By Bucky Brooks
FOX Sports NFL Analyst
While the football world (and even the star quarterback) routinely chastises the organization for not using first-round picks on wide receivers, the Packers have routinely drafted and developed all-star-caliber pass-catchers over the past 20-plus years.
From Robert Brooks to Antonio Freeman to Donald Driver to Greg Jennings to James Jones to Jordy Nelson to Randall Cobb to Adams, the Packers have a long history of transforming developmental prospects into dominant playmakers on the perimeter.
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Sure, the presence of a pair of Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers) has played a big role in the Packers’ ability to maximize the talents of unheralded prospects, but there is something to the franchise’s developmental process that enables young players to grow into prominent roles.
“There is a process that has always worked for the Packers,” said a current NFL head coach familiar with the team’s inner workings. “Young receivers come in and earn their keep before taking on big roles. They have done it for years, and there is not any reason to believe that they won’t continue to do it.”
As a player for the Packers in the mid-1990s, I watched several pass-catchers work through the requisite process to become starters on the perimeter. The original blueprint was established by Mike Holmgren upon his arrival in Green Bay in 1992. He believed that young receivers should pay their dues as punt returners and complementary receivers (No. 3 or No. 4 in the rotation) before climbing the depth chart.
During draft evaluations, Holmgren coveted receivers who handled punt-return duties as collegians due to the toughness and open-field running skills required to succeed in the return game. Those punt-return skills would translate into big YAC (yards after catch) numbers in a scheme that featured a variety of “catch-and-run” concepts. In addition, the toughness and tenacity utilized in the return game would show up when wideouts were asked to make key catches in traffic.
While the young wideouts received thorough instruction from their coaches on the nuances of playing the position, daily tutorials from Favre and Rodgers accelerated their development. The obsessive attention to detail regarding schematics and route running has helped the youngsters earn the trust of the QB1, and that certainly matters when it comes to opportunities and production.
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Given the success of the process that started with Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf working alongside Holmgren to build a championship-caliber roster, the organizational philosophy was passed down to a legion of scouts who would ascend to prominent roles within the organization.
General manager Brian Gutekunst was certainly privy to the plan and watched the process unfold throughout his time with the team. He watched all-star after all-star develop in the program, and those success stories certainly encouraged him to continue along that path when he became the architect of the team in 2018.
Looking at the Packers’ current roster, the team has followed the blueprint to find a viable replacement for Adams on the perimeter. Although it might take a collective effort to replace his stellar production, the team has drafted a handful of pass-catchers with the potential to develop into dynamic weapons.
Based on how the development plan has worked in the past, I would look for Christian Watson (second round, 2022 draft), Romeo Doubs (fourth round, 2022) and Amari Rodgers (third round, 2021) to become major contributors for the Packers in the near future.
Watson will certainly get the first bite of the apple as the highest selection in the wide receivers’ room. The Packers actually traded up to select the North Dakota State product at No. 34 overall. The 6-foot-4, 208-pound pass-catcher ran a 4.36-second 40 at the combine and projects as a big-play machine with the kind of stretch-the-field ability that will make him a nightmare to defend on the perimeter. He finished his collegiate career with 57 plays of 20-plus yards on 180 total touches (rushes, receptions and returns).
As an ultra-athletic playmaker with the size, length and explosiveness to win one-on-one matchups from day one, Watson could add a dimension to the passing game as a vertical threat. Moreover, he could emerge as the Packers’ new No. 1 wideout without taking the traditional route to the top.
“His combination of size and speed is great,” Packers offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich said recently. “He’s a big guy. He can move. He’s going to be a problem once he figures things out.”
Doubs has not received a lot of attention since draft weekend, but the former Nevada standout has the tools to become the next developmental prospect to pop in Green Bay. Measuring 6-foot-2, 205 pounds with strong hands and crafty route-running skills, Doubs tallied 26 career touchdowns and a pair of 1,000-yard seasons in the Mountain West Conference. He not only possesses the physical traits that the Packers covet, but also his experience as a punt returner (12.5-yard career average) should serve him well as he transitions into a role as a secondary receiver in the lineup.
Remember, the original blueprint featured the rookie paying his dues as a returner before making his mark as a full-time receiver. Doubs has the most potential to make a seamless transition from returner to playmaker in the Packers’ wideout rotation.
Despite Amari Rodgers’ spotty debut season, I would not dismiss his chances of making a big contribution as a pass-catcher this year. While his punt-return blunders from 2021 overshadowed his intriguing tools (route-running skills and run-after-the-catch ability), the second-year pro could find his way onto the field after a solid offseason of work. As an experienced player with position flexibility (split end, flanker and slot receiver), Rodgers is a valuable player who could make his mark as a WR3/WR4 in spread formations.
The angst and anxiety that have ripped through Green Bay’s fan base since the Adams trade prompted some observers to predict a drop-off from an offense that has consistently ranked among the league’s elite. Don’t bet on it. With a tried-and-true development plan that has produced all-star after all-star, the Packers’ offense will continue to roll with a different set of characters assuming leading roles.
Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports and regularly appears on “Speak For Yourself.” He also breaks down the game for NFL Network and is a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast.
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