Fantasy Football Take-Shopping: How to break down the Packers' WR puzzle

It’s June. No one has nor does anyone need “the answers to the test” yet — to use a silly analogy that somehow makes the very unserious pursuit of understanding and projecting NFL teams and players seem like some profound quest.

We’re writing thoughts in pencil and merely take-shopping, for now.

That makes for a perfect backdrop to discuss one of the most difficult puzzles to solve with the current, limited offseason information we have: How will the Green Bay Packers wide receiver room play out?

The Packers offense finished the season on a strong note and the general consensus has seen enough of Jordan Love to push him up the league-wide quarterback rankings.

We should want a piece of this offense. But a unique “problem” makes that a trickier endeavor than you’d think.

Green Bay has drafted four wide receivers in the last two drafts combined and, to varying degrees, they’re all good players who should command playing time and volume. However, there’s just no way four wide receivers on the same team can all hit a statistical ceiling. Even if Love pushes for a historic passing season, someone here will get left out in the cold and the Packers aren’t going to run an offense with four wide receivers on the field very often.

With that in mind, let’s review the information we have available and attempt to take-shop this room. As is always the case with these situations, relevant data, intra-positional role designation and how good these players are at the game should be tools to solve the puzzle.

Let's talk about Jayden Reed, the second-year wide receiver for the Packers, who led the team with 912 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns. If we were to conduct a poll, a significant majority would likely predict that Reed will be the Packers' top wide receiver this season. This prediction is not unfounded, especially if we consider fantasy football ADP as a “wisdom of the crowd” tool. There’s a noticeable gap between Reed (WR33, 62nd overall) and the next-highest Packer, Christian Watson (WR45, 87th overall), in early-best ball drafts.

I’m with the consensus here that we should consider Reed the heavy favorite to be the Packers' leading receiver this season. Right now, roles aside, he’s their best overall talent at the position.

Now, it’s worth noting that there are some roadblocks to being an every-down wide receiver. Reed never exceeded an 80% snap share and 83.4% of his receiving yards came when lined up in the slot. Among players with 75-plus targets last season, Reed had the fifth-highest “designed target rate” at 21.7%, per Fantasy Points Data.

Being a designed touch, slot-only gadget receiver is a concern if you’re hunting for a high ceiling. That would be a worry if you think that’s all Reed can do. I’m of the firm opinion that, when you actually watch him play and run a wide variety of routes, that is verifiably not the reality of his game.

It’s also probably not a coincidence that all five of the top “designed target rate” players from that list were rookies last year: Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Zay Flowers, Rashee Rice, Demario Douglas and Reed. Part of the reason rookie receivers are more productive than ever is that offensive coaches meet them more than halfway. They’re willing to cater to these guys and craft them roles that allow them to be eased into the NFL game. But that doesn’t mean this is how they’ll be deployed forever if they show they can handle more.

I think that if the Packers do, for whatever reason, limit his playing time, Green Bay fans will be enraged by Week 4 as to why the guy who gave them so much juice last year isn’t on the field for every snap. And rightfully so.

All that said, I’ve had the same sentiments about guys like Curtis Samuel and Elijah Moore over the past several seasons; I chart the games and see them getting separation at all three levels against man coverage outside. And yet, they’ve been stuck in slot-only, gadget-adjacent roles that limit their ceilings.

So while I’m a huge fan of Reed as a player and am bullish on his game, we must acknowledge that his statistical projection involves role-based risk. Perhaps there shouldn’t be such a big gap between him and the rest of this GB WR room.

Christian Watson was electric as a rookie, showing off his big-play ability when he was healthy and eventually developing a nice sync with Aaron Rodgers. But there’s no way around it: He was a disappointment in Year 2. Yes, injuries again played a big issue, but there were significant problems when Watson was on the field.

His biggest proponents like to point out that in the sample of games where he was healthy and playing a full snap share, he was the top receiver based on usage. This is a fact. From Weeks 5 to 13, Watson led the Packers with 222 routes run, a 36.7% air yard share and a 17.7% target share, per Fantasy Points Data.

However, as is so often the case with this type of analysis, folks forget to include how that experience actually played out. That run contained some of the Packers' most frustrating offensive outings; the team went 3-4 and ranked 15th in dropback success rate. For comparison, Green Bay ranked second in dropback success rate in Weeks 14 through the playoffs. The passing offense was verifiably worse when Watson was the primary target.

Is that utterly indicative of one wide receiver's performance? Not exactly, but it’s a piece of the puzzle that matters when projecting forward.

The reason I think this is consequential is because it matches Watson’s play on film. Green Bay tasked him with running more of a full-field route tree and handling downfield contested opportunities. He didn’t consistently separate on short and intermediate routes and was a net negative in contested situations for most of the season. This is a classic example of a player being stretched beyond his game.

Don’t get me wrong, Watson is a valuable player and is quite good in several aspects of playing the position. He’s a menace in the run-after-catch game and gets open down the field on go routes and big overs. I just believe the Packers may find that a “less is more” approach allows them to get the best out of Watson, both as a player and from a health perspective. Let’s keep him in the areas he wins.

Overall, I expect Watson to be one of the top three receivers on this team if he stays healthy because he brings real value as a big-play weapon at the flanker position. However, I’d be pretty surprised if he ends up emerging as the clear WR1 on this offense unless we see significant development as a technician.

If there’s one guy who could really shake up and perhaps fundamentally change the way we consider this wide receiver room, along with the roles and playing time of the other players, it’s Dontayvion Wicks. It’s no lock to happen, but make no mistake, as odd as that sounds for the Round 5 product out of UVA, the potential is present.

Wicks only ran a route on 44.1% of the team’s dropbacks and owned a meager 10.7% target share in the regular season and playoffs as a Day 3 rookie. However, he shines in every efficiency metric that matters.

Better yet? The film backs up the data. Wicks is a nuanced route runner who wins off the line of scrimmage against press and separates against man coverage outside. He’s a three-level wide receiver who made some stunning plays after the catch as well, leading Packers receivers with 5.41 yards after the catch per reception.

Sharp film watchers aren’t the only ones taking notice of Wicks’ game. Matt LaFleur has repeatedly made this aggressive comparison when asked about Wicks’ ability:

On almost any other team in the league, I think it’d be nearly impossible to keep a guy who was as impressive as Wicks off the field. The Packers are just crowded with young players who bring value to the offense. So Wicks may not even be a full-time player in Year 2 but his individual game points to an incredibly high ceiling. He brings consistent route running and separation skills that the other perimeter wideouts on this team just flat-out haven’t demonstrated.

Wicks is the 143rd player off the board in early best-ball drafts. He’s worth grabbing and just seeing what happens with this talented player.

If there’s a guy in this room who is destined to be the man that fantasy managers curse throughout the season, it’s Romeo Doubs. The possession receiver isn’t anyone’s idea of a superstar but he’s been productive through two seasons with 101 catches for 1,099 yards and 11 touchdowns.

I’ll get this out of the way: If all things were equal and everyone hits their individual ceilings as players, I think it’s clear that Doubs is the fourth-best wide receiver in this room. He doesn’t have a standout skill. That being said, he’s not a bad player. If he were something like 10% worse at the game, he’d be a candidate just to get pushed to the bench to make room for a full snap share assignment for the three guys ahead of him on this list.

The problem for those looking to sort through this depth chart is that he’s not. He’s just good enough to continue to command playing time.

Doubs' value to the Packers offense is that he handles most of the isolation X-receiver routes on the line of scrimmage. He doesn’t consistently get separation on those plays but he competes and can occasionally pop off as a ball-winner. Jordan Love is an aggressive passer who will give him chances. Beyond what Doubs does individually in that role, someone in that position is critical because it allows for guys like Reed, Watson and even Wicks to be used in motion before or during the snap and get schemed into big windows. It’s a thankless but essential gig.

In my personal opinion, Wicks is good enough against press to play X-receiver and offer more upside beyond just allowing his teammates to get gimme looks. However, he likely needs to both earn reps and Doubs has to lose them. Through two seasons, Doubs hasn’t put enough bad film out there for the latter to happen.

Having Doubs as the fourth-most talented player in this room is an excellent development for the Green Bay Packers. It’s also a big part of what may become a headache for fantasy players. Oh well!

Beyond Doubs hanging on to his role, the real thing that could make Green Bay’s wide receiver rotation a mess is that Green Bay has further layers of quality options.

In the receiver room, former Seahawks 2022 seventh-rounder Bo Melton came off the practice squad to average a team-high 3.01 yards per route run. He also scored two touchdowns and secured three end-zone targets. He undoubtedly added a dimension to this offense. Melton probably ends up just being a valuable depth piece at multiple positions for the Packers but if he ends up siphoning off five to 10 routes every game, it’ll cut into the projections of the top-four players somewhere along the way.

Adding to Green Bay’s embarrassment of young pass-catcher riches are the two tight ends they drafted in 2023. Both Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft flashed big-time potential as rookies.

Musgrave looks like the next man off the tree of move tight ends who can line up in the slot or out wide, while Kraft specializes in more of the dirty work. Both players could carve target shares away from the wideouts, but if Musgrave, in particular, takes another step, he could even just straight-up take away playing time from some of those guys with slot versatility.

Musgrave is the 153rd player off the board in early best ball drafts, and Kraft is the 217th as he deals with an offseason injury. Even trying to project how these two guys will sort out the tight end playing time is not an easy affair, if they’re both healthy. Much like the receivers, the problem for fantasy managers is that both of these guys can play and should see the field.