Kevin Dorsey works out during the Green Bay Packers rookie orientation weekend. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports photograph

Packers wide receivers: Looking for separation

Jordy Nelson will lead another deep Green Bay Packers receiving corps in 2013.
Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Separation.

On the field, over the course of the last half-decade, there’s been plenty of it amongst the exceptional Green Bay Packers receiving unit and the defenses they’ve collectively shredded. During the last two seasons, under the tutelage of wide receivers coach (and ex-Packers running back) Edgar Bennett, the Green Bay wideouts have distanced themselves from their league counterparts by turning in some eye-popping statistics.

In 2011, the unit notched 3,667 yards, 38 touchdowns and averaged 229 yards receiving per game. Notably, for the first time in franchise history, five players snagged at least 25 catches on the year.

Fittingly, Packers receivers have consistently been described by pundits as the most talented and deepest unit in the the NFL.

With good reason.

Aaron Rodgers has become the best quarterback on the planet because of his receivers.
Raymond T. Rivard photograph

They’ve helped Aaron Rodgers become the best quarterback on the planet and were a major factor in him earning a league MVP award in 2011 as he set all-time marks for efficiency. Additionally, a major catalyst in Green Bay’s “pass to set up the pass” philosophy has been the sputtering running game of recent seasons, aided by the retirement of Ahman Green, steady decline of Ryan Grant, countless injuries and a patchwork offensive line.

To that end, the benefactors of this aerial scheme have clearly been the offensive perimeter players.

Summer in Green Bay has long been a staging ground for the next big thing at wide receiver. As recently as last year players like Diondre Borel and Tori Gurley come to mind. They were seemingly poised to break out and both wowed coaches while in helmets and shorts during the Packers’ offseason program. But when the pads went on and the press coverage and defensive pressure ratcheted up during training camp they both virtually disappeared.

Holdovers Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and sophomore sensation Randall Cobb rounded out the pass catchers to start the year in 2012. And that top four has pretty much been it year-in and year-out, with some minor fluctuation at the bottom end of the roster. Last season, injuries necessitated the promotion of Jeremy Ross and Jarrett Boykin to the active roster. Both flashed serious potential and are looking to cement themselves as mainstays this year instead of bubble players.

James Jones is coming off a breakout season in 2012 and looking for more in 2013.
Raymond T. Rivard photograph

In order to do so they’ll have to make their mark on special teams and – this is the key – avoid turnovers while staying healthy. Ross came in and almost immediately provided a spark to the special teams.

He has shown some nifty moves in the open field while running with the punt return team. But to-date his biggest play in a Packers uniform was a devastating fumble near the goal line on a kick that swung the momentum back in favor of the Forty Niners during Green Bay’s forgettable Divisional Round Playoff shellacking at the hands of San Francisco to end last season.

A repeat performance in camp or preseason and Ross will likely find himself out of work faster than the hangtime on one of those booming kicks.

As for Boykin, he needs to work his way back from an injury. He snared five receptions for 27 yards overall in 2012. He is, when healthy, a much more explosive and precise route runner than Borel and Gurley ever were. According to Bennett, Boykin fits perfectly in Green Bay’s system that relies heavily on timing – largely out and deep crossing patterns. A fourth receiver (and that’s what slot he’s going to be jockeying for, given the status of Nelson, Cobb and Jones) on most teams would be deemed irrelevant. But not in Green Bay. At some point, given the pass-heavy sets that the Packers constantly run, whomever steps into the fourth – and even fifth – spot is going to see plenty of action.

With Driver officially spending his free time cutting community ribbons and playing slow pitch softball during his first vacation since the late 90s and that “other” guy working out west in Mankato with the enemy, the opportunities to crack the bottom two-fifths of the receiver roster this season are better than they have been in, well, years.

It would appear that Green Bay rookie receivers Kevin Dorsey and Charles Johnson couldn’t have picked a better time to arrive in Titletown. Both are likely going to be heavily involved in the battle this fall for those final two receiver roster spots.

Dorsey played collegiately at Maryland University where the 6-foot-2, 210 pound wideout toiled in relative obscurity during a scuttled senior year for the Terps. During 2012 he saw four – yes four – quarterbacks go down and his opportunities to build a resume for the NFL Draft go right down with them.

But he stayed positive and reportedly interviewed well in the pre-draft process. What augmented the 18 catches for 300-plus yards and four touchdowns of that downtrodden final season at Maryland? His smarts (he graduated a year earlier in 2011, with a degree in economics) and his attitude. He kept looking forward. Kept looking for his next challenge. So when Green Bay came calling late on day three of the draft, he was ready.

He’ll get a shot this fall with the Packers and if he can perform steadily and avoid injury, some would say he has a legitimate shot at making the team or the practice squad.

The other Green Bay receiver that was pegged – also in the seventh round of the draft – to come in and compete for a spot this fall is Charles Johnson. He’s the 6-foot-2, 215-pound wideout from tiny Division II Grand Valley State. He logged a handful of blazing sub-4.4 forty-yard dashes and then blew away scouts yet again with a 39.5-inch vertical.

Thompson knows you can’t teach those types of measurables, so he took a flier. And it could pay off if the young – but extremely raw – prospect gets the coaching from Bennett that he needs. The biggest hurdle that Johnson will face ahead of him is the fact that Dorsey played against much better competition in college and Boykin already has playing time and a year in the Green Bay system.

The likelihood is that Johnson ends up stashed on the practice squad, but the challenge is hoping he clears waivers and that some other team doesn’t claim him during that process.

For a unit that’s had some resounding success in recent seasons, 2013 may present the biggest challenge yet to the wide receivers. Especially as the roster fills out and and the new running game takes shape.

The offensive scheme in Green Bay isn’t going to change overnight – McCarthy knows this. The Packers are built on offense to throw the football. The Packers won’t suddenly morph into a run-first team because they have Rodgers under center. Identifying a pair of receivers who can help pick up the slack from the departure of Driver and Jennings while joining the rotation are critical issues that need to be resolved during training camp.

No matter which receivers end up securing the coveted number four and five spots, watching them separate themselves during the intense training camp battle will certainly be fun to watch.

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Tags: Charles Johnson Green Bay James Jones Jarrett Boykin Jeremy Ross Jordy Nelson Kevin Dorsey NFL Randall Cobb Receivers

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