GREEN BAY – Two days into the 2014 NFL Draft, Ted Thompson delivered another reminder: No matter how much improvement is needed in other areas – and, truth be told, there’s still work to be done on the defensive side of the ball – the Green Bay Packers general manager is never going to leave the playmaking cupboard bare for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Thompson clearly learned a valuable lesson from his mentor Ron Wolf, whose chief retirement regret about his time as Packers GM was that he never plied quarterback Brett Favre with sufficient weapons. If anything, Wolf felt he skimped on play-making wide receivers and pass-catching tight ends, thinking Favre’s superior talent would raise middling players’ levels of play.
While Rodgers may have Favre’s knack for making good players better, Thompson has made it a priority to replenish his receiving corps.
On Friday, he added Fresno State wide receiver Davante Adams, who caught an astonishing 131 passes last season to lead the Football Bowl Subdivision, with the team’s second-round pick (No. 53 overall); then added California tight end Richard Rodgers, who spent last season in coach Sonny Dykes’ tight end-free offense as a slot receiver, with the team’s compensatory third-round pick (No. 98 overall). In between, Thompson picked Southern Mississippi defensive lineman Khyri Thornton, who joins Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the team’s first-round pick (No. 21 overall) on Thursday night, on the defensive side of the ball.
As per his custom, Thompson insisted after the selections that the board simply told him to take Adams, who was the ninth receiver taken, and Rodgers, who was the sixth tight end selected.
“It literally just sort of worked out that way,” Thompson said late Friday night after the third round had ended. “We’ve talked about this before. There are times when if it’s close we’re going to lean toward the place where we think we need a little more help.
“But here and in this day and age in NFL football, you can’t get too concerned with that in my opinion – the problem being you might think you’re all fat and happy today, you may have all three or four of these guys that you need and then by the time you get them to training camp, we’ve got sprained ankles and bumps and bruises and all of a sudden you don’t have those guys that you were counting on, so I think the best policy is try to stay with as much as quality as you can.”
In that case, it’s worked out pretty well for Thompson’s quarterbacks. In his 10 drafts as Packers GM, he has now taken 11 wide receivers, including six in the third round or higher: Texas A&M’s Terrence Murphy (second round, No. 58) in 2005; Western Michigan’s Greg Jennings (second round, No. 52) in 2006; San Jose State’s James Jones (third round, No. 78) in 2007; Kansas State’s Jordy Nelson (second round, No. 36) in 2008; Kentucky’s Randall Cobb (second round, No. 64 overall) in 2011; and now Adams.
In the nine drafts where Wolf clearly was in charge of the picks (the 2001 draft, following Wolf’s retirement announcement, was in reality a Mike Sherman production), he took 16 wide receivers. But only three – South Carolina’s Robert Brooks (third round, 1992), Virginia Tech’s Antonio Freeman (third round, 1995) and Notre Dame’s Derrick Mayes (second round, 1996) – were selected in the third round or higher.
Of the other 13 receivers Wolf drafted, one was taken in the fourth round, four were taken in the fifth round and the other eight were taken in the sixth or seventh rounds.
In 2012, the Packers’ six-man depth chart at receiver was so deep with Jennings, Nelson, Jones, Cobb, Jarrett Boykin and Donald Driver that the aging franchise record-holder for career receptions and receiving yards was relegated to the No. 6 spot.
Two years later, Driver has retired; Jennings signed with the Minnesota Vikings last offseason and Jones departed as a free agent to Oakland in March after the Packers made no effort to re-sign him until it was too late. Both Nelson and Cobb are entering the final year of their contracts in 2014 as well.
Unlike 2011, when Thompson added Cobb to a group that already had Jennings, Driver, Nelson and Jones, Adams’ addition comes when the Packers’ top three are Nelson, Cobb and Boykin, with the first two headed toward unrestricted free agency following the 2014 season if extensions aren’t reached.
“[Wide receiver] is always important. Again, going back to our scouting department, they do a fantastic job, and I’m sure they’ve had conversations as far as getting to this point,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. “But it’s always exciting to add an additional player that brings that competitive fire, that competitive edge to your room to go along with the guys that are already in that room. It helps, it certainly helps.”
When his track record of success with second-round wide receivers was pointed out to Thompson, he smiled, rapped his knuckles on the podium and said, “Don’t jinx us.” Although Murphy’s promising career was cut short by a neck injury sustained early in his rookie season, Jennings (425 receptions, 6,537 yards, 53 touchdowns in seven seasons), Nelson (302 receptions, 4,590 yards, 36 TDs in six seasons) and Cobb (136 receptions, 1,762 yards, 13 TDs in three seasons) were all hits.
“I mean, it’s worked out that way for us for the most part,” Thompson said. “I can’t remember – I’m sure somebody else will remember for me – but I can’t remember when we didn’t come out on top on that one. We’ve had some good fortune and it’s a credit to those young men.”
In the 6-foot-0 7/8, 212-pound Adams, the Packers get a 21-year-old third-year sophomore with room to grow while adding strength and refining his game.
“I see myself fitting in perfectly,” said Adams, who watched the draft at his home in Palo Alto, Calif., with family. “I’m extremely excited that I get to play with these guys. They’ve definitely had a lot of success and can teach me a lot going in with me being a rookie and them having a lot of experience. The more I can learn, the quicker the better. I know they’ll be guys who are open with helping me out and stuff like that. We’ll just learn off of each other and try to be the best wideout group in the NFL.”
Rodgers, meanwhile, was a traditional tight end his first two years at Cal before coach Jeff Tedford – Aaron Rodgers’ coach with the Golden Bears – was fired and replaced by Dykes. When the new staff told Rodgers that if he didn’t shed weight from his 270-pound frame, he wouldn’t play, Rodgers got down to 245 pounds to play slot receiver. He said Friday that he’s back up to about 262 pounds, which is where he feels comfortable.
“I can do pretty much whatever the team needs me to do,” said Rodgers, who caught 20 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown as a sophomore and 39 passes for 608 yards and a touchdown last year. “Whatever contributions I can make at whatever weight is what I’ll do. That’s the good thing is that I can adapt, just like the new coaches came in and they asked me to lose weight or I wasn’t going to play so that’s what I did. I lost the weight and I played in the offense. So, that’s all I can really do is whatever the coaches ask me to do is all I can do.”
Rodgers should have the chance to play some immediately if free-agent starter Jermichael Finley can’t resume his football career after last year’s season-ending and career-threatening neck injury, or if Finley does gain medical clearance but opts to sign elsewhere.
“Anything's possible,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “And if he gets hot and Aaron likes him as a target, then I think that any guy can contribute early. I don't see that this kid is any less capable than anybody else in possibly filling that role.”