GREEN BAY – As best he can, Marquez Valdes-Scantling keeps it pretty simple.
When asked after practice on Wednesday if anything has surprised him about his productive rookie season so far, he answered, “Nope.”
On when he knew he belonged in the NFL? “Day one.”
On when he felt he had earned the trust of quarterback Aaron Rodgers? “When he started throwing me the ball.”
With that one, the easygoing rookie receiver – who might sound a little full of himself with these answers, though truthfully he’s anything but – even got himself to smile.
“If he’s throwing you the ball, he’s trusting you’ll be in the right place,” he said, rather matter-of-factly.
That trust from Rodgers will be needed more than ever now that third-year receiver Geronimo Allison has been placed on injured reserve. Valdes-Scantling, the rookie out of South Florida, has cracked 100 yards receiving in two of the Packers’ last three games and is essentially going to be a starter as the No. 3 receiver the rest of the season.
With 17 catches for 358 yards and two touchdowns through eight games, Valdes-Scantling is on pace for at least 700 yards this season, a milepost only three rookie receivers have reached in team history. At the top of that list is Billy Howton with 1,231 yards in 1952.
A number like that might be out of reach, but considering Valdes-Scantling has compiled all but three of his yards in the last five contests, the 818 by James Lofton in 1978 and 791 from Sterling Sharpe in 1988 are not out of the question.
If he can keep it up, being in the company of two franchise greats who were both drafted in the top 10 overall wouldn’t be too shabby for a fifth-round pick who transferred (from N.C. State) midway through his college career and never caught more than 22 passes in a season as a collegian until last year.
“I could care less about where I got drafted,” Valdes-Scantling said. “I’m in this door, that’s all that matters. When you line up on the field, they don’t care about where you were drafted at. Can you play or not?”
Valdes-Scantling can, and he’s arrived quickly in the NFL primarily due to three factors – physical gifts, intelligence and confidence.
Receivers who are 6-4, 206 pounds and run a 4.3 in the 40 aren’t all that common, and Valdes-Scantling picked up Green Bay’s offense quickly, lining up in multiple positions throughout training camp this summer.
“It was real noticeable that he’s a real smart dude,” said Davante Adams, whose 446 receiving yards back in 2014 are the most recorded by a rookie catching passes from Aaron Rodgers. “It’s almost like it’s really easy for him in terms of catching on and getting used to different things. He’s always all ears.”
Valdes-Scantling’s confidence hasn’t wavered since he arrived. He says he “wasn’t afraid at all” coming into the NFL because of where he came from, a rough side of St. Petersburg, Fla., that produces its share of football talent.
To his benefit, he mostly kept that confidence to himself as he entered a summer-long competition with Allison, Trevor Davis, Jake Kumerow and two other draft picks – J’Mon Moore and Equanimeous St. Brown – for roster spots and playing time. The external even keel served him well and helped him emerge from the preseason as the front runner amongst the three draft selections. With Kumerow and Davis both going on injured reserve during the first two weeks of the regular season, it was only a matter of time before opportunity knocked.
“He doesn’t get too high or too low,” Rodgers said. “He’s not an emotional reactor. He’s confident in himself, he knows the plan well, and it’s just about conversations. We have to keep putting him in spots where he’s comfortable.”
Getting his first extended reps due to injuries to Allison and Randall Cobb, Valdes-Scantling didn’t blink the one time he caught the wrath of his quarterback. Back in the third quarter Week 4 vs. Buffalo, he didn’t come back for the ball on a fourth-down stop route, and Rodgers’ throw nearly became a pick-six.
One quarter later, however, Rodgers called his number on third-and-3 with a deep ball over the middle. He hauled it in for 38 yards. Rodgers actually recalled Valdes-Scantling beating the Bills on back-to-back go routes there.
“One I threw to him and one I didn’t,” Rodgers said. “His speed is different than we’ve had here in years. He’s a natural fast guy, and he plays fast. You have to respect the vertical routes with Marquez.”
Over the last three games, Valdes-Scantling has turned in receptions of 60, 40 and 51 yards, the middle one for a go-ahead fourth-quarter TD in Los Angeles two games ago.
If any recent play has elevated Rodgers’ trust in him, it’s perhaps last week’s third-and-1 from Green Bay’s own 16-yard line late in the third quarter at New England. A scrambling Rodgers laid one out along the sideline, and Valdes-Scantling made a difficult, contested grab over defensive back J.C. Jackson for 24 yards. He then added a 26-yard reception on a crossing route on the very next snap, snagging a pinpoint throw from Rodgers into a tight window.
So, with this flurry of activity in recent weeks, does he have any one play that’s his favorite, or that he’s most proud of? That one wasn’t so simple to answer.
“I don’t remember half the plays to be honest,” he said. “I just keep going one play at a time. I could care less about what the end result was, how many yards it was, how many people I made miss. I just want to keep making plays and keep moving forward.”