Here's a question that came up this week during a conversation with Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy: How high should wide receiver rank on the Packers' offseason priority list? And since we've recently discussed the position relative to the Chicago Bears (right here) and Minnesota Vikings (here you go), I figured now was as good of a time as any to take a peek at the Packers.
Intuitively, there doesn't seem much urgency for a team that boasts a Pro Bowl starter in Greg Jennings, a still-crafty veteran in Donald Driver and the rapidly ascending Jordy Nelson -- a second-round draft pick in 2008 who caught nine passes in Super Bowl XLV. But James Jones' contract has expired and his future is uncertain. He likely will return if classified as a restricted free agent, but could depart if the NFL's pending offseason rules make him unrestricted.
Most teams would consider themselves set with three proven receivers. But the three-receiver set is the Packers' base formation. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers used it on 57.5 percent of their offensive plays in 2010. Meanwhile, they opened the Super Bowl in a four-receiver set and used more five-receiver formations than the rest of the NFL's 31 teams combined during the regular season.
So it's fair to say the Packers have a bigger structural need at the position than some teams. It won't be an issue in 2011 if Jones returns. If he doesn't, however, the first question to ask is whether reserve Brett Swain is ready to join the rotation.
Swain had a rough go in the Super Bowl after Driver departed with an injury, and in two NFL seasons he has six receptions for 72 yards. McCarthy was hesitant to discuss the possibility of Swain's ascension, especially as long as Jones remains a candidate to return, but he did remind me that Swain suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in October 2009.
"I thought Brett really responded well from his season-ending knee injury," McCarthy said. "You always look for that from players. The first year back from knees is never quite right. ... He did a great job in rehab. He made it through the year. Did a good job on special teams. He's still a young player. It will be interesting to see if he can take that next jump if he's given more opportunities. If you get through that first year [after major knee surgery], usually the next year is better, from my experience -- particularly perimeter players."
If nothing else, Swain has followed a development path similar to that of other prominent Packers players. He spent 2008 on the practice squad after the Packers made him a seventh-round draft choice, and has been a backup/special-teams stalwart over the next two seasons. Given the time they've invested in him, and the success of their development program with other players, I think the Packers at least will give Swain a long look -- along with a draft pick or two -- in training camp.