We need someone else to step up and be a receiving force this year.
Last year, Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns. Those are great numbers, but somehow, the Packers’ passing game was still lacking something. What it lacked was a legitimate third receiver.
Greg Jennings (1,292 yds.) and Donald Driver (1,012 yds.) accounted for over half of the team’s passing yardage in 2008. Rookie Jordy Nelson was a distant third, with 366 yards, and starting TE Donald Lee ended up with just 303. James Jones was plagued with injuries and tallied just 274. Fifth receiver Ruvell Martin also fought injuries and was a non-factor, with just 145 yards. The backup TE’s, Tory Humphrey (162 yds.) and Jermichael Finley (74 yds.), were invisible for the most part.
With no major additions in the off-season, who among this group is most likely to step up and be that third receiving threat? Here are the four top candidates:
1. James Jones—As a rookie in 2007, he had 47 catches for 676 yards. Both of those numbers rank fourth for rookies in Packer history, and third among NFL rookies for that season. He showed game-breaking talent as well, with a spectacular 79 yard catch-and-run against Champ Bailey in the Denver game. Jones is big and tough and can go over the middle. Unfortunately, he tailed off at the end of his rookie year, and a nagging knee injury suffered at the beginning of 2008 led to a lost season. His reputation for sure-handedness took a hit, as he dropped several passes, though I think this was because the injury disrupted his concentration. I still think Jones is capable of being a force in the NFL.
2. Jordy Nelson—An early second round pick, Nelson got significant playing time as a rookie. He showed good speed and excellent hands (he had the lowest drop percentage of Packer receivers, with 33 catches and only one drop). For most of the season, he just ran sideline routes—curls and fly patterns—and for that reason, I was not as high on him as some other fans were. When you play WR for the Green Bay Packers, you need to be able to go over the middle and catch the ball in traffic. Nelson did do that once or twice toward the end of the season, and if he can develop that part of his game, he will be well on his way to becoming a very good NFL receiver.
3. Donald Lee—Acquired as a free agent (he formerly played for the Dolphins) in 2005, Lee worked his way up to the starting TE spot, where he flourished in 2007, with 48 catches for 575 yards and six TD’s, earning a big multi-year contract. With the huge dropoff in his numbers last year, the big question is whether his performance really declined or Aaron Rodgers just didn’t use him as well as Brett Favre did. Lee seems like a solid guy who is not the kind to loaf after earning a big payday, so my guess is that he will benefit as Rodgers gains more experience and is able to spread the ball around more.
4. Jermichael Finley—The dark horse candidate to be our #3 receiving threat, Finley was a one-trick pony in his rookie season, and he wasn’t even very good at his trick, which was running into the end zone and trying to catch jump balls from Aaron Rodgers. Finley didn’t help his cause when he missed a catchable ball and said afterwards that it was a bad throw. But Finley is physically gifted—tall, fast, and agile for a TE—and he seems to have the potential to be a game breaker. He was very raw last season, having entered the NFL after his sophomore season (he had redshirted one year), and he is the kind of player who could make a big leap in his second year in the NFL.
If any of these four players—or any others, for that matter—can put together a really good season, and Driver and Jennings remain as productive as they were last year, the Packers’ passing offense could make the leap from good to great. Of course, it doesn’t have to be any one guy—a combo platter would be just fine. What’s encouraging is that there are several intriguing possibilities here. This also explains why Ted Thompson decided to stand pat with his receivers in the off-seaason and concentrate mainly on improving the defense. The offense already has enough talent to be one of the most explosive units in the league.