Cobb and Finley essential to Packers passing game success in 2013
Written by Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette
~GREEN BAY – From 2007 to 2011, the Green Bay Packers went 40-24 and won a Super Bowl with Greg Jennings as their best playmaker in the receiving game.
But last season started a transition in which Randall Cobb has become the Packers’ No. 1 threat. This year the changeover should be complete for a receiving corps that as recently as 2011 was probably the NFL’s deepest.
Jennings has left for the Minnesota Vikings in free agency after an injury-diminished 2011, and Donald Driver has retired after hitting the wall in the last year or two. So even more than last season, when Cobb caught 80 passes, quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ priority will be getting the ball in the hands of a player he’s said is capable of catching 100 passes on a yearly basis.
Coach Mike McCarthy no doubt will continue to facilitate Cobb’s touches by aligning him all over, including in the backfield, to keep defenses guessing. And he and his coaching staff think Cobb is made of the mental and physical stuff to handle as big a load as any receiver in the league even though only one (5-foot-9 and 185-pound Wes Welker) among the 16 who caught more than 80 passes last season was smaller than Cobb at 5-10 and 192.
“No. 1, I wouldn’t classify Randall as just a receiver,” said Edgar Bennett, the Packers’ receivers coach. “I think Randall is an excellent football player, period. I think he’s one of the toughest guys in the building, period. He has everything you look for.
“He’s extremely smart, detailed, understands the game, and that’s a big part of it. Obviously you want the physical attributes, but you want also a student of the game that gets it, that’s going to prepare a certain way, so when he’s in a certain situation you know how he’s going to respond.”
Last year, Cobb was the NFL’s leader in all-purpose yards (i.e., yards from scrimmage and on returns) with 2,342. But the Packers are looking for someone, most likely Jeremy Ross, to replace him on returns so the team can fully exploit Cobb’s versatility in their offense. Last year Cobb had 90 touches from scrimmage, including 10 rushes for 132 yards, and he appears headed for more this year.
“We move him around a lot,” Bennett said, “so it would be quite difficult for a team to say, ‘We want to double that guy,’ without putting other people in a compromising position.”
Especially with Jennings gone, a key factor in whether the Packers return to the blistering offense they were in 2011 is tight end Jermichael Finley. Whereas Cobb showed last year in his second NFL season that he’s dependable week in and week out, Finley still hasn’t done so in five previous seasons.
Even last year, Finley needed a promising finish to convince the Packers to keep him for 2013 at a cost of $8.25 million. His 61 receptions last year were a career high but tied for only No.9 among tight ends in the NFL, and his 10.9-yard per carry average was a career low.
Early last season Finley had the yips — he dropped seven passes in the first eight games, then had only two thereafter — but came on down the stretch with 26 receptions in the final five regular-season games. Finley has the talent to be one of the team’s primary playmakers, but at age 26, he no longer can be excused for his youth.
“(Finley’s) confidence level was probably at an all-time low (the first half of last year),” said Jerry Fontenot, the Packers’ tight ends coach. “Our main focus was to try to make football fun and make it a game. Now that we’ve established some confidence there, our next step is to really get fine tuned as far as how we’re running our routes, not just being where we’re supposed to be (and) when we’re supposed to be there, but the way we’re going to do it getting there.”
Finley also seems to have abandoned his thinking from the last couple seasons, when he aspired to be as much a wide receiver as tight end.
“Physically, he’s put on a few pounds from last year, so he looks a little bigger, a little faster, a little stronger than last year,” Fontenot said. “Physically the guy has talent. We still have a ways to go in some areas of his game. We’re kind of happy with where we are, but we still need to get better.”
At receiver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson are back to share the roles as the Nos. 2 and 3. Each has had a big season in the last two years – in 2011, Nelson caught 15 touchdown passes and averaged an excellent 18.6 yards a catch; last season Jones led the NFL in touchdown receptions with 14.
Nelson at age 28 and Jones at 29 aren’t as dynamic as Cobb or Jennings, but along with Finley could allow McCarthy to spread defenses with four pass catchers who can take advantage of the best match-up.
“I still like the guys we’ve got,” Rodgers said in June. “We have a lot of talent at that position.”
The front-runner for the No. 4 receiver is Jarrett Boykin, who made the roster as an undrafted rookie last season. His speed is marginal for the position, but he has great size (6-2, 218) and made as big of strides as anyone on the roster in the offseason.
“I like what Jarrett Boykin brings,” Rodgers said. “He’s a big, physical receiver who’s going to get some opportunities this year.”
Ross also has a good chance to make the team, though more as a return man than receiver. General manager Ted Thompson also spent two seventh-round picks on size-speed prospects, Charles Johnson and Kevin Dorsey.
Both rookies missed most of their offseason practices because of unidentified injuries, so the Packers have no early read on them as NFL players. But Johnson (6-2, 215), who at age 24 started his college career at Eastern Kentucky and then played at a junior college before finishing at Division II Grand Valley State, is impressive on the hoof. He’s tall (6-feet-2) with a cut build (215 pounds), a reported 4.35-second 40 and a 39 ½-inch vertical jump.
“Sometimes you see a guy, he’s 6-2 ½, 215 to 217 and they’re built almost like basketball players,” Bennett said. “That’s not the case with this kid. This kid is physical. When you watch his tape you see a man that catches the ball away from his body, uses his hands, extends and pluck the football. You talk about high-pointing the ball, he has that ability.
“Now it’s more about getting him acclimated to what we ask him to do. It’s going to be extremely competitive, really is. I don’t B.S. about it, I’m excited about these young kids. Kevin (Dorsey) as well. I think it’s going to be extremely competitive, and they know what’s at stake.”
Behind Finley, Andrew Quarless and Matthew Mulligan stood out most at tight end in the offseason. The Packers signed Mulligan (6-4, 267) to a one-year deal mainly because of his size and strength as a blocker, but he looked OK catching the ball also this offseason.
Quarless, who missed all of last season while still recovering from knee-reconstruction surgery in 2011, made a couple of attention-getting catch and runs at practices open to reporters in May and June.
“Q has dropped a few pounds to help facilitate …… Full story here