Dougherty: Where Packers' offense ranks at the three key speed positions
GREEN BAY - It’s no secret Brian Gutekunst was looking to land a receiver before the NFL’s trade deadline nearly three weeks ago.
The Green Bay Packers general manager wanted to add some punch to his offense and came close to working out a deal for Houston’s Will Fuller, a speedster who ran a 4.32-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine in 2016.
But for all the doubts about the Packers’ receiving corps behind Davante Adams, they've shown that Aaron Rodgers is hardly bereft of big-play talent at the three speed positions, that is, two receivers and running back, that usually make up the playmaking core of an NFL offense.
Paired with Adams, who is a top-three receiver in the NFL, is Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who despite head-shaking unreliability catching the ball has shown the last two games that he can put fear in defenses because of his deep speed. Add to that Jones, who is close to being a top-five back in the league, and the Packers have more talent, if not production in Valdes-Scantling’s case, than most teams in the league at those three big-play positions.
“I’d probably say (the Packers’ trio ranks) like seven to 12, in there somewhere would be my guess, maybe in the top 10,” said a high-ranking scout for an NFL team as he started looking through depth charts around the league. “They’ve got a guy (i.e., Adams), if he’s not the best receiver he’s in the conversation right off the bat. Then you’ve got a difference-maker running back.
“And then your third guy, whether he’s a volume receiver or not, he’s got elite speed, and it’s not like the other two guys are slow. That’s pretty good. Now that (Allen Lazard) is coming back (from a core-muscle injury) you could argue Lazard is the second receiver. We’ll see how that goes, but I kinda like Valdes-Scantling. He didn’t have a good year last year, but after his rookie year I was like, this guy is going to be good. It looks like he’s back on track at least.”
To get a better sense of how the Packers stack up against the rest of the league’s speed-position trios, I asked two NFL scouts to rank the top 10. Their lists were quite different in some places, but as for the Packers, one put them at No. 7 and the other at No. 10.
Here is the first scout’s order:
1. Minnesota (Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook)
2. Kansas City (Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Clyde Edwards-Helaire)
3. Seattle (DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Chris Carson)
4. Carolina (Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel)
5. Arizona (DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk/Larry Fitzgerald and Kenyan Drake)
The scout had the Packers just behind Tampa Bay (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Ronald Jones), and ahead of Cleveland (Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb), Dallas (Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Ezekiel Elliott) and New Orleans (Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Alvin Kamara).
The second scout’s list was:
1. New Orleans
3. Tampa Bay
Also ahead of the Packers were four other teams: Carolina, Buffalo (Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Devin Singletary), Cleveland and Carolina.
There were some surprising differences. The first scout had New Orleans low (No. 10) because he thinks Sanders isn’t good anymore, whereas the second scout had the Saints first.
The first scout had the Chiefs in the top five but No. 2 didn’t even have them in his top 10 because he considers Patrick Mahomes so dominant that he makes everyone else look much better than they really are.
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The teams that made both top fives were Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Arizona. Having seen the Vikings in person twice and on TV several more times, I’d have ranked them first. Cook is the best back in the league this season, the rookie Jefferson looks like a star in the making and Thielen is tied for the league lead in touchdown catches (nine).
Regardless, the reason the Packers cracked the top 10 on both lists is the Adams-Jones duo, which because of injuries to each has played together in only five games this season. Both scouts rated Adams as a top-three receiver. One rated Jones the fifth- or sixth-best back in the league, ahead of the Cowboys’ Elliott among others, whereas the other put him near the bottom of the top 10.
But Valdes-Scantling is coming off two strong games in which his speed translated into several key big plays. He had six catches for 202 yards and three touchdowns combined, including a 52-yard touchdown against the 49ers two weeks ago and a 78-yarder last week against the Jaguars.
Now, that isn’t saying Valdes-Scantling has arrived. The third-year pro has appeared to the turn the corner before in his career only to disappoint and disappear. So there’s reason to be wary. He’s also at best a No. 3 receiver in the league even though he’s been the Packers’ No. 2 while Lazard has been out.
But it’s worth noting that Valdes-Scantling leads the league in average per reception (21.0 yards). He still has drop issues, is far from a fluid and precise route runner and doesn’t always track the ball well. But as that average per catch and two long touchdown passes the last two games suggest, defensive coordinators have to honor his combination of height (6-feet-4) and speed as a downfield threat.
“The (Valdes-)Scantling drops bother me,” the second scout said. “He was that way in college, too. (But) I would want him on my team for (speed) alone, because they have to defend you different with that kind of speed out there. The skills that he lacks are all of the variety of routes one has to run. He’s not as complete as I would want. He’s a longer guy, he’s kinda straight line, not really a separator from tight coverage. That’s where I struggle with him. He can stretch the field on crossing routes, deep digs, things like that where he can run fast straight ahead.”
It will take a lot more than two good games to say Valdes-Scantling has arrived. And this week the Packers will face as tough a defense as they’ll see all season in Indianapolis. The Colts are fourth in the league in points allowed (19.7 per game) and first in defensive passer rating (78.9).
But the Packers might not be as bereft for receiver talent behind Adams as they looked a month ago. At least, Valdes-Scantling has half a season to prove as much.