Having started examining potential free agent additions with wide receiver Dwayne Bowe a week ago, i've opted to continue in the same vein by putting another receiver – Greg Jennings – under the microscope this week. Out of the lauded trio of Bowe, Jennings and Wallace, Jennings is my personal favourite by some considerable distance.
An incredibly savvy route runner with rare zone-busting skills, Jennings has always struck me as a Colts style receiver, similar to a Reggie Wayne or a Marvin Harrison in that his fundamentals are completely sound – he doesn't waste steps with his footwork, he's got heightened awareness on the field which is helped by his experience, and he's made absolutely huge catches on the big stage in the past.
However, injury concerns have limited Jennings to 21 starts in 32 games the past two years, leading to questions regarding his durability as he moves into his 30s (he'll be 30 in September). Furthermore, the ease with which Randall Cobb and James Jones seemed to replace Jennings' production is the reason why he's even going to be available in this free agency period – the Packers believe they have readymade replacements at a much cheaper price. As I've stated, I see Jennings as an option worth pursuing if we're going to target WRs in Free Agency, and now I hope to illustrate why.
I'll try and keep it to a semi-chronological order, so i'll start with the biggest stage of them all – the Superbowl. It's Packers vs. Steelers from 2011, and it's a 1st and 10 from the PIT 21, with 2:41 remaining in the 2nd quarter.
Jennings starts the play in question in the slot, prior to motioning to the opposite side of the formation. The motion allows Rodgers to potentially identify coverage (man vs. zone, if an opposing player were to track him), and if he has an idea about manipulating the picture in front of him already, so much the better for taking advantage.
Rodgers identifies zone, and Jennings' abilities in this area come to the fore. He's running a route directly down the centre of the defense, designed to bust zone concepts which the Steelers have favoured for years under Dick LeBeau.
All-22 is unfortunately unavailable for this game, though the camera angle from behind more than does the play justice. The awareness from Rodgers and Jennings is absolutely fantastic, and the speed with which Jennings crosses the defender is something to behold.
Jennings runs across the face of the defender – James Farrior, in this instance. The second he's out of Farrior's peripheral vision, he makes a sharp cut to the middle of the field in order to manipulate the zone coverage.
The Steelers have traditionally been willing to run zone concepts even against heavy receiver sets due to the skills of their safeties on the back end. In this instance, Ryan Clark has already taken account of Jennings and is making his way to the centre of the field to forestall such a route. At this point, it's all about execution.
As Clark closes, Jennings sits in the hole and waits for the ball – I'm sure this was an oft-rehearsed route in the lead-up to the game, given the opposition.
The velocity of the throw along with the placement from Rodgers – he throws it high and hard, complicating efforts from Clark, who now takes on the form of a flying squirrel – ensures the reception for Jennings. He still has to account for a potentially vicious Polamalu hit from behind, so the priority is to secure the catch.
Flying squirrel Clark discovers gravity, while Jennings secures the catch and breaks the plane for a score in the biggest game of them all.
The next play I've selected comes from later in the same game, and it just shows the intelligence and formidable execution of the Packers offense. It's a 2nd and 10 from the PIT 8 in a 17-21 game. There are roughly 12:00 left on the clock in the 4th Quarter, so the pressure is well and truly on.
Jennings is again lined up in the slot, with a route designed to take advantage of his skills in breaking apart zone coverage. The real intelligence here is that this play is specifically designed to target the Steelers safeties, with an eye to the touchdown I showed earlier on. Jennings is again going to run up the seam, which leads to Polamalu shifting from his spot into a more central position.
Polamalu's shift is brutally exposed by the out-breaking part of the route. Polamalu recognises how he's been targeted, but it's too late. Jennings streaks away from Farrior and Troy is caught completely flat-footed.
By this point, Rodgers has scanned the field and made his progressive reads, and can clearly see that Jennings is open for a touchdown. Conscious of the fact that he's already held onto the ball for some time, he releases it from an unsteady base. Fortunately, his arm strength more than makes up for the less-than-ideal posture.
The Steelers' reliance on their safeties was brutally exposed throughout the game, and this play was the clearest example. The ages of Clark and particularly Polamalu have truly come home to roost, and they simply can't cope with certain routes as they might have done in years past. One minute, Polamalu is clambering to recover, visible only a few feet behind Jennings.
The next minute, there's a huge amount of separation. Jennings simply has to focus on making the reception and staying in bounds, and as I stated earlier, these fundamentals are the strongest part of his game.
He reels it in for his second touchdown of the game.
The next play I've chosen comes from the first regular season game after the Superbowl in question. As reigning Superbowl winners the Pack began their defence against the New Orleans Saints, in what eventually ended up as an shootout. The play in question is a 3rd and 4 from the NO 7, with 10:12 remaining in the 1st Quarter. It's a scoreless game.
Jennings is matched up on Patrick Robinson (CB – #21) at the top of the frame. It's a scoreless game at this point, so the Pack are looking to make a statement with a touchdown.
The route calls for an inside step, which allows Jennings to manufacture the room outside which he wants and needs for the potential back shoulder throw. Given the tunnel-vision of Rodgers on the play, we can assume that Jennings on Robinson was a pre-designed mismatch which the Pack wanted to manipulate. After seeing the results, I can't blame them. Jennings makes the inside step and then wheels to the corner.
Rodgers only has eyes for Jennings vs. Robinson, and he doesn't have anything to worry about where pass protection is concerned. Jennings sneaks a quick glance at his quarterback, and they both know that the back shoulder is on.
Rodgers releases it to a perfect point with a fair amount of velocity. Jennings tracks the ball with his eyes, and his legs and body seem to flow with the rest of his body without his paying attention.
For the first time, Robinson is able to steal a glance back towards the pocket where the ball has been released. The fantastic execution on the play renders this obsolete. It's absolutely unstoppable.
The receiver makes a cradle with his hands, which allows him to pivot his body around backward with the ball in order to break the plane subsequent to the catch.
Jennings' great fundamentals make this a formality, and it's 7-0 Packers.
I considered a few candidates for the final reception of the piece, and it ultimately came down to a question of recency. The plays above are fantastic examples of Jennings' skills, but the concern with him lies over the past two years – can he still do it? The following is from Week 17 of the season just gone, and it's Packers vs. Vikings. It's a 2nd and 18 from the GB 47 with 13:22 on the clock in the 3rd Quarter. It's 20-10 Vikings.
Jennings lines up in the slot (surprise!) with the Packers in a 5WR set. The Vikings respond – much as the Steelers tend to do – with zone packages, given their lack of speed on the back end of the defense and the Cover 2 stylings of ex-Colt Leslie Frazier. The Vikes go with a single-high safety look, blitzing the other. Considering Jennings' simple vertical route, it's an unfortunate defensive call.
The safety blitzes from his spot and Rodgers picks up on it very quickly indeed. As a result, he makes a quick throw to Jennings and lets the receiver do the work. I've circled the Vikings defenders around Jennings just to show the degree to which he was surrounded.
…and because the Vikes' All-22 camera sucks, i'll shift to broadcast. Jennings stretches to make the reception, and from this moment he's trying to set up Chad Greenway, the linebacker immediately in front.
He takes an intentionally heavy step on his right foot, which allows him the strong base from which he can juke back left. Greenway isn't expecting it, and it works perfectly.
Jennings shifts back onto his left foot before feigning as if to accelerate. He has Greenway beaten all ends up, and the latter at this point is trying to move his legs at the speed at which he's thinking, and he unfortunately isn't able to.
Greenway now knows Jennings is behind him, and most recently moved to run past him. Therefore, Greenway opts to turn his body around left. Jennings has planned for this all along, and cuts back.
Greenway ends up taking the safety out of the play. What a job in terms of setting up the defender from Jennings.
He cuts back to the outside, and the corner is blocked by his comrade-in-arms outside. He streaks down the sideline as diagrammed and makes another couple of moves to squeeze out yardage.
He's ultimately brought down inside the 10. With the Pack down 20-10, it's potentially a huge play.
The final play I've chosen is – in the interests of fairness, considering my piece last week – a run play, to assess Jennings' skills in blocking. It comes from Week 2, 2011 against the Carolina Panthers. It's a 1st and 10 from the GB 32, with 9:14 left in the 3rd Quarter – the score is 17-13, Packers.
The Pack line up in the Full House formation, with 3 backs in the backfield. It's a fairly simple play in terms of design, with the two forward blockers in the backfield simply blocking the two outside backers, while the spare man on the line (hat on hat blocking) aiming for the MLB. If everyone can block their man, James Starks should have a free route to the back end of the defense. Any subsequent block by a receiver becomes crucial in maximising the yardage.
Instead of blocking the corner opposite, the play design calls for a crackback block from Jennings. As a result, he slants inside and makes a beeline for the safety. The rest of the line hold their blocks and the relevant blockers surge forward to deal with the linebackers.
You can see here the hat on hat blocking I referred to earlier, along with the gap for James Starks. Jennings' position becomes pivotal, and his block is absolutely perfect for the circumstances.
He lowers the shoulder and collides with Sherrod Martin, sending him stumbling forwards. This is all the opportunity Starks needs, and he makes the cutback in the vacant space previously occupied by Jennings and Martin. The corner previously matched up on Jennings has to play outside contain and is thus useless in terms of trying to deal with the run.
Starks ends up eluding his man before striding for a 40 yard gain – a huge run in the Packers pass-first offense, and all down to excellent blocking. The offensive line and backfield blockers did a great job, but this type of play shows how crucial receiver blocking is – it's the difference between 8 yards and 40.
Jennings' awareness on the field is evident in all aspects of his play, and run blocking is no exception.
Greg Jennings is clearly a fantastic receiver with heightened awareness and fundamentals relative to other players at his position. His marquee status comes as a result of this, and it's why I imagine he'll be heavily sought after in Free Agency. I think it ultimately comes down to three things with Jennings and a potential fit with the Colts.
1. Is he too similar to Reggie Wayne?
Both Reggie and Jennings showcase the best of the receiver profession – excellent hands with sharp route running, reliable weapons for their quarterbacks regardless of down and distance. While Jennings is clearly a great fit for the West Coast offense – which the Colts will be using next year – Wayne displayed his versatility and capability in running pre-snap motions and routes from the slot last year. Is there a need for another guy who largely does the same things as a Reggie Wayne? Personally, I say yes.
2. Can he stay healthy?
This one is unfortunately impossible to answer. Missing 11 games in two years isn't an encouraging sign, though the fact that he'd only missed 5 games in 5 years prior is encouraging. He turns 30 in September, which is perhaps a touch old for some Colts fans who're looking for us to build with the future in mind. For me, he'd provide adequate experience alongside our other young offensive pieces/
3. What's he likely to ask for?
Again, this one is fairly tough to answer. Given Jennings' age and injury history, he shouldn't be looking for a deal comparable to Wallace and Bowe, who're regarded as younger and healthier. I'd imagine that Jennings will get offers in the region of $6-8m per year, and at that price I think it's certainly something we should be considering. If Jennings wants a deal north of $10m a year, it's not worth it.
Ultimately, the thought of someone as sure-handed and savvy as Greg Jennings at the WR2 spot ahead of the Donnie Avery's of this world is a tempting one indeed. I'd hope that the Colts are seeking to continue their strategy of surrounding Luck with weapons, and Jennings is a great candidate. His excellence in fundamentals can only help Luck develop, much as Reggie did last year.
It all comes down to price, and with Joe Philbin and the receiver-hungry and cap-light Dolphins in the competition, his price could rise to a figure which can't be justified in the short or long term. That's fine – and it may well occur – but I'd hope that Ryan Grigson at least looks into the idea of signing Jennings, certainly over Dwayne Bowe or Mike Wallace.