Stephen A. Smith contends that there is more pressure on Aaron Rodgers to improve the offense this season despite the 3-0 start. (1:14)
He wasn’t the only one, but he might be the one who learned the most from it.
There was Valdes-Scantling, one of three then-rookie wideouts repping with Rodgers during a 2018 training camp practice. No one could seemingly make a play for Rodgers. When they weren’t lined up incorrectly, they ran the wrong routes or misunderstood Rodgers’ pre-snap instructions or simply dropped the ball.
The drill ended when Rodgers reached a boiling point and flung the ball toward the tackling dummies on the sideline.
More than 13 months later, Valdes-Scantling, a fifth-round pick, is the only remaining member of that 2018 trio of drafted wide receivers on the Packers’ active roster. Fourth-rounder J’Mon Moore’s terrible hands cost him his job in final cuts before this season. Sixth-rounder Equanimeous St. Brown landed on injured reserve because of a high ankle sprain. He otherwise would have made the team but would have been behind Valdes-Scantling on the depth chart.
So how is the 24-year-old — whom Rodgers affectionately calls either “Quez” or “MVS” — not only the last one standing but the Packers’ No. 2 wide receiver heading into Thursday night’s home game against the Philadelphia Eagles?
This is not a story of Valdes-Scantling’s rapid ascension in the Packers’ offense — although coming off a six-catch, 99-yard, one-touchdown game in Sunday’s home win over the Denver Broncos, one might be fitting if not for a couple of dropped passes and the inconsistency of the offense during Green Bay’s 3-0 start.
Rather, it’s a window into how demanding — and rewarding — it is to play with Rodgers if you’re a receiver.
“It’s awesome to watch his demand of those guys,” first-year Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “Everything has to be perfect, and I think that’s what’s so awesome to see.”
Former Packers offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett used to drone on about how it all starts in the classroom, continues on the practice field and goes through myriad steps before it shows up in games. Rather than rehash those tedious details, to fully understand how wideouts (and tight ends and running backs, for that matter) connect with Rodgers, it’s best to hear it from the quarterback himself.
“Perfect preparation,” Rodgers said this week. “I expect them to be ready to play and to understand the checks that we have, the responsibilities on certain plays, [to have] big eyes when it’s a play that they’re No. 1 in the progression and then doing the little things, as well.
“There’s an expectation to [understand] your responsibility at all times. Drops are going to happen. But the mental stuff, you can’t be out there consistently if you don’t know what you’re doing. I think those guys have made some really nice jumps this year.”
Lest any of the receivers think the connection can’t happen for them, all they need to do is talk to Davante Adams.
The former second-round pick struggled as a rookie in 2014. One week, he would catch six passes for 77 yards against the Miami Dolphins, and then the next week have just one catch against the Carolina Panthers. He would put up 121 yards on six catches against the New England Patriots, and follow that with consecutive games with one catch for 6 yards against the Atlanta Falcons and Buffalo Bills.
Two years later, Adams was a double-digit touchdown receiver. By 2017, he played in the first of two straight Pro Bowls.
Adams didn’t figure it out on his own. He learned from Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, who learned from James Jones and Greg Jennings, who learned from Donald Driver.
“One thing I always tried to do was never have to be told the second time,” Nelson said recently. “If Aaron was talking to Donald or Greg or those guys, I wanted to be able to learn from their mistakes and what they did well, so he didn’t have to tell me a couple years later.”
Valdes-Scantling said it helps to know that everyone who has come before him has experienced something similar.
“We’ve all gone through it; 12 has been through a lot of receivers over his 15 years in the league,” Valdes-Scantling said. “Having a vet who’s experienced with him, he can lead the way. You’ve got to be able to find a way to connect with your quarterback. No one guy in that room is the same, so you’ve got to find your own connection with him and figure out what works best for him and yourself or him and the other receivers. That’s just kind of how it is.”
Valdes-Scantling experienced some of that already this season. He caught just three passes for 19 yards in Week 2 against the Chicago Bears, before he bounced back last week — albeit with two dropped passes — against the Broncos.
“Definitely, I talked to him,” Adams said. “We can’t waste games.”
Last week, tight end Evan Baylis earned a promotion to the active roster. He first came to Green Bay for the final week of last season on the practice squad. By late August, Baylis was someone who garnered unprompted praise from Rodgers, who called him “very pleasantly surprising.”
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Baylis played only one snap on offense in his debut against the Broncos, but he already has been around enough to know what he needs to do — and not do — when he gets his chance.
“It’s Aaron, and you don’t want to mess anything up,” Baylis said. “But at the same time, it makes you even better as a player. The little things that help so much, you’ve got to stay on top of it, but you definitely don’t want to mess anything up.”
Baylis said he wasn’t exactly sure how he caught Rodgers’ eye, but he made sure he always listened to whatever the signal-caller or the coaches said, even if it wasn’t directed at him.
Rookie wide receiver Darrius Shepherd took a similar approach.
In fact, early in training camp, then-backup quarterback DeShone Kizer said Shepherd was “probably the first guy in this locker room to learn the playbook — before any quarterback learned it.”
Adams, at one point this offseason, said Shepherd “literally knows protections that I don’t know.”
“I haven’t done much of anything, but I think the biggest thing that might have stood out to 12 was just knowing the playbook and being in the right spots at the right time,” said Shepherd, who first came to the Packers on a tryout after going undrafted and unsigned. “Whenever I’m in the huddle with him, I make sure I’m on my stuff and being alert to any changes he can make at the line, because he loves to attack the defense however he can. So, it’s just being prepared.”
The ones who understand that are the ones who connect with Rodgers.
“I don’t care if he’s hard on me,” Valdes-Scantling said. “I don’t care if he’s hard on anybody. I don’t know who would not be OK with a Hall of Fame quarterback throwing them the football.”