Sunday, July 3, 2022

How Aaron Rodgers can keep the Packers one of the NFL’s top 10 offenses in 2022 without Davante Adams

Two-time reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers is 38 years old and entering his 18th NFL season, his 15th as the Packers‘ starting quarterback. He’s witnessed the departure of his go-to wide receiver before, but Davante Adams leaving Green Bay for the Las Vegas Raiders in a sign-and-trade at 29 years old feels different. The Packers let Greg Jennings walk in the 2013 offseason after a 2012 season marred with injuries left Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb waiting in the wings for bigger roles. Five years later, Nelson was let go after a dip in performance in his age-32 season with Adams coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance that same year. 

This time, the Packers desperately wanted to keep their receiver coming off consecutive First-Team All-Pro seasons with no clear-cut “next guy” ready to break out. Adams ended up signing a five-year, $140 million contract with the Raiders to reunite with his college quarterback at Fresno State, Derek Carr, but according to Adams, Green Bay offered the bigger deal. 

“You guys have heard Green Bay offered this, which is higher than what I was [going to make with the Raiders] and all of that. And, yeah, I’ll say it, it was true. OK, it was true,” Adams said on June 9th. “But there’s much more that goes into it. And family is a big part of it for me. So, geographically being here, it makes it a lot easier for me to stay connected to my family year-round.”

Just how much production are the Packers losing? Well, Adams broke the franchise single-season catches record (123) and receiving yards record (1,553) in addition to his 11 receiving touchdowns in 2021, becoming the sixth player in NFL history with 120+ receptions, 1,500+ receiving yards and 10+ receiving in a single season. 

Elite company

Here’s a look at the only seasons in NFL history where a player has had 120+ receptions, 1,500+ receiving yards and 10+ receiving TDs:

2021 — Davante Adams

2021 — Cooper Kupp

2015 — Antonio Brown

2014 — Antonio Brown

2002 — Marvin Harrison

1995 — Jerry Rice

1995 — Herman Moore

Adams was responsible for 30.6% of the Packers’ receptions (second-most in NFL) and 34.3% of the Packers’ receiving yards (third-most in NFL) last season. His 23 catches, 1,553 yards and 83 first downs last season are more than the combined total of every other receiver currently on the Packers roster (Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Juwann Winfree, Amari Rodgers and Malik Taylor — plus Sammy Watkins, who played for the Ravens in 2021 — combined for 109 receptions for 1,399 yards and 73 first downs last season).

“Last year, when you have a guy who’s that talented, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say 80% of the plays in the passing game were designed specifically for 17 [Davante Adams],” Rodgers said on June 7 at the Packers mandatory minicamp. “We’re obviously going to do a few things a little differently.”

Clearly, losing a player of Adams’ caliber is a negative, but the Packers didn’t hand Rodgers a three-year, $150 million contract extension for no reason. Rodgers is going to elevate the offense no matter who’s out there. Former arch-nemesis and Chicago Bears middle linebacker — and now Pro Football Hall of Famer — Brian Urlacher said as much on the Pat McAfee Show on Wednesday.

“He’s [Aaron Rodgers] the reason they’re so good,” Urlacher said. “You could put whatever receivers you want in there, I don’t care who it is, he’s going to make them better.”

That’s exactly what Rodgers has done in the small sample size of seven games without Adams since Matt LaFleur became the Packers head coach in 2019. Green Bay is a perfect 7-0 in those games, with Rodgers throwing 19 touchdowns and just one interception in that span while the team averaged 31.6 points per game 

Rodgers’ stats in games Adams has missed since 2019

W-L

7-0

Passing YPG

292.7

Passing TD-INT

19-1

Passer rating

119.7

Team PPG

31.6

After surveying his pass-catching group at minicamp this June, Rodgers divided his weapons into two different categories. 

“I like production over potential,” Rodgers said this week. “We have some production. We have a lot of potential.”

Production: Aaron Jones

Since Matt LaFleur became the Packers head coach in 2019, running back Aaron Jones has transformed into one of the most dynamic playmakers in the entire NFL: His cumulative 2,987 rushing yards and 1,220 receiving yards since 2019 make him and New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (2,627 rushing yards and 1,728 receiving yards) the only players in the NFL with 2,500+ rushing yards and 1,200+ receiving yards in that span.

“I think the way we’ve played in his [Davante Adams’] absence over the last seven games or so over the last three years has been different,” Rodgers said. “Obviously, Aaron Jones has had more opportunities in those games and now that we have an incredibly complimentary second back [AJ Dillon] we can get both of those guys involved in the passing game. Yeah, the offense has to change.” 

In the games without Adams in that span, Jones has been THE go-to guy on the ground and in the air with 101 carries, 470 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns and led the team in every receiving category with 47 targets, 36 receptions, 388 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns in seven games. 

Jones was targeted on seven or more passes in four of those seven games. One of those was his career-high with 11 targets in the Packers’ 24-21 Week 8 win at the Cardinals on Thursday Night Football when Adams was on the reserve/COVID-19 list last season. Jones led the team in targets (11), receptions (7), and receiving yards (51) in the win. 

Jones also hit his career-high in receiving yards with 159 receiving yards in the Packers’ 31-24 win at the Chiefs in Week 8 of the 2019 season with Adams sidelined, including his game-winning 67-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the fourth quarter of that contest. His career-high in rushing touchdowns (4) also came in an Adams-less affair, a 34-24 win at the Cowboys in Week 5 of the 2019 season. Jones also led the Packers in targets (8), receptions (7), receiving yards (75) in that win. 

A significant amount of the biggest plays Rodgers hit when throwing to Adams in their time together came unscripted, when Rodgers would roll out of the pocket to buy time, survey the field, and drop a bomb at least 20 yards downfield. Jones flashed the ability to be that kind of improvisational threat in their divisional round playoff loss against the 49ers

With the Packers facing a 3rd-and-3 inside their own 15 with 39 seconds left and one timeout in the first half, Rodgers needed a big play so the Packers wouldn’t have to punt out of their end zone. He rolled right, creating additional time and space to hit a wide-open Jones on a wheel route up the right sideline for 75 yards. Jones finished with a career-high nine receptions and 129 receiving yards, the second-most in a game of his career.  

In 2021, Jones was one of three running backs with 50+ receptions (52), 350+ receiving yards (391) and 5+ receiving touchdowns (6), joining Chargers running back Austin Ekeler and Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson. Even though he doesn’t play wide receiver, Jones may replace Adams as Rodgers’ new security blanket in 2022.

Potential: AJ Dillon

The “incredibly complimentary second back” Rodgers referred to when talking about how the offense will change without Adams is now third-year running back (and resident bruiser) AJ Dillon, the Packers’ second-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft out of Boston College. He took a big leap in Year 2, rushing for 561 more yards (803 in 2021, 242 in 2020) and three more touchdowns (5 in 2021, 2 in 2020). Dillon’s receiving totals exploded as well, catching 32 more passes (34 in 2021, 2 in 2020) for 292 more yards (313 in 2021, 21 in 2020) with his first two career receiving touchdowns all coming in 2021.

That production made him and Jones the first pair of Packers running backs to each have 1,000+ scrimmage yards in the same season since 1980 with Eddie Lee Ivery and Gerry Ellis. 

Packers RB duos with 1,000+ scrimmage yards in same season

2021

Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon

1980

Eddie Lee Ivery and Gerry Ellis

1972

John Brockington and MacArthur Lane

1971

John Brockington and Donny Anderson

Jones and Dillon shared the field on just 18 snaps in the first 15 games last season, but look for first-year offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich and head coach Matt LaFleur to find more ways to incorporate these two into more formations in 2022. 

In their stunning Week 8 win at the Cardinals last season, both Jones and Dillon lined up in the shotgun with Rodgers on one play before Jones motioned out wide and to the right, creating a mismatch with a linebacker. Jones beat Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons down the sideline with his speed and Rodgers threw an over the shoulder completion deep downfield, a play he’s been making music with for over a decade. If Rodgers had decided to audible a running play, Dillon would have had more run to operate downhill with one less linebacker around the line of scrimmage. It’s just one variation of many different kinds of run-pass option plays and formations Rodgers has in his arsenal with these two disparately built running backs at his disposal.

“We’re excited to get those two on the field [together] and do a bunch of different stuff,” Stenavich said in May. 

Potential: Allen Lazard

With Adams gone, Allen Lazard, who went undrafted in 2018 out of Iowa State, now sits atop the Packers depth chart entering training camp. In 2021, he caught 40 passes for 513 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns, all career-highs. His receiving yards and receiving touchdowns numbers were both the second-highest on the team behind Adams. 

He finished the season as one of the league’s best in the final five weeks. In Weeks 14-18, Lazard caught 21 passes for 290 yards (3 games with 70+ yards, none in first 13 weeks) and scored five touchdowns. Those five receiving touchdowns down the stretch tied Lazard with Cooper Kupp, Hunter Renfrow and Ja’Marr Chase for the second-most in that span, with only Adams having more with six.

Lazard’s 2021 season stats

Receptions

19

21

Receiving yards

223

290

Receiving TDs

3

5*

Receiving first downs

11

17

* T-2nd-most in NFL (only Davante Adams (6) had more)

At 6-foot-5, 227 pounds, Lazard has the potential to become Rodgers’ new jump-ball favorite in the red zone. He’s also a willing blocker, run or pass, which helps him get open deep on play-action, lulling defensive backs to sleep.

“He’s been our dirty work guy for most of his career here. Now he’s getting an opportunity to be a No. 1 receiver,” Rodgers said. “I’m not worried about him at all stepping into that role. I’ve talked to him a lot. I know how he takes care of his body and I know he’ll be ready when he’s here.”

Production and potential: Sammy Watkins

In Aaron Rodgers’ 17 NFL seasons, he has thrown only four passing touchdowns to a first round draft pick. Those four went to tight end Marcedes Lewis, the 28th overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2006 NFL Draft, across the 2019 and 2020 seasons. That figure is likely to go up in 2022 with the Packers making Sammy Watkins, the fourth overall pick of the 2014 draft by the Buffalo Bills, their only veteran free agency signing this offseason.

“I FaceTimed him when he signed his contract,” Rodgers said. “I knew he was somebody we had targeted and we were interested in, and I was 100 percent on board with that. It’s important to get guys who have a lot to play for. I think Sammy has the opportunity to continue and travel down a new path in his career that we can get to here as he continues to get opportunities.”

Watkins began his career strong with 125 receptions for 2,029 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Only Odell Beckham Jr. (2,755) and Mike Evans (2,257) had more receiving yards from the 2014 draft class than Watson in their first two seasons. However, he’s missed 27 games with injuries over his last six seasons. He hasn’t hit 50 receptions, 700 yards, or five touchdowns in any of his last six seasons. 

“I think I told the coaches, ‘My back is against the wall,'” Watkins said on June 8. “My career hasn’t been what I projected it to be. It’s a great opportunity for me to come here, play hard, catch a ton of balls, compete at the highest level and win games and fight to stay healthy. That’s been the knock on my career – to stay on the field. I think this is the best place to stay healthy, stay on the field and catch a lot of balls.”

Watkins turned 29 on June 14, and this could be his last chance at significant playing time for a contender. LaFleur was the Rams‘ offensive coordinator in 2017, when Watkins scored eight touchdowns, the second-most in his career. Packers wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Jason Vrable was on the Bills staff when Watkins had his two biggest receiving totals in his career. Watkins has come through in the playoffs, leading the Chiefs with 288 receiving yards in the 2019 postseason, which they capped off with a win in Super Bowl LIV against the 49ers.

“I think this is probably one of the best situations I’ve probably ever been in in my career,” Watkins said. “To play with one of the best quarterbacks in the league, one of the best coaches, one of the best organizations – this is probably the winningest organization in the league – to get this opportunity is really a blessing because I did nothing last year. I was hurt. To get a call from Matt [LaFleur] and this organization revived me and, hopefully, I can have a healthy season and play hard and win a ton of games.”

Rodgers appreciated the Packers front office bringing in players hungry to win as his career winds down. 

“I think it’s important: You get guys who have a lot to play for, and I think Sammy has the opportunity to continue and travel down a new path in his career that we can help him here as he continues to improve and gets opportunities,” Rodgers said. “The most important thing for receivers and pass catchers and ball carriers is opportunities, and there’s definitely going to be opportunities for him to make plays for us in this offense. I love the disposition, I really enjoy the person, and I think he has everything right in front of him to have as productive a year as he wants to.”

Rodgers is very calculated and thought-out when he speaks to the media. That is significant. If Watkins can stay healthy, perhaps he could turn his career around and potentially find a multi-year deal waiting for him next offseason as he gains Rodgers’ trust.

“I just think the staff, the organization is run well and the guys I’m surrounded around – Aaron (Rodgers), Aaron Jones, Randall Cobb, Allen Lazard, a lot of moving parts,” Watkins said. “I’ve just got to come in and take care of my body, play hard, take coaching and also be a leader in the room and just do whatever in my power to stay on the field. Because when I’m on the field, I can ball, I can catch balls, I can score and I’m a dominant player. But the key is staying on the field.”

Potential: Christian Watson

With the Packers trading up in the 2022 draft to select North Dakota State wide receiver Christian Watson with the second pick of the second round, that placed heightened expectations on the explosive rookie. Standing at 6-5, 208 pounds, he ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, the sixth-fastest time among receivers this year.

Rodgers’ best receiver connections have been with second-round picks. Nearly half — 215 passing touchdowns, 48 percent — of Rodgers’ 449 career touchdown passes were thrown to Adams (68), Jordy Nelson (65), Randall Cobb (44) and Greg Jennings (38), all second-round picks. Fortunately for Watson, he can learn how to build a strong connection with Rodgers from one of the quarterback’s real-life best friends.

“We’ve got my closest buddy on the team with those guys every single day, Randall Cobb, and he’s been here the entire time just about,” Rodgers said. “So he’s passing along everything they need to know about playing with me and expectations and signals and unspoken communication and non-verbal stuff, and they just have to feel me once we get back for training camp and it gets real. There’ll be expectations for them, but reasonable expectations. We’re not going to expect those guys to be anything other than the best versions of themselves. I know with how high we picked Christian [Watson] there will be expectations, but we just need him to be the best version of himself. I’m excited about Sammy [Watkins], he’s made some plays. It’s good to see him out there, he looks the part. We’ll get Allen back and Randall [Cobb], then there’s a lot of competition behind those guys.”

If Rodgers can continue to get steady, increased production from Jones and Lazard, in addition to regular contributions from Dillon, Watkins and Watson, there isn’t any reason why Rodgers can’t pilot the Packers to their third straight top 10 scoring season. Since his track record says he can pull it off, the Packers made Rodgers the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback (averaging $50 million per year over the next three seasons) to stick around and figure out how to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy home to Titletown once again. 

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