Rookie Receivers Must Clear Mental Hurdles

Adams (Mike McGinnis - Getty)

College teams are throwing the ball more than ever, but that hasn't helped rookie receivers make a quick transition to the NFL. For Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis, it's about learning the plays, learning the defenses and gaining chemistry with Aaron Rodgers.

With just three proven pass-catching threats on the roster, the Green Bay Packers would welcome a breakout star from this year's rookie class of wide receivers

Don't count on it happening, though.

After all, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb had relatively nondescript rookie seasons before emerging as some of the best receivers in the league.

Their quiet rookie seasons might not be the rule, but they're certainly not the exception.

Packer Report examined the rookie seasons of the past eight wide receiver classes. Combined, they produced three 1,000-yard seasons and four seasons of at least eight touchdowns.

For comparison, the Year 2 receivers during that same span produced 16 1,000-yard seasons and 14 seasons of at least eight touchdowns. It's an exaggerated example but, as a rookie in 2007, Detroit's Calvin Johnson caught 48 passes for 756 yards and four touchdowns. In 2008, he caught 78 passes for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns. Sterling Sharpe set the Packers' rookie record with 55 receptions in 1988. In 1989, he broke the franchise record with 90 receptions.

And how much easier is it to be a rookie running back than a rookie receiver? Rookie runners over the past eight seasons had 10 1,000-yard seasons and 13 seasons of at least eight touchdowns runs.

Why, with so many more college programs than ever throwing the football all over the stadium, is it so difficult for rookie receivers to make an immediate splash?

"It's tough because, a lot of times, these players have been in a spread-type system where they've learned a certain kind of skill," said former NFL general manager Phil Savage, who is the executive director of the Senior Bowl. "In other words, it's like a pitcher that won all of his games with one pitch. Now you get in the league and you have to develop an entire repertoire of releases and routes. And, you have to factor in the defense in terms of the sight adjustments and those sorts of things. I can see how, at times, it's been difficult. I would think that with what Green Bay has, they can play a rookie receiver as a third or fourth wideout and develop him in the right way."

Edgar Bennett is entering his fourth season as the Packers' receivers coach. In Bennett's first season, 2011, second-round pick Randall Cobb caught 25 passes, though his meager production had as much to do with the depth chart as anything else. The Packers didn't draft a receiver in 2012, though undrafted free agent Jarrett Boykin made the team and caught five passes. In 2013, they used seventh-round picks on Charles Johnson and Kevin Dorsey, undrafted free agent Myles White made the team and Chris Harper, a fourth-round pick who had been drafted by Seattle, was claimed off waivers. None of the three receivers who were drafted caught a pass, while White caught nine passes.

"There's a lot of information. There's a lot to learn," Bennett said. "And, obviously, the schemes, the concepts that goes along with that, the fundamentals and the techniques. And also having a clear understanding as far as what the defense is doing. You have to understand coverage. And then there's the chemistry with the quarterbacks that you are working. That's why it's so important to make the most of your opportunities in practice, because it's one thing to do it in the classroom; it's another to actually be able to go out there on the football and physically execute it."

The chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers is crucial. The playbook isn't as simple as having Receiver A running a 10-yard out. There are the nonverbal audibles and route adjustments that Rodgers directs from the line of scrimmage, and there are on-the-fly adjustments based on blitzes and coverage. Being on the same page nine times out of 10 just isn't good enough, especially when that one mistake can turn into a pick-six.

"That's a big part of it, the trust," Bennett said. "Obviously, from Aaron's standpoint as well as the staff's standpoint, being able to rely on a kid to do his job. The preparation, that's a big part of it. You see them in the classroom, the note-taking, you see them asking questions. All of that is an important part of it. Then you go out on the field and you see a guy working certain fundamentals, certain techniques — be it his releases, be it his stance, be it his ability or what we're asking him from a technique standpoint to be able to use separation as a route runner. The fundamentals of catching the football, the ability of what you're creating on your own when you're talking about YAC (yards after catch). All of that factors into it."

If Nelson, Cobb and Boykin can stay healthy, the Packers might not need much out of their rookie receivers. If there's an injury, however, Green Bay might be counting on Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis or Jeff Janis to have a featured role for a game or more.

The hefty investment in the receiver improves the Packers' odds of finding an instant contributor.

"You know, you never know how it's going to go with the draft," Bennett said. "Obviously, you have a plan going into it, but a number of things can happen, and for us to get the three kids we got in the draft, we were fortunate. We were fortunate because they all bring something different to the table. They're all unique in their own way. You see them excited about the opportunity and wanting to make the most of the opportunity. So, from a coaching standpoint, that's what you love. You see those guys come into the building with that type of energy, that type of positive attitude, that will to be great, willing to put the work in. You see a tremendous work ethic, and that's why I'm excited about it. These are kids that want it, they want to be here, they want to help build on the success that this organization has had in the past, and they want to build on it."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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