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Entire receiving corps must step up in Nelson's absence

By Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
August 25, 2015

GREEN BAY—The Green Bay Packers have gone from having an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver to having more than enough to score a ton of points in unison with Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy and a veteran offensive line.

Pro football stops for nothing or no one. By the time practice begins Tuesday afternoon at 12:30, the Packers must forget about Jordy Nelson and set about taking advantage of the unique skill sets their other players possess.

Super Bowl-winning teams overcome the loss of great players. The Packers were able to do it themselves five years ago because Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers made do instead of looking for excuses.

Randall Cobb has been sensational all summer. Flush with a new $40 million contract, he has been worth every dime so far.

If you're talking about a restructured corps of wideouts, you'll try to keep Cobb doing basically what he has been doing as one of the NFL's elite slot receivers.

Davante Adams might never have practiced better in Green Bay than he did last week. He made at least half a dozen either one-handed or leaping catches over defenders and didn't drop a ball.

Shortly after the Packers used the 53rd selection of the 2014 draft on Adams, an NFC personnel director said Adams and Tampa Bay's Mike Evans were the two best contact catchers in the draft.

“Different body type but in terms of skill level he's very much along the lines of Alshon Jeffery,” the executive said. “He's not as fast and doesn't separate as well, but he's probably got a little better run after the catch.

“He's got some one-handers in the end zone that are a common occurrence. He has done an incredible amount of red-zone work. That level of player is making all the catches in the NFL. It's their ability to leverage catch and be great basketball players on the football field. People that know how to use their body and have confidence under contact.”

In his solid rookie season, you almost never saw Adams vaulting high in traffic to make the acrobatic, contested catches that he majored in at Fresno State. Part of the reason is Rodgers doesn't throw many bad balls, but there also was the simple fact that Adams wasn't quite ready to show his complete game.

He did in the last week of practice, and now will be asked to elevate everything he does in order to take Nelson's place in the lineup.

Remember, Nelson ran 40 yards in just 4.54 seconds before the 2008 draft. Adams, who at 6-foot-1 is 1½ inches shorter than Nelson but about the same weight, ran 4.55.

There's no reason why general manager Ted Thompson wouldn't add a veteran now or at the final cut, but in all likelihood he won't even dip his toes in those waters. He'll live and die with his people, and that should mean vastly expanded roles for Ty Montgomery, Jeff Janis and whoever claims the anticipated fifth and final berth at the position.

Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, Montgomery played mostly slot after Nelson blew out his knee early and Cobb departed after two series. On the outside, it was mostly Adams and Janis.

The Cobb-Adams-Montgomery line wouldn't be ideal if the Packers expect Montgomery to line up outside all the time. At 6-0 and 216, his dimensions aren't a great fit for outside. He looks almost like a running back, and a common knock from scouts at draft time was his difficulty tracking deep sideline passes.

McCarthy and his staff will need ingenuity to get the most from those three players. Montgomery has quickness, just not Cobb-type quickness. Still, his ability to power through tackles on bubble screens and hitches would warrant some time in the slot and at the same time would provide Cobb some change-of-pace exposure outside or in the backfield.

Cobb undoubtedly will see more double-teams and combination coverages without Nelson. He might escape some of it on the perimeter.

Montgomery has a silky smoothness that leads to an unconventional big-play threat. With 4.51 speed, he has experienced some problems separating in the first two games. If the coaches play to his strengths, he should produce.

Whereas Montgomery didn't have a ball thrown to him in 36 snaps against the Steelers, Janis had seven in 27 snaps. With his size (6-3, 219) and speed (4.42), he fits the classic West Coast X-receiver mold from which Nelson was cut early in his career.

Although the long-striding Nelson always played faster than he timed, Janis provides the raw speed that McCarthy must use to the Packers' advantage.

In Pittsburgh, Janis did some good things in extensive action against cornerback Antwon Blake. He seemed comfortable catching a second-window slant, and although he didn't stay in bounds, his catch for 16 yards was outstanding.

Janis also dropped a slant, and if training camp is any indication the Packers will have to live with some of those. Bill Schroeder dropped 22 balls in his three best seasons (1999-2001) but also averaged 15.5 yards per catch and scored 18 touchdowns.

Given his Division II background at Saginaw Valley State, Janis needs considerable improvement in route running and awareness, getting off the jam and overall flexibility.

He's a straight-line speed athlete more than a natural, fluid receiver. He's also an outside receiver, not a slot.

Myles White offers vertical stretch with his mid-4.4 speed, is more polished than Janis or Montgomery running routes and isn't the least bit timid about mixing it up as a blocker or on special teams.

The best chance for free-agent rookies Larry Pinkard, Ed Williams and Jimmie Hunt would be to develop on the practice squad.

Former Wisconsin Badger Jared Abbrederis suffered a concussion on the first day of practice and hasn't been back since.

“He was off our board,” an NFL general manager said one day after the Packers drafted Abbrederis in the fifth round last year. “Anybody with three concussions in college we take off the board. We feel the more you have, the more severe the implications are with missed time and recovery. He's had at least three.

“Just not worth the risk. Really, it's not worth the athlete's risk. Very savvy guy, good route runner and really good hands.”

They played well

• Josh Walker played guard all last summer in his determined but unsuccessful bid to win a job with the Indianapolis Colts. He also played guard about 75 percent of the time in the first two weeks of training camp in Green Bay. In New England, seven of his 30 snaps came at right tackle.

Walker, however, played all 30 of his snaps at tackle (27 right, three left) in Pittsburgh as the Packers search for an option behind David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga.

He's a little stiff and unpolished, but by moving his feet he was effective shoving rushers wide. His only minus plays were one hurry and one false-start penalty, and he created movement again in the run game.

Assuming the Packers wouldn't move Bulaga, their best option at left tackle if Bakhtiari wasn't available in the opener, might be Walker. JC Tretter is a capable center but demonstrated last year that he isn't strong enough for tackle.

• Cornerback LaDarius Gunter gained invaluable experience working against Pro Bowl wideout Antonio Brown for seven plays in the second quarter. Gunter was terrific breaking up a long ball to deep threat Martavis Bryant and smothering a crossing route to Shakim Phillips.

• Mike Pennel had another top-notch showing. In just 18 snaps, he bull-rushed his way to three pressures, including one that led to Damarious Randall's interception. He also stuffed right tackle Marcus Gilbert, disengaging and then engulfing Le'Veon Bell for no gain.

• It didn't make any sense to play John Kuhn all the way in the first drive when the staff needs to evaluate rookie Aaron Ripkowski, the other fullback. Ripkowski delivered effective blocks on his only two plays from scrimmage besides excelling for another week on special teams.

• Guard Matt Rotheram, the rookie free agent from Pittsburgh, fared the best of the No. 3 offensive line. He's nowhere near ready as a pass blocker but has ideal size (6-5, 326) and wears defenders down in the run game.

• Defensive lineman Christian Ringo didn't play the first of his 20 snaps until the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, he stayed on his feet and showed the ability to penetrate.

They didn't play well

• Khyri Thornton, the third-round pick in 2014, reverted to his rookie form in an awful performance. Playing end in the 3-4 and inside in sub, he was blocked, buried or just appeared lost on snap after snap.

• Don Barclay, in 46 snaps at left tackle and three at right tackle, allowed two sacks, two knockdowns and two hurries in addition to a holding penalty. Yes, he has NFL starting experience at right tackle, but based on the first two games he can't play outside. The Packers need to see if he's any better at guard Saturday night against the Eagles.

• B.J. Raji has had his share of good days in camp but hasn't made his presence felt in games. The statisticians haven't credited him with a tackle in his 36 snaps.

• In perfect kicking conditions, Tim Masthay's average hang time on eight punts was a paltry 3.86 seconds. With the Packers clinging to a 19-18 lead, Masthay got off a 29-yard punt with 3.16 hang time to set up the Steelers' winning touchdown.

• After missing the opener due to injury, safety Sean Richardson played 31 snaps but made no impact. It's time for him to start hitting people.

• Outside linebacker Andy Mulumba showed his usual strength setting the edge in the run game. However, he showed next to nothing as a pass rusher.

Bob McGinn covers the Packers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email him at [email protected]