Few people have been as strident in their criticism of the Green Bay Packers’ neglect of the wide receiver position in the latter stages of Aaron Rodgers’ career than I. After the trash surface of Heinz Field prematurely cut short Jordy Nelson’s career, the future Hall of Famer always had the All-Pro Davante Adams, but the rest of the group was often a rotating cast of characters that fluctuated between competent and literally one of the worst per-snap players in NFL history.
But the times, they are a changin’. The Packers have not had a group of skill position players this deep since the prime era of 2009-2014. While this group is not as deep nor as talented as that one, it is the best Green Bay has put together since that time. Barring a long-term injury to superstar Davante Adams or a full myriad of injuries to the entire group, this should be a strong group.
Davante Adams needs very little explanation. The superstar led the entire NFL in DYAR last season despite missing two games. The man was a target magnet, with over 10 per game. He led the league in yards-per-game at 98.1 and in touchdowns at 18. At this point I am wasting virtual paper going on any further. I know it, you know it, Davante Adams is awesome.
Adams being awesome isn’t new. The extent of his awesomeness reached new levels in 2020, but he’s been a high-target productive receiver for several years now. The changes come in the next group of receivers.
I talked more extensively about Randall Cobb’s arrival here, but to provide a concise review: Cobb was an above average receiver in both of his seasons since leaving Green Bay. He apparently fixed the muscular issues that plagued his final few years in Titletown with a different workout program, and he should provide a legitimate plus option in the slot for Green Bay. The addition of Cobb is really what tips the Packers over from a decent receiving group to a very good one. They’re no longer one injury away from a shallow pool of options.
One of the major benefits of bringing in Randall Cobb, outside of the fact that he still appears to be good, is that it will allow the team to not have to rely nearly as much on rookie third round pick Amari Rodgers. Rodgers will still get some snaps in the offense, but will likely play a smaller, more gadget-based role in 2021, while contributing as the primary returner on punts. It is possible that he has a strong rookie season and even usurps Cobb at some point, but the advantage of having Cobb in tow is that it will not be asked of him.
For a few years now, the outside receiver positions behind Davante Adams have been seen as a major weak-point for the team, but I’m not sure that is true this season. I’m not sure people appreciate just how productive Allen Lazard has been in Green Bay. In 2020, Lazard led all receivers in DYAR for those with 50 or fewer targets. He was 4th in DVOA. This isn’t just a one-year blip either. In 2019, Lazard ranked 17th overall in DVOA and 36th in DYAR among all receivers. He ranked 18th in yards-per-target last season and 28th in 2019. The one issue with Lazard is that his volume numbers just aren’t that high. Despite elite level efficiency, he just doesn’t get the ball THAT much. Some of this is due to Davante Adams being an absolute vacuum, but some of it also may be Lazard. He is a big bodied receiver, but he is certainly not the shiftiest guy. He only averaged five targets per game last year, which is below what you’d hope for in a WR2, but the fact that Green Bay has a deep group and can rely on Lazard to be hyper-efficient with the targets he does get is a huge boost.
While Lazard is reliable yet not flashy, the other WR2 is the opposite. Marquez Valdes-Scantling was actually quite good last year if you look at the totality of his work. He finished fifth in the league in yards-per-target, 0.2 yards behind rookie sensation Justin Jefferson and 0.3 yards behind future Hall of Famer Julio Jones. MVS ranked 34th in DYAR and 25th in DVOA, very solid numbers for a player who has been quite maligned by the fanbase and, in one awkward incident, a member of the media. The downside with Valdes-Scantling is obvious to everyone: drops. Per Sports Info Solutions, MVS had seven drops last season, which was tied for eleventh-most in the NFL. Of players with at least fifty targets, he had the third highest drop rate. It’s a problem. The payoff, however, is extremely high. MVS lapped the league in yards-per-reception. His 20.9 ranked first in the league by 2.2 yards, which is the same as the difference between second place Nelson Agholor and seventh place Jerry Jeudy. If through either an improvement in skill or just a little luck, Valdes-Scantling can pull in a few more of those bombs this year, he should put up some obnoxious efficiency numbers. There is some hope for this, as despite having a career-best efficiency last year, his drop rate was basically triple his career norm. If it regresses back to his first two years, look out.
I do not expect the other receiving options on the team to get many snaps this year, but I figured I’d give them a paragraph. Devin Funchess had big “too good for Summer League” energy as he dominated the Texans in the first pre-season game. It’s hard to take too much from that as Houston is probably the worst team in the NFL and this was mostly going against their backups. Malik Taylor is just a special teams player. It seems unlikely anyone else has a real chance to make the roster.
The tight-end position is much less deep than wide receiver, but still has the king of per-target efficiency in Robert Tonyan. Big Bob ranked third among tight-ends in yards-per-target at 9.9 and absolutely destroyed the field in DVOA at an astounding 51.7%. The difference between he had second-ranked Darren Fells was similar to the difference between Fells and seventh-ranked Irv Smith Jr. The biggest driver of Tonyan’s efficiency is that he catches everything. He was not credited with a single drop last year by Sports Info Solutions and has only one drop in his three year career. The lack of drops, combined with Aaron Rodgers’ elite accuracy, led to an astounding catch rate of 88%.
The rest of the tight-end room is more role player-based with absolute tank Marcedes Lewis being effectively an extra offensive lineman and Josiah Deguara likely falling into a psuedo H-back role. Deguara in particular has some upside as he played quite a few snaps last year before his season ending knee injury. If he can even provide solid play as the second receiving tight-end, this is a good group.
If you look around the league, there aren’t many teams with such a deep and skill-diverse group of skill position players as Green Bay. They have the true alpha in Davante Adams, two high-quality possession options in Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan, a vertical threat in Marquez Valdes-Scantling, a quality slot receiver in Randall Cobb, and also have some upside potential with Amari Rodgers and Josiah Deguara. It could always be better, but it’s appropriate to appreciate when you have it good, and in 2021, Aaron Rodgers has it good.