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Why Packers' Aaron Rodgers may be in precarious position

Ted Thompson’s cautious free-agency approach challenged Aaron Rodgers, giving him an annual obstacle his high-end quarterback peers did not have to navigate. Brian Gutekunst quickly made sure his style will not be confused with his predecessor’s March blueprint.

The contracts for defensive ends Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith revealed a radical course change, as the Packers’ second-year general manager continued his focus on repairing a long-unimpressive defense. Gutekunst’s top off-season moves went toward bolstering the edge defender and safety spots.

A month after the draft, Green Bay’s defense -– which has zero top-10 finishes since the Super Bowl XLV season -– is undeniably better. But as a result of Gutekunst allocating his top resources almost exclusively to fixing that unit, Rodgers’ weaponry went conspicuously unaddressed until Green Bay drafted tight end Jace Sternberger in the third round of the 2019 draft.  (Tight ends, by the way, tend to develop slowly.)

Green Bay’s pass-catchers bring little certainty. In fact, this is the Packers' least experienced receiver group of the Rodgers era. Considering where Rodgers is in his career, and the Packers' place in the NFC, this team’s non-Davante Adams collection of pass-catchers might pose a problem.

Beyond Adams, Green Bay has the following investment portfolio at wide receiver: 2018 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round picks and a 2016 undrafted free agent. As mini-camp nears, Adams' supporting cast consists of Geronimo Allison, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown. 

Each showed intermittent promise last season. Valdes-Scantling produced the most receiving yards (581) by a Packers rookie since James Jones in 2007. But he posted only one 45-plus-yard receiving game in the season’s second half and rated 63rd (out of 84 qualified receivers) in Football Outsiders’ receiver DVOA. The 6-foot-5 St. Brown (21 receptions, 328 yards), 2018’s No. 207 pick, posted 16 defense-adjusted yards above replacement -– a middle-of-the-pack number for part-time wideouts -- but closed his season with 94-yard showing against the Jets. The Packers appear to be counting on Allison as their post-Randall Cobb No. 2 option, and while the undrafted free agent averaged a career-best 60.6 yards per game in five outings last season, groin and hamstring injuries sent him to injured reserve. Allison has 758 yards receiving in three seasons.

It is too soon to rule out this group forming a viable Adams supplementary coalition, but asking only late-round draftees and an undrafted free agent to morph into trustworthy weapons marks a philosophical shift. At least two veterans have anchored the 11 Rodgers-era receiving corps, with the Greg Jennings-Donald Driver tandem breaking in Brett Favre’s successor and the Jordy Nelson-Randall Cobb duo grooming Adams. Jones was usually there for key support.

This year’s group conjures images of 2015, when Nelson was sidelined for the season with an ACL tear and Rodgers was forced to rely on the thinnest receiving corps of his NFL career thus far. And it still featured Cobb, Jones and a second-year Adams edition. The result: The 2014 MVP’s numbers careened into a valley. That season offered peak Rodgers aesthetics but featured a lesser overall version of the all-time great.  

The current Packers aerial depth chart is better than what first-year head coach Matt LaFleur had in his one Titans season as offensive coordinator. Green Bay appears to be banking on their post-Mike McCarthy playbook providing widespread enhancement on offense. It would be hard to do worse than what LaFleur’s lone season calling plays produced (27th in points, 29th in passing yards). The Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay protégé represented a bold choice to oversee the back end of Rodgers’ prime, and he is again short on reliable receiving talent. 

Green Bay also is counting on 33-year-old tight end Jimmy Graham (Football Outsiders’ No. 30 DVOA tight end in 2018) as he enters the 10th season of an injury-plagued career. The Packers certainly have given their 35-year-old quarterback an interesting combination of game-planners and pass-catchers. Given the information coming out of Bleacher Report’s explosive story of the Rodgers-McCarthy era’s demise, which included anecdotes about the passer not trusting his rookie receivers last year, this setup brings considerable risk.

With Rodgers making $33 million a year and Adams on a $14.5M average annual value deal, the Packers are not in position to overspend for wideout help. But Gutekunst did just give sidekick pass-rushers Pro Bowler-level money. If the GM is right about his new edge defenders, his top-heavy offense will have an easier time. At a combined $29.5M on average, however, Za’Darius and Preston Smith (zero combined Pro Bowls or 10-sack seasons) somehow comprise the NFL’s highest-paid edge duo. 

Pierre Garcon, Michael Crabtree and Jermaine Kearse are the top available receivers. (And Nelson, who sounds like he could be talked out of retirement.) None of them are the kind of needle-movers a first- or second-round rookie would have been, at least long term. But each would help bring security to one of the league’s least secure receiving corps.

The Packers’ atypical aggression this year shows a refreshing commitment to modern roster augmentation. Years of draft-and-develop or street free agency contributed to this generation's most talented quarterback sitting on one Super Bowl appearance. But it is difficult to see how Gutekunst, whose less costly 2018 signings of Graham and Muhammad Wilkerson failed to pay off, will turn his 2019 expenditures into surefire improvement without Rodgers being asked to shoulder the same kind of burden that placed the Packers in their current state.

Green Bay does not have many more years of guaranteed Rodgers excellence. Barring Allison becoming one of the better undrafted free- agent wideouts of recent years and Gutekunst hitting big with one of his late-round 2018 picks, this season sets up to ask even more of the future Hall of Fame passer.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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