GREEN BAY — When you think about the slot receiver position in the NFL, you think about 5-foot-10 guys who use their quickness to get open over the middle.
Guys like Randall Cobb.
Cobb’s stellar eight-year career with the Green Bay Packers has ended, however, which means the slot receiver position will evolve dramatically in the new offense currently being installed by first-year coach Matt LaFleur.
“We don’t have a guy that’s under 6-foot in our room, so the slot guy won’t be 5-10 in our offense, that’s a fact,” wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling said Tuesday. “I think we’ll get different matchups and that’s what the focus is. I think we’ve got a heck of a room where any guy can play any position. That’s huge for us.”
The Packers are counting in it. Their wide receiver room consists of Davante Adams, coming off a breakthrough 111-catch season, along with a slew of tall, young pass-catchers who have proven little or, in some cases, nothing in the NFL.
That reality hit home when the Packers began their OTAs this week. Tuesday’s session was the first one open to reporters and Adams sat out for what LaFleur called “precautionary reasons,” revealing just how thin and inexperienced the Packers receiving corps is behind Adams after letting Cobb and Jordy Nelson walk in free agency during the past 14 months.
Since wide receiver is the one position group (other than quarterback) where general manager Brian Gutekunst opted not to add a player of note in either the draft or free agency, the Packers’ ability to develop and utilize three or four receivers not named Adams will have a significant impact on whether they can rebound immediately from back-to-back playoff-free seasons.
“I think there’s a lot of young talent there,” La Fleur said. “I’m excited about that group.”
There remain plenty of questions, though. Can rangy 2018 draft picks Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and J’Mon Moore take the second-year leap despite the handicap of having to learn another offense? Can “young” veterans Geronimo Allison, Jake Kumerow, Trevor Davis and Allen Lazard elevate their games? Can Jawill Davis, claimed off waivers after being released by the New York Giants two weeks ago, be more than a return man?
The opportunity is there for every one of those players to get on the same wavelength with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and make an impact in a cutting-edge offense that relies less on the receivers’ ability to win one-on-ones than on using schemes to get them open. Allison, who played five games last season before going on IR, and Valdes-Scantling, who caught 38 passes as a rookie, start out at the head of the class, but anything can happen with the slate wiped clean by a new coaching staff. For instance, Moore, the most disappointing of the three drafted rookies last season, has already made some notable catches in workouts.
“It’s good competition,” Moore said. “we’re going to push each other, we’re going to bring the best out of each other and we’re going to go from there.”
One thing we do know is there isn’t a prototypical slot receiver in the bunch. Of the 11 wide receivers on the roster, only recently signed rookie Darrius Shepherd, who went undrafted out of North Dakota State, is under 6-1.
It was clear after one open practice that LaFleur, who most recently coached in Atlanta, Los Angeles (Rams) and Tennessee, likes to throw over the middle, isn’t afraid to use lanky receivers in the slot and will have every wide receiver take a turn or two in the slot depending on the concept of the play.
“It more or less has to do with what we’re asking them to do,” LaFleur said. “Just thinking back all the way to when we were in Atlanta, I think most people would agree Julio Jones and those types of players are outside receivers, but there were a lot of times we put him inside to run different types of vertical routes, just so defenses can’t get a bead on where he’s going to line up every play. If you watched practice, I think you saw almost all those receivers — EQ, J’Mon — were in the slot.”
However, they don’t all have the same skill set, one reason it is way too early to assign any roles at this point. The ability to assimilate a playbook Allison described as vast but with great potential for explosive plays will go a long way toward sorting out the wide receivers.
“They can be (interchangeable),” La Fleur said. “I think it’s, are you asking the guy to run a choice route or are you asking him to take the top off and run a vertical route? That’s why I think it’s important to assemble your receiving corps similar to how you would a basketball team. You’re not going to go out and play with five point guards. You need a speed guy. You need a a guy that’s got that short-area quickness that can separate and run those choice routes, maybe when it’s third-and-4. We’d like to have a couple guys that are versatile enough to do both of those things.”
However it sorts out, the Packers’ inactivity at wide receiver during the offseason will receive close scrutiny this fall. Rodgers has always had multiple elite receivers, so unless one or two of the current group steps up to join Adams at that level, LaFleur’s offensive creativity will be put to the test.