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Will the kids be all right? Packers may have to rely on rookie wide receivers

October 7, 2018

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers was furious.

The Green Bay Packers quarterback certainly didn’t need any more evidence of how different things are with young wide receivers, compared to with a veteran with whom he was always on the same wavelength. But there it was, in the form of a near pick-six interception last Sunday against Buffalo: Yet another reminder of what life without Jordy Nelson is like for him.

Late in the third quarter, rookie Marquez Valdes-Scantling ran a simple stop route between the right numbers and the sideline on fourth-and-3 in Bills territory. When Rodgers threw it, cornerback Ryan Lewis undercut the route, which Valdes-Scantling hadn’t run crisply. Valdes-Scantling then compounded the problem by not fighting for the ball as it arrived. Rodgers chewed him out en route to the sideline.

The play ended up being inconsequential, as Lewis dropped what likely would have been a touchdown, and the Packers went on to win, 22-0. As Rodgers’ postgame criticism of the game plan made national news, the specific mistake was lost in Rodgers’ overarching assessment that the unit had been “terrible” and at a “non-playoff team” level.

But at midweek, in advance of Sunday’s game at Detroit, Rodgers explained how elementary the play is — or once was, anyway.

“(That) is a route that Jordy and I used to throw in our sleep,” Rodgers said.

Then, an acknowledgement.

“But you can’t necessarily expect to be on the same page right away in a situation like that.”

Fast forward seven days. Rodgers enters Sunday’s game at Ford Field knowing he won’t have veteran Randall Cobb, who has been ruled out with a hamstring injury. He might not have No. 1 receiver Davante Adams, who is questionable with a calf injury that cropped up on Wednesday, either. And he could also be without No. 3 receiver Geronimo Allison, who is questionable with a concussion and a hamstring injury after starting the season like gangbusters.

So Valdes-Scantling and the team’s other two rookie draft picks at receiver — J’Mon Moore and Equanimeous St. Brown — are virtually assured playing time on offense against the Lions.

“We need them to contribute,” McCarthy said. “They need to perform.”

How ready they are — and how McCarthy, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin and offensive passing-game coordinator Jim Hostler were able to alter the game plan during the week to make up for their limited experience — remains to be seen.

After severing ties with Nelson and failing to land their two big-name free-agent targets at receiver (Allen Robinson, who went to Chicago, and Sammy Watkins, who went to Kansas City), the Packers drafted Moore (fourth round), Valdes-Scantling (fifth round) and St. Brown (sixth round) back-to-back-to-back. None of the three had a particularly strong training camp — leading to a public rebuke from Rodgers — although Valdes-Scantling separated himself from the other two by grasping the playbook better than his rookie brethren.

“He’s really kind of been ahead from early on. Very bright. He picked it up. Him and ‘EQ,’ those guys probably picked it up a little quicker,” McCarthy said. “But all three of them are different.”

Moore had perhaps the most up-and-down summer of the three, flashing his potential but also dropping too many passes in training camp and preseason play. But according to Rodgers, he’s come on lately, leading to being active against the Bills and playing 11 snaps on offense.

“Some are more ready than others, obviously,” Hostler acknowledged. “’Quez’ is the furthest along so that’s why he’s been out there the most. … (But) those guys have to play, they have to learn as they go. Davante, he wasn’t what he is now when he started. I imagine Jordy wasn’t catching 90 balls and lighting people up his first year. So everybody has to go through that kind of a process to get to where they’re going to go.

“But the one thing about them, they’re talented guys. They’re intelligent guys. They’re very competitive. They’ve got size, strength, speed — they’ve got what you want in the position. Now it’s just a matter of experience.”

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