One APC writer is betting against the 2021 3rd-round pick.
The Green Bay Packers lost a lot of receiving talent and production this offseason with the departures of Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and to a lesser extent, Equanimeous St. Brown. While they did spend serious draft capital in rebuilding the position by trading up for Christian Watson, and later selecting Romeo Doubs and Samori Touré, they enter 2022 with an uncertain group led by returning veterans Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb and free agent addition Sammy Watkins. However, outside of Watson, Doubs, and Lazard (assuming he eventually signs his tender) it’s hard to see how any individual is a lock for the roster.
Last year, the Packers typically ran with six active receivers (Adams, Cobb, Lazard, MVS, Amari Rodgers, and Malik Taylor). Injuries and illness led to a few appearances by Juwann Winfree and Equanimeous St. Brown, but generally speaking, six was the number. The LaFleur offense uses so many tight ends and running backs in the passing game that wide receiver snaps aren’t quite as common as they were under Mike McCarthy, which makes it unlikely they would stretch too much beyond six. Packer teams of the past have had as many as seven, and perhaps they will stretch to seven while they evaluate what they have, but there is likely to be a roster crunch at the position at some point, which has driven some focus to second year receiver Amari Rodgers.
The Packers traded up for Rodgers in the 2021 NFL draft, sending the 92nd pick (eventually used on linebacker Monty Rice) and 135th pick (defensive end Rashad Weaver) for the 85th and the right to select Rodgers. The Rodgers pick was controversial, even at the time, as he came with some severe limitations, both athletically and in terms of versatility. Rodgers’ 5.37 RAS made him an unusual Packer pick as they nearly always prefer good athletes, and while they have made some noise about his ability to play outside, his size (Rodgers is only 5-foot-9 and he has the stocky build of a Shanahan-LaFleur gadget player) almost certainly limits him to some version of the slot. Rodgers also returned punts in college, though he wasn’t particularly good at it, averaging just 7.1 yards per return, ranking 43rd out of 77 qualifiers in 2020. For context, new Packer Romeo Doubs averaged 9.1 in the same season, ranking 28th.
Rodgers did come with some selling points, of course. He’s the son of former University of Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin, who now serves as a coach (currently as the receivers coach for the Baltimore Ravens) and who served as Randall Cobb’s receivers coach at the University of Kentucky. As a result, Rodgers and Cobb are close, with Rodgers stating of Cobb that “He’s like a big brother to me.”
And Rodgers was productive at Clemson, catching 77 balls for 1020 yards and 7 scores in his senior season, leading the team in most major categories as the primary target for Trevor Lawrence. Though as we’ll see in a minute, there are some holes in that stat line.
The Rodgers pick remains controversial to this day, and a sub-par rookie season did not help. While patience is generally a good idea with any given prospect, Rodgers is probably in more danger than people realize, and while we lack the sample size at the NFL level to make a definitive judgment on Rodgers, sometimes the lack of sample size speaks volumes. We have a lot of information on the second year slot receiver, and at this point, he’s far more likely to be a bust than to ever break out.
Amari v. The Field
Rookie receivers, even highly drafted rookie receivers, are rarely good immediately. While we have obvious exceptions like Ja’marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, most receivers do take time to develop.
With that said, most highly drafted receivers also show you something while they’re rookies. Some have been urging caution because it took Davante Adams a few years to develop, and while that’s true, Adams still caught 38 balls (on 66 targets) as a rookie, despite competing for targets with prime Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb for targets.
Amari Rodgers isn’t even in the same ballpark as Adams, having caught only 4 balls on just 8 targets for a total of 45 yards. In his initial season in 2018, 5th round rookie Marquez Valdes-Scantling had two individual receptions (one against the 49ers, and one against the Patriots) that exceeded Rodgers’ rookie season yardage total.
In fact, almost every rookie receiver the Packers have drafted in the modern era has been better than Rodgers as a rookie. Since 1978 (using James Lofton as the start of the modern passing era), the Packers have spent 32 picks on wide receivers in the first 7 rounds of the draft. Thirteen of those picks were higher than the 85th pick used on Amari Rodgers. Only two of those averaged fewer yards than Rodgers as a rookie (Robert Ferguson and Terrence Murphy). Only one had fewer receptions (Ferguson). Only one player had fewer yards per game (Ferguson). Only two players had fewer scores (Ferguson and Murphy).
Ferguson is a notorious bust who was unable to work his way onto the field despite his status as a 2nd-round rookie. Murphy had his season and, unfortunately, his career cut short due to a helmet-to-helmet shot from Thomas Davis of the Carolina Panthers, or he would be higher on the list. It’s not the company you want to be in. Most of the players drafted before Amari (James Lofton, Javon Walker, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Davante Adams, Robert Brooks, Randall Cobb, and James Jones) were at least very good, and in most cases excellent for Green Bay. It is concerning that Amari most closely resembled Ferguson as a rookie.
It gets worse further down the list. Antonio Freeman, drafted 90th overall in 1995, managed 8 catches and 106 yards for a healthy 13.3 Y/R. Ty Montgomery at 94th managed 15 catches. Jeff Query at 124th had an impressive-for-its-day 23 catches for 350 yards and 2 scores as a rookie in 1989. You don’t really find another receiver close to Rodgers until you get to the 133rd pick of 2018, J’Mon Moore, followed by Terry Mickens, Corey Bradford, and Trevor Davis, but at this point we’re well into the 5th round, and players drafted in the 5th or later aren’t granted the same opportunity as those picked in the 3rd and earlier. Even so, when given the chance, MVS (174th), Jared Abbrederis (176), EQ (207th), and Charles Lee (242nd) all had more productive rookie seasons than Rodgers.
But it’s not just the Packer receiver record that’s cause for concern. Rodgers’ rank among his fellow rookies is just as alarming. Of receivers drafted ahead of Rodgers in 2020, only the comically tiny Tutu Atwell caught fewer balls or had fewer targets than Rodgers. For those unfamiliar with Atwell, his official combine measurements had him at almost 5-foot-9 and just 155 pounds, with poor explosion grades to boot.
Tutu Atwell is a WR prospect in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 5.94 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 1005 out of 2475 WR from 1987 to 2021.
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) March 30, 2021
There is a good chance he goes down as one of the worst second round picks ever. Almost everyone drafted ahead of Rodgers played a significant role in their team’s offense or suffered injuries, as was the case with D’Wayne Eskridge and Dyami Brown. Even slowed by injuries, they, and the disappointing Terrace Marshall, still outperformed Rodgers. To make matters worse, three of the next four receivers selected after Rodgers (Nico Collins, who went to Houston at 89, Anthony Schwartz, picked by Cleveland at 91, and Amon-Ra St. Brown, to Detroit at 112) had very promising rookie campaigns as well. When you compare Rodgers to the rest of his class, he just doesn’t belong in his draft tier, especially considering he was healthy for all 17 games.
Amari the Rookie
A poor first season could be excused if Rodgers were some sort of highly athletic developmental project along the lines of Rashan Gary, but it’s hard to make the case for Rodgers as that archetype. As previously mentioned, he’s hardly an exceptional athlete. If you’re dreaming on a Cooper Kupp/Hunter Renfrow type, Rodgers lacks their agility. If you’re foolishly dreaming on a Deebo Samuel type, which may be the case given his height and weight when drafted, Rodgers lacks his explosion, and in any case, there’s really no one close to Deebo Samuel.
Indeed, the best comp for Rodgers may very well be Randall Cobb, who, like Rodgers, primarily occupies the slot and who, like Rodgers, was a mediocre athlete coming out of Kentucky in 2011. They’re even similar in terms of profile, rating just fast enough in terms of straight line speed, but not particularly agile. They also both excelled in bench press, which may be a factor projecting a Deebo/hybrid tole for that player.
I don’t remember what my opinion on Cobb was at the time, but I’ll wager I wasn’t a fan of the pick. Even in 2011, I had a bias against high picks on slot receivers and against early picks on poor athletes, but I like to think I learn from my mistakes and in projecting Rodgers, Cobb can be instructive. If you’re not getting an athlete, you’re relying heavily on your scouts to pick out and project on the soft skills that can make a receiver great. These include obvious attributes like route running, but also more nebulous concepts like “football intelligence” and functional versatility. On Cobb, the Packers’ scouts knocked it out of the park.
One of the strangest and, in retrospect, most telling things about Cobb’s college career is just how often and how effectively he ran the ball. As a sophomore he had 94 carries, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. In his final season as a junior, Kentucky cut his carries in half, but his production jumped to 7.7 yards per carry. Those rushing numbers bring additional context to Cobb’s college receiving production, which honestly wasn’t great. In his best season he averaged only 12.1 yards per reception, which ranked 77th of 113 for all receivers with at least 50 catches, but the damage he did on the ground reflected his shiftiness, ability to read blocks, and ability with the ball in his hands. He also caught absolutely everything.
Those skills are “advanced skills,” and coming into the league with an understanding of how to interact with the offensive line, solid route running, and knowledge of the slot route tree should allow you to get up to speed with the offense quickly. While advanced techniques and familiarity with the playbook take everyone some time, those with good soft skills find themselves playing more quickly, and such was the case with Cobb, who famously scored two touchdowns in his first game (a 32-yard reception, and a 108-yard kickoff return), and saw consistent playing time throughout the season as a part of the offense and as a returner on special teams.
Amari Rodgers entered the league at the age of 22, a year older than Cobb was, and did get the lion’s share of the work as a returner averaging 8.3 yards per punt return and 18.1 per kickoff return. However, he was hardly the Packers’ best option. Both Malik Taylor and Kylin Hill, prior to his injury, averaged almost 20 yards per kick return, and in his very brief stint David Moore averaged 11 yards per punt return. More importantly, rookie Randall Cobb was far superior to Rodgers, averaging 11.3 yards per punt return and 27.7 yards per kick return. (Even if you remove Cobb’s 108-yard return, he still averaged 25.2 yards per kickoff return on the season.) Rodgers seemed to struggle with knowing when to field the ball or let it go and struggled with his hands. When he did field the ball cleanly, his instincts were extremely poor as he would often resort to lateral movement immediately. That’s an issue that can be corrected, but it’s not something you want to have to correct. Most football players understand that when returning punts, the goal is to find a gap and accelerate up field.
Back in 2011, rookie Randall Cobb found himself behind an all-star cast of pass-catchers led by Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, buoyed by Jermichael Finley, Donald Driver, and James Jones. The 2011 Packer offense was almost certainly the best in the history of the franchise, and one of the best in the history of the NFL, but even so they managed to find 31 targets for Cobb, which ranked 7th on the team. Talent demands to be on the field.
Contrast Cobb’s 2011 with Rodgers’ 2021, where he ranked 12th on the team in targets with just 8. While the 2011 Packers had to actively carve out a role to get Cobb involved, the 2021 Packers seemed to actively seek out excuses to keep Rodgers out of the offense. The 2021 version of Randall Cobb played in only 12 games, but rather than use Rodgers in his stead when injured, the teams relied more on a mix of outside receivers, including Allen Lazard in the slot. When injuries took out MVS, Cobb, and Lazard for periods of time, the Packers did not turn to their 3rd round rookie, instead elevating Equanimeous St. Brown and Juwann Winfree, who both out-targeted Rodgers on the season. It was a clear indication from the team that Rodgers still needed time to develop, but given that fact I can’t help wondering what they saw in him in the first place? How exactly does a player of Rodgers’ limitations develop?
Amari the Prospect
If Rodgers was some kind of hidden dynamo, we would have expected to see some of it at Clemson, especially given that Rodgers played with Trevor Lawrence, one of the best college quarterbacks of all time. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say the Rodgers really stood out, and you can make a strong case that he underperformed relative to expectations. As a junior in 2019 Rodgers was the 4th option behind Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins, and running back Travis Etienne, and while his 14.2 yards per reception was the high mark of his college career, it was on just 30 catches, and helped greatly by his status as the 4th option.
As a senior, still with Lawrence at the helm, he did put up nice counting stats with 77 receptions for 1020 yards and 7 TDs, but he lacked the explosiveness that we expect from high picks. I run Wide Receiver OPS every year (more on WROPS here), and slot receivers do have a different production profile than outside receivers. They often have higher catch percentages as their targets are shorter, and fewer yards per catch as they’re not running many deep routes. Rodgers’ .453/.437/.890 isn’t that concerning in a vacuum, but it’s strikingly similar to teammate Travis Etienne’s line of .480/.404/.884.
I don’t expect anyone to take WROPS as the definitive word on Rodgers, but it’s useful in allowing us to group similar players together, and here, Rodgers, a wide receiver playing with Trevor Lawrence as the primary target on the team, was only as efficient as the running back on the same team, and far less efficient than Ross and Higgins from the year before. Etienne and Rodgers had almost the exact same catch percentage. That Rodgers gained only 0.9 more yards per reception than the running back is a huge red flag.
So, About Amari Rodgers
Projecting the Packer receiving corps this season is extremely difficult, and it could go a number of different ways. Perhaps the Packer front office sees something in Amari Rodgers that I don’t, and honestly, I hope they do and I hope they’re correct. That said, I think too many people are assuming that Rodgers is a lock to make the team this year.
Maybe the Packers keep 7 receivers, something they haven’t done in quite some time, but even then, the position is extremely tight. Lazard and Cobb are likely to make it, as is Watkins (though I also wouldn’t assume Watkins is a lock). Watson and Doubs are, I think, as close to locks as you can be. That leaves one or two spaces for Rodgers, Malik Taylor, Juwann Winfree, and Samori Touré. Touré may be a 7th rounder, but I would argue that he is better prospect and could contribute more on special teams than Rodgers. Plus, when it comes to Brian Gutekunst and 7th rounders:
They kind of are under Brian Gutekunst. Hunter Bradley made the initial roster. Ty Summers, Vernon Scott, Jonathan Garvin, Kylin Hill. All made it. Only exceptions were James Looney and Kendall Donnerson. Three years in a row where a seventh-round pick has made the roster. https://t.co/39e8mHWa0d
— zachary jacobson (@itszacharyj) June 9, 2022
I think Winfree is “just a guy,” but Taylor brings special teams value and a big outside presence. All Rodgers brings to the table is a 3rd-round pedigree.
Rodgers isn’t a special athlete. He wasn’t terribly productive in college with a great quarterback. He was basically not allowed on the field on offense as a rookie unlike most highly drafted Packer rookies, and rookie receivers league-wide. He struggled with the soft skills generally possessed by highly drafted lesser athletes. He was a butcher on special teams. I don’t see a lot of projection left in Rodgers, and absent several injuries to the other receivers, he will be first on my list of surprise cuts before opening day.