Packers to start 2013 season with new generation of receivers
By Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette
~GREEN BAY – James Jones knew this day eventually would come. In today’s NFL, it’s practically unavoidable.
Whether it was going to be him, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson or Greg Jennings, there was going to be a time when the nucleus of the Green Bay Packers’ receiving corps would disband.
It was thought that might be when Jones hit free agency after the team’s Super Bowl run following the 2010 season, but facing a bear market, the 6-foot-1, 208-pound receiver wound up signing on for three more seasons in Green Bay.
It wasn’t until this offseason, following the quartet’s fifth season together, that the breakup occurred with Driver drifting into retirement and Jennings bolting for a five-year, $47.5 million deal in Minnesota.
“We all understand the business aspect of it. We knew we were all talented,” Jones said. “You couldn’t keep us here forever, so we knew eventually one day this would happen.”
Now, the 29-year-old Jones has become the most veteran receiver in a room suddenly packed with rookies and first-year hopefuls, a stark contrast from the 2011 season when two practice-squad receivers, Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel, turned down offers to join active rosters elsewhere to remain in Green Bay.
Jones insists there’s plenty of ammunition left in the aerial-driven offense with himself, Nelson and 22-year-old Randall Cobb, who developed into a legitimate offensive threat in his second professional season.
Behind them, the names aren’t as flashy. Second-year receiver Jarrett Boykin, who made the 53-man roster last season after attending the team’s rookie camp on a tryout last May, and seventh-round selections Kevin Dorsey and Charles Johnson lead the list.
All told, the Packers have 11 receivers on their roster looking to replicate the same productivity in the passing offense that became commonplace with Driver, Jones, Nelson and Jennings over the past five years.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is confident he has the tools he requires, especially with Jones coming off a season in which he led the NFL with 14 touchdown catches.
“I still like the guys we got,” said Rodgers, whose team’s passing game has ranked in the top 10 in the league each year he’s started in Green Bay. “We have a lot of talent at that position. I think Randall Cobb is a guy who could be a 100-plus-catch guy every year. James Jones led the league in touchdown receptions last year. (And) Jordy has had some real big years for us.”
One of the reasons for Jones and Cobb’s emergence was a result of Nelson and Jennings battling injury throughout last season.
Jennings missed half of the team’s regular-season games with a sports hernia while hamstring, ankle and knee issues kept Nelson out of four games after his breakthrough campaign in 2011 when he registered 68 catches for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Jones became the focal point at times after spending five years as just one spoke in the wheel.
He started all 16 games and set career-highs with 64 receptions for 784 yards with 14 touchdowns after registering only 20 in 74 career games prior to last season.
“I thought he had a phenomenal year last year, and this year he’s going to be even better than what he was last year,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. “I think he understands that and I think knows what he’s capable of doing. I thought last year was just a starting point for James.”
As nice as the on-field production is, the key for the Packers’ veterans will be assuming the leadership void left in the wake of the departures of Jennings and Driver.
Although Driver’s 14-year career ended with a whisper on the field (eight catches for 77 yards), this will mark the first year the locker room will be without the franchise’s all-time leader in catches and receiving yardage since the Clinton administration.
However, there is something to be said for Driver’s legacy as the seventh-round speedster who made good in Green Bay and the impact on the youngsters looking to replace him on the roster.
“There’s a huge opportunity,” said first-year receiver/returner Jeremy Ross, who played eight offensive snaps after being promoted during the final month of last season. “With guys being gone, spots opened up. We all have an opportunity to compete for those opening spots that are available.”
The addition of running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin through the draft should help ease some of the stress placed on an offense that ranked 20th in rushing last season, resulting in opposing defenses sitting back in pass-preventative Cover-2 looks.
The return of tight end Jermichael Finley also should help stretch the field for Rodgers and his receivers, but the Packers will need new threats to emerge with Finley and Jones scheduled for free agency after the season.
The two have faced quiet markets before, but another year of solid production would go a long way in solidifying their stature in the NFL following career-high seasons in 2012.
Jones talks to Driver and Jennings regularly. They’re only a phone call away, but back at Lambeau Field time has moved on. Lockers have been replaced with new faces like undrafted rookie Myles White, whom Jones has taken a liking to.
Now that it’s their turn to lead the next generation, Jones and the other veterans don’t plan to do anything differently than what they’ve done before.
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