It’s become conventional wisdom around Green Bay that it takes a long time – years – for Aaron Rodgers to develop trust and confidence in a new receiver. But is this an accurate statement or just a worn out cliché?
It’s an important question, because the Packers have an open starting receiver slot due to the loss of Jordy Nelson and it appears they are going to fill it with a rookie draftee rather than by acquiring a veteran receiver.
In the 10 years since Rodgers became a starter in 2008, he’s had a number of incoming wide receivers join the roster, though maybe not as many as you might think. Disregarding a few players who never went anywhere with the team, here’s a list:
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James Jones is a special case. His rookie year was 2007, when the starter was Brett Favre. Favre and Jones instantly formed a good combination. Jones, who started nine games, caught 47 throws for 676 yards and two TDs. But in his first year teaming up with Rodgers, Jones started only two games and caught only 20 balls for 274 yards and one touchdown. Jones and Rodgers slowly got more comfortable with each other in ensuing years. Jones’ best season was his last with the team: in 2015, he had 50 catches for 890 yards and eight TDs.
The statistics suggest a good many things. It’s pretty clear that head coach Mike McCarthy has been slow to give rookie receivers much game time. The only rookie who got more than five starts in his first year was Davante Adams and even his numbers don’t stand out.
Even though Rodgers had some fine years with some receivers, it was always a gradual process. It took Nelson four years to have a 1,000-yard season and the same was true for Randall Cobb. Rodgers and Adams still haven’t hit that milestone. Jermichael Finley’s best year was also his fourth year with Rodgers.
Both Greg Jennings and Donald Driver were 1,000-yard receivers in 2008, Rodgers’ first year as a starter, but each had multiple years of practice and preseason games to develop a rapport with Rodgers prior to 2008.
Veterans Coming to Green Bay
First off, it’s remarkable that the team has never brought in a proven veteran wide receiver to join up with Rodgers. This too supports the notion that the front office feels it takes years for Rodgers to gain confidence in a receiver. Why else would the team never make an attempt to supply Rodgers with a talented veteran receiver?
The same was true regarding tight ends up until two years ago. In 2016, Jared Cook came in from the Rams and in 2017 Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks came in from the Patriots and Rams, respectively. Though injuries played roles, none of these three imports was highly productive in his initial year with Rodgers.
At the tail end of the 2016 season, Rodgers appeared to be gaining confidence in Cook. Had Cook not been signed for only a year, this had the potential of being a powerful pairing in 2017. An opportunity lost.
Rookie Receivers Who’ve Thrived
Here’s a brief list of recent rookie wide receivers who bonded instantly with their teams’ starting quarterbacks.
- 2012: T.Y. Hilton, Colts with Andrew Luck – 50 catches, 861 receiving yards, 7 TDs
- 2013: DeAndre Hopkins, Texans with Matt Schaub and Case Keenum – 52, 802, and 2
- 2013: Keenan Allen, Chargers with Philip Rivers – 71, 1,046, and 8
- 2014: Odell Beckham Jr., Giants with Eli Manning – 91, 1,305, and 12
- 2014: Mike Evans, Buccaneers with Josh McCown and Mike Glennon – 68, 1,051, and 12
- 2014: Jarvis Landry, Dolphins with Ryan Tannehill – 84, 758, and 5
- 2015: Amari Cooper, Raiders with Derek Carr – 72, 1,070, and 6
- 2015: Stefon Diggs, Vikings with Teddy Bridgewater – 52, 720, and 4
- 2016: Michael Thomas, Saints with Drew Brees – 92, 1,137, and 9
- 2017: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger – 58, 917, and 7
For the most part, the above group consists of exceptional receivers. In several cases, however, they were matched up with run-of-the-mill quarterbacks, and yet these first-time pairings led to production in the vicinity of 1,000 yards. This never happens in Green Bay.
The evidence is compelling that Aaron Rodgers only has productive relationships with his receivers after years of familiarity.
What does this foretell for the 2018 Packers? Trouble. The Packers have nine more days prior to the draft in which to find a veteran replacement for Jordy Nelson. That’s very unlikely, because the candidates have been picked over, which is why there was more than warranted hype when the Cowboys suddenly put Dez Bryant out to pasture.
The Packers are staring at two scenarios: starting a rookie receiver in the WR1 or WR2 role or elevating Geronimo Allison into a starter’s role.
If the Packers go with the first option, I see little choice but to use that 14th overall pick on a receiver who is both talented and ready to play at the pro level from day one. And given the history I’ve detailed above, that would likely be a huge fall off from Nelson.
I don’t think it’s going to be option 2. If the Packers saw a bright future in Allison, they would have been developing him, especially at the tail end of last season, when playoff hopes were gone. Instead, Allison was given two starts on the year, had 23 catches for 253 yards (11.0 yards per catch) and no touchdowns. This was a decline from his rookie year, when he averaged 16.8 ypc and scored two touchdowns.
Options three and four, Trevor Davis and Michael Clark, are longer shots yet. Davis has eight catches for 94 yards and one touchdown – in two years. Michael Clark, a basketball player who transferred over to football late in his college days, is a long-term development project.
The remaining options appear to be to sign Bryant or to go after one of the remaining restricted free agents, which could prove prohibitive.