packers fans (and maybe even this writer) wrote off Randall Cobb after another disappointing season, but there are reasons to still be optimistic on a receiver who doesn’t turn 28 until the preseason. Cobb had a DYAR higher than Amari Cooper and J.J. Nelson among the teams we discussed. His rating when targeted (11th overall in the league among receivers who played 50% of snaps), put him ahead of Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Antonio Brown, and Adam Thielen, thanks to one of the best catch rates in football.

The offense put Cobb in bad positions last season, but he caught everything thrown at him and was still able to create some plays for the offense. On a per route run basis, Cobb was still more productive than Emmanuel Sanders and Jordy Nelson, though it’s not saying much to be better than Nelson. Per route run, Nelson was the worst starting receiver in football in yards per route run. Last.

Replacing Nelson in the pecking order will be Jimmy Graham, who is still just 31 despite some criticisms about his potential decline. The 6’7’’ monster tight end and cornhole fan won’t be 32 until after Halloween and even if he loses some athleticism, you can’t teach size.

Graham went 15-of-24 with his red zone targets with 10 touchdowns in Seattle last year. By red zone success rate, Graham finished fifth in the league among qualifying players. Adams put up the seventh-best success rate and Marcedes Lewis scored five times in 11 red zone targets.

This offense will be unstoppable in the red zone.

I understand the concerns about Graham. He struggled last season, posting the worst catch rate of his career, but it was nearly 10 points below his 2016 rate, suggesting a simple aberration or a precipitous decline.

But the latter is unlikely given that Graham was the second-most efficient tight end in football in 2016 despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth over his lack of touchdowns and overall productivity. People much smarter than me when it comes to breaking down the game, guys like Matt Bowen and Tony Romo, believe Graham can beast for Green Bay.

While Graham may never be even an average blocker, his run blocking grade per PFF still came in ahead of Richard Rodgers, Trey Burton, Greg Olsen, Kyle Rudolph, and Zach Ertz last season. Add in Lewis, who had the best run blocking grade in football by a mile, the Packers just might have the best combination of tight ends in football in 2018.

Given that top three, worrying about Geronimo Allison or the rookie receivers being contributors simply feels superfluous. Allison may not even see the fourth-most targets on this team depending on how Ty Mongtomery gets used and how often the Packers want to play with two tight ends. Those other teams need their rookies to play well next year. Green Bay doesn’t.

We could stop there and the Packers would probably need to be ahead of basically every team we discussed. But we don’t have to. Aaron Jones would have been third in DVOA among qualifying running backs last season and he was first in DYAR among non-qualifiers. In other words, on a per snap basis, he was one of the best backs in the league.

Can he stay healthy? Well, the Packers have two other more than capable backs. They were, after all, third in rushing offensive efficiency even without Aaron Rodgers and with myriad injuries.

Ty Montgomery posted a better per catch average in 2016 as the feature back than Dion Lewis did last season in New England when he led the league in DYAR. Montgomery’s biggest asset to this offense should be his versatility and pass catching. And Jamaal Williams would start for the Broncos. He’d likely be the No. 2 back for all the non-Titan teams on the list and he might not even be the third-best running back on the Packers.

Just to drive this point home, I went back and put together the DYAR of the skill position rotation of the teams we’ve discussed. And just to give the Panthers and Cardinals the benefit of the doubt, I used Greg Olsen and David Johnson’s 2016 seasons when they were healthy. Here’s how the teams ended up ranked.

1. Packers
2. Cardinals
3. Panthers
4. Titans
5. Raiders
6. Broncos

If Courtland Sutton or D.J. Moore break out, maybe they can move up, but rookie receivers tend not to be good. Ask the Titans, who would need a Davante Adams-esque jump from Davis, and even then it took Adams until Year 3 to be a quality player.

Remember though, all of this is fighting over who gets to be the ~18th best skill group in football. We’re splitting hairs over who is less average. And we’re also doing it without taking into account the other ingredients.

We already know Aaron Rodgers is the best head chef in the league, the offensive line should once again be solid and Mike McCarthy can still coach offense. This should be a top-5 unit even if the skill talent isn’t top-5, and it isn’t. That said, it’s probably underrated at this point considering the seasons key cogs had coming off 2017.