PALM BEACH, Fla. – Davante Adams was first-team All-Pro the last two years and is in the discussion for best receiver in the NFL over the last two or three seasons.
Though he wasn’t a first-round draft pick, he also was a highly regarded prospect coming out of Fresno State and was a second-round selection in the 2014 draft. Yet, his rookie season was about as modest as they come with 39 catches and three touchdowns.
That start is hardly atypical for his position and a sign of the challenge general manager Brian Gutekunst faces in the draft trying to rebuild the Packers’ receiving corps for the 2022 season after his recent trade of Adams has left Green Bay with a talent shortfall at that position.
No matter what trade or signing Gutekunst might pull off in the next few weeks, he’s going to need help from at least one rookie receiver in a big way. But finding one who’s ready to do it is no small task.
NFL MOCK DRAFT: Eagles-Saints trade changes first-round outlook
Receiver is one of the harder positions for rookies to master, even if the draft is getting deeper and the players more prepared at that position year by year. That’s one reason it wouldn’t be a shock if Gutekunst selected two receivers in the first two or three rounds of this draft. That at least would improve his odds of finding at least one who’s ready to go, because while a couple ready-made prospects will be there, the hard part is finding the few among the many.
“If you look at the history of that position, there are a lot of mistakes made within the draft,” coach Matt LaFleur said at the NFL owners meetings last week.
If you’re looking for examples of immediate success, there have been several in just the last two years. Of the 19 rookie receivers who caught at least 70 passes in NFL history, five were in 2020 and ’21 combined: Miami’s Jaylen Waddle (104 in ’21), Detroit’s Amon-Ra St. Brown (90 in ’21), Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson (88 in ’20), Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase (81 in ’21) and Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb (74 in ’20).
While all were productive, two were genuine stars: Jefferson and Chase. Jefferson had a 15.9-yard average and seven touchdowns as a rookie, and Chase 18.0 yards and 13 touchdowns. They’re already among the best handful of receivers in the league. Chase was the No. 5 pick of the draft last year, and Jefferson No. 22 the year before. The Packers have two picks in the first round this year: Nos. 22 and 28.
Though Chase was the first receiver off the board in his class, Jefferson was the fifth in his. Seeing their success might make it seem easy to find a ready-made star. But they’re still rare.
“Those guys are freaks,” LaFleur said at one point during his huddle with reporters at the owners meetings. And at another: “There are only a few Jamar Chases in the world, but I do think you have seen in the last couple years guys be able to transition and make an impact earlier in their career than maybe ever before.”
It’s worth noting that the five rookie receivers who put up big numbers the last two years were among 22 drafted in the first two rounds.
That includes a couple who put up decent numbers for today’s NFL, Philadelphia’s DeVonta Smith (64 catches, 14.3-yard average) and San Francisco’s Brandon Aiyuk (60 catches, 12.5-yard average).
But it also includes a lot of guys who were marginally productive: the New York Giants’ Kadarius Toney (46 catches, 11.2 yards), Baltimore’s Rashod Bateman (46 and 11.2 yards), Denver’s Jerry Jeudy (52 and 16.5 yards), Philadelphia’s Jalen Reagor (31 and 12.8 yards) and former Las Vegas receiver Henry Ruggs (26 and 17.4 yards).
There also have been a few recent second-round picks who have had good rookie years. In 2019, Seattle’s DK Metcalf (58 and 15.5 yard) was an impact player from the start because of his big-play ability. Pittsburgh’s Chase Claypool (62 and 14.1 yards) and Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins (67 and 13.6 yards) were real contributors too.
But aside from Higgins, in the last two years only one of the other 11 second-rounders caught more than even 40 passes (Jacksonville’s Lavishka Shenault, 58 last season).
So even if Gutekunst selects a receiver or two early in the draft who end up being good players, getting anything above OK play from them as rookies is still tough to do.
The top three of the Packers’ receiving rotation as of today is Allen Lazard, who was their No. 3 receiver last season; Randall Cobb, who has missed 19 games the past four years and turns 32 in August; and 2021 third-round pick Amari Rodgers, who had all of four catches as a rookie. LaFleur is going to need a lot from this rookie class to make up for Adams’ departure.
“To replace a guy like Davante Adams is going to be a multifaceted approach,” Gutekunst said. “It won’t be a single player.”
As for why rookie receivers take more time to develop than other positions, the first thing that comes to mind is their adjustment to sophisticated offenses in the NFL. In the big leagues, receivers have far more to do reading defenses and adjusting to coverages and audibles on the fly.
But Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor named another factor first when asked about it at the owners meetings. He thinks rookie receivers struggle primarily because they’re matched against cornerbacks who are not only talented but also usually have several years experience defending NFL receivers, so they’re more seasoned, savvy and disruptive than college corners.
“These DBs in the NFL, especially on third down they’re pretty physical,” Taylor said. “You’re going to see some man coverage — often times a rookie might be going against a Patrick Peterson who has 10-plus years in the league and knows how to study your techniques and your tendencies that you may not even be aware of yet. You’re going to face some of these veterans that have experience on their side and then know how to attack and make your life difficult.”
It’s been a long time since the Packers have had to rely on a rookie receiver to the extent they will have to this season. Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 the only rookies to lead the team in receptions were Sterling Sharpe (55 in 1988) and James Lofton (46 in ’78). Greg Jennings was ready to play immediately and a solid No. 2 as a rookie (45 catches). Javon Walker was their last first-round pick at the position but had only 23 receptions (sixth on the team) as a rookie in ’02.
There’s a real chance Gutekunst could take two receivers in the first three rounds and three in the draft total, which would be a slightly lesser version of former GM Ron Wolf in ’99, when he selected cornerbacks with his first three picks the year after Randy Moss (17 touchdowns, 19.1-yard average) destroyed the Packers’ division as a rookie.
“My history and even Ted’s (Thompson’s) history, I don’t think we’ve ever shied away from taking multiple players at one position in a draft,” Gutekunst said last week. “Certainly if the right players are there we won’t shy away from that.”
It will then fall on LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers to make this work. The Packers’ offense will probably be more run-oriented this season, but with Rodgers at quarterback games ultimately will still be in his hands. Rodgers has shown little tolerance for receivers’ mistakes in his career, and he throws the ball to guys he trusts most. That hasn’t been rookies, with the exception of Jennings.
“Especially when you’re talking about playing with a guy like Aaron Rodgers, (a receiver) better be on high alert at all times, because he might give you the most subtle signal, and you’ve got to see it,” LaFleur said. “I do think this is going to be a lot of work, but that’s what we do in this league.”
While Rodgers doesn’t need offseason work to play well — he won the MVP last year without attending an offseason practice — it won’t help that he appears likely to take part in only the mandatory minicamp this summer. But that’s a price the Packers accepted to get Rodgers back. He might need extra snaps in training camp and will probably have to recalibrate his expectations for the rookies, though it’s hard to see him changing too much at age 38.
“I’ve witnessed it,” LaFleur said of young receivers’ struggles to gain Rodgers’ trust. “It’s a process, like everything is. The more time we can get those guys on the field and put them in certain situations and allow them to learn and grow, hopefully we can be creative in ways that we can expedite that process. It’s going to be interesting.”
Interesting is one way to put it. Imperative is another.