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In GB offense, receiving corps never deep enough

Posted Apr 2, 2011

For the past three years, the Packers’ pass-catching personnel has stood up to anyone’s in the NFL. The group’s production and depth, headlined by receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver and a budding star in tight end Jermichael Finley, have been a given.

Luxuries like that don’t last forever, though, and for the first time since 2008, the Packers may be in the market for future reinforcements in this year’s draft.

Back then, the Packers selected receivers Jordy Nelson and Brett Swain in the second and seventh rounds, respectively, and Finley in the third. In the two drafts since, only tight end Andrew Quarless was added, in the fifth round.

That’s not to say a major overhaul is on the horizon. Far from it.

Jennings is the true go-to guy the franchise envisioned the day he began running routes like a smooth, polished veteran as a rookie in 2006. In his fifth year this past season, he made his first Pro Bowl, a spectacle he was glad to skip with the Packers playing in the Super Bowl instead. He followed up his trio of team bests in the regular season (76 catches, 1,265 yards, 12 touchdowns) with a pair of eight-catch, 100-yard outings in the playoffs, plus two touchdowns in the Super Bowl. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has his number one receiver.

Rodgers has a 1A other passers would kill for. Finley’s 301 yards in the first four games of 2010 marked the best start by a tight end in franchise history and projects to 1,200 yards for a full season. He’ll be returning from a season-ending knee injury, suffered on the first snap of week five, and having missed out on the team’s Super Bowl run, he may be the most motivated of the pass-catching bunch.

The question many will ask is whether Jennings and Finley can co-exist, production-wise, because Jennings’ numbers didn’t take off in 2010 until Finley got hurt. Somehow, the 2009 NFC wild-card playoff game in Arizona gets conveniently overlooked in that discussion. Finley had six catches for 159 yards while Jennings had eight for 130 in that game.

Co-exist they can. Rodgers will make sure of it.

After those two, the depth charts at both receiver and tight end may begin changing, both in the near and long term.

Following Finley’s injury last season, receivers such as Driver, Nelson and James Jones took turns having big games, but the pecking order is in flux heading into 2011, given Driver’s age and recent injuries and Jones’ contract status.

Driver had missed only two games from 2002 through 2009, but last season a cumbersome quadriceps injury rendered him ineffective or inactive for three midseason games, and then came a nasty ankle injury in the second quarter of the Super Bowl. He still had the memorable 61-yard, catch-and-run for a touchdown against San Francisco, and a combined 11 catches for 132 yards in the first two playoff games, but how much longer the 36-year-old fan favorite can meet his own high standards, only he can answer.

It’s also uncertain whether Jones will be back. His contract has expired and if the previous free-agency rules return in the new collective bargaining agreement, Jones will be unrestricted, able to shop himself to the highest bidder. He set or matched career highs in all categories with 50 receptions for 679 yards and five TDs in the regular season, but his 2010 will be remembered just as much by Green Bay fans, fair or not, for a handful of frustrating drops, including critical ones in the postseason against the Eagles and Steelers.

The continued emergence of Nelson helps temper the questions surrounding Driver and Jones and reduces the need for an immediate contributor. Nelson’s third season in 2010 was by far his best, with a combined 66 catches for 868 yards and four touchdowns in 20 games, and his nine catches for 140 yards and a TD in the Super Bowl may have been MVP-worthy if not for a couple of drops and the steady brilliance of Rodgers.

Even with Nelson’s continued growth, though, a Mike McCarthy offense that regularly employs four- and five-receiver sets is always looking to build depth at that position and prepare itself for the future.

Others on the current roster will be given an opportunity to step forward. Swain has developed into a special-teams demon, skills he showcased with four coverage tackles in the Super Bowl. Chastin West is another promising prospect; he spent his rookie season on the practice squad. Neither Swain nor West is a proven receiving commodity, however, and another prospect, Antonio Robinson, didn’t join the practice squad until well into the playoffs.

As for the tight ends, veteran Donald Lee was released following the season, leaving youngsters Quarless, Tom Crabtree and Spencer Havner behind Finley. (Havner, like Swain, is technically without a contract at the moment but the Packers will have exclusive rights to sign him if the new CBA retains previous rules.)

Given Quarless’ body type and athleticism, the Packers hope he’ll continue to progress in the Finley mode. He showed flashes as a rookie in 2010 (26 catches, 284 yards including postseason) but hasn’t had his breakout game or moment, yet.

Meanwhile Crabtree and Havner are looked to more for their blocking and special-teams play than for their pass-catching, though it’s interesting that both have scored wild-card playoff touchdowns in their brief careers (Crabtree vs. Philly, Havner vs. Arizona) and that Havner, who was brought back in 2010 after being cut but then quickly got hurt and landed on injured reserve, found the end zone on four of seven catches back in the ’09 regular season.

Having been one himself, McCarthy loves tight ends, keeping as many as four on the 53-man roster at times in his tenure and using them in multiple roles. The head coach also loves competition, so it’s a good bet the Packers will add to this group, either during the draft or afterward.    

Mike Spofford is a 1995 Masters graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University who worked as a sports reporter for two daily newspapers in Wisconsin, covering the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Spofford has been a packers.com staff writer since 2006.

 
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