Why WR remains a need for Packers even with rookies Doubs, Watson shining

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- All should be right with the Green Bay Packers’ receiving corps when the team returns from its bye week on Monday night against the Los Angeles Rams.

The Packers will have rookie Christian Watson, one of the NFL’s most productive receivers over the past month.

They’ll have rookie Romeo Doubs, whose solid start was derailed by an early-November ankle injury.

In fact, it’s Week 15, and they’ll have their full complement of receivers available for only the second time this season.

In that span, Doubs missed four games, Randall Cobb missed four, Sammy Watkins missed four, Watson missed three and Allen Lazard missed one. The only time this season the Packers had every receiver on hand was way back in Week 2 against the Chicago Bears.

So Monday will finally show what their group can do, but what it won’t do is indicate what the Packers' receivers will look like next season.

In fact, the group will look much different in 2023.

Even with the late-season emergence of Watson and the return of Doubs (Watson and Doubs have played only 52 snaps on the field at the same time this season) plus the potential of their third rookie pass-catcher (Samori Toure), receiver still has to be considered a position of need heading into the offseason.

Here’s why: Lazard, Cobb and Watkins all will be free agents after this season. Cobb will turn 33 before next season’s opener. Watkins, 29, couldn’t revitalize his career on his one-year deal. And the Packers might not be willing to pay Lazard what another team could offer in free agency.

General manager Brian Gutekunst can’t possibly expect Doubs and Watson to be the most accomplished guys in the room next season, whether it’s Aaron Rodgers or Jordan Love starting at quarterback.

“You can throw Samori in there as well,” Gutekunst said during last week’s bye. “I think he’s done a heck of a job as well. It would be nice to get all those guys out there at the same time and get opportunities. Obviously, Allen and Cobby and Sammy have done some good things for us too. It’s a little bit of a crowded room, but I do think I’m very high on those guys’ ceilings and what they could do as a group.”

Life after Davante Adams left during the offseason proved to be a struggle, especially early this season. Watson, a second-round draft pick, missed most of training camp because of a knee injury, and when he returned for the opener, he endured a stretch of dropped passes (including the one that would’ve been a 75-yard touchdown in the opener against Minnesota) and more injuries (hamstring, concussion).

At the same time, Doubs showed some production. Through Week 9, the fourth-round pick was fourth among rookies in catches (31), sixth in receiving yards (316) and tied for second in touchdown catches (three).

The week after Doubs’ ankle injury, Watson broke out. Since Week 10, Watson is first among all receivers -- not just rookies -- with seven touchdowns. He’s also second in yards per catch (20.9) and 18th in receiving yards (313). He’s tops among rookies in that stretch in touchdowns and yards per catch and ranks second behind only the Jets’ Garrett Wilson in yards (347).

“Whenever you lose a player the caliber of [Adams], you’re going to have to overcome it,” Gutekunst said. “You’re going to have to do different things to overcome it, and I think we struggled out of the gate to do that. But, at the same time, I think that room particularly looks pretty bright moving forward.”

The Packers had high hopes that Lazard would emerge as a No. 1 receiver in the absence of Adams after he was traded to the Raiders in March. Early in training camp, Rodgers proclaimed that “Allen is ready to make a jump and be a No. 1 receiver.”

The former undrafted free agent who came to the Packers via a waiver claim late in the 2018 season has put up solid numbers: 45 catches (second on the team behind running back Aaron Jones), 640 yards (first on the team) and five touchdown catches (second to Watson). He missed two games: the opener with an ankle injury and Week 8 at Buffalo because of a shoulder injury.

Lazard might have more value to the Packers, who love his willingness to block and do things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, than he would to another team. But after Marquez Valdes-Scantling got $10 million a year from the Chiefs to leave Green Bay last offseason, who knows what kind of money a team might throw at Lazard?

Gutekunst tried to trade for Chase Claypool before this year’s trade deadline. Considering how often Doubs and Watson have credited the likes of Cobb and Lazard for their mentorship, it might be important to have a veteran receiver again next season to help them avoid a second-year slump.

“Those guys are very talented from that regard,” Lazard said of the rookie receivers. “Do they need a veteran player to go out there for them to be able to be successful? No, I don’t think so. Especially not when they have No. 12 [Rodgers] back there throwing the ball.

“I’ve always had a lot of confidence in those guys, even at the beginning of the year, just seeing them grow throughout the entire season. It’s having higher expectations going into next season after getting the rookie year out of the way and getting more comfortable, understanding the offense, understanding the NFL and the games and everything, I’m expecting a big growth from all three of those guys.”