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COMMENTARY: Packers might not be able to make room for Driver

May 09, 2012 11:01 pm  • 

GREEN BAY — There might be a place for Donald Driver in the NFL, but it’s hard to see it being with the Green Bay Packers.

Driver’s decorated 13-year career with the franchise has run into a huge obstacle: the combination of his advancing age (37), and the Packers’ abundance of young talent at wide receiver.

The Packers have four receivers who go into the offseason ahead of Driver in the playing rotation, and all are in their prime or younger: Greg Jennings (28 years old), Jordy Nelson (27 this month), Randall Cobb (21) and James Jones (28).

Last year, Jennings (67 receptions), Nelson (68) and Jones (38) had more receptions than Driver’s 37. Cobb (25 receptions) had fewer but showed too much playmaking talent to be a bit player again in his second season. The Packers need the ball in his hands.

Then there are the young developmental receivers behind Driver: Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel.

Both showed well as undrafted rookies in training camp last year and spent the season on the team’s practice squad. Both also received offers late in the year to sign on other teams’ 53-man rosters, but the Packers convinced them to stay by bumping their pay from the practice-squad minimum of $5,700 a week to the regular-roster minimum of $22,059 a week. Teams don’t do that unless they really like a player.

Gurley is 24, Borel 23. So the question is, will it make sense at the end of training camp to cut one or two promising young receivers so you can keep a 37-year-old as your No. 5 receiver? There’s no room for sentiment in NFL personnel decisions, so odds are the Packers’ answer is no.

They hinted at that thinking at the draft two weeks ago, when reporters asked General Manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy if Driver will be in training camp. Both declined comment. A year ago, they would have answered.

Is it possible Driver will be at camp this year? Sure, it’s possible. Maybe he agrees to a cut in the $4.8 million he’s due in salary and roster bonus this year and comes to camp — he’s already said publicly he’s open to a pay reduction. Maybe Thompson and McCarthy will want the protection from a devastating run of injuries at that position.

But that might be less likely because this isn’t about money. It’s about Cobb’s playing time and the desire to retain one or two young receivers who have a future beyond 2012. Even at the minimum salary, Driver would come at a big cost to the roster and go against the dictums of personnel decisions in pro sports: Father Time is undefeated, and it’s better to replace a player a year early than a year late.

Driver is hugely popular among Packers fans, probably second to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and this offseason he’s gained off-the-field fame with his long run on the TV show “Dancing with the Stars.”

He won the loyalty of Packers fans for several reasons. His is a classic underdog story in which he beat long odds to make it in the NFL as a seventh-round draft pick from Alcorn State. He’s charismatic on the field, likeable off it, and showed commitment by playing through injuries. He also produced year after year — he’s the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions (735), hit the 70-catch mark eight seasons and led the team in receptions six seasons, which is tied with Billy Howton for fourth most in team history behind Don Hutson (10 times), James Lofton (eight times) and Boyd Dowler (seven times).

But popularity doesn’t save players in the NFL. Thompson showed that when he traded arguably the most beloved player in Packers history, Brett Favre, when he and McCarthy determined that Rodgers was ready play. This offseason, the Indianapolis Colts traded their legendary quarterback, Peyton Manning.

That Driver has stayed in the NFL as a receiver through age 36 means he has some freakish qualities, especially considering his wiry frame (5-11¼ and 180 pounds coming into the league). Driver’s standout traits were unusual spring and explosiveness in his legs, plus the drive to stay in exceptional physical condition.

But Father Time always wins. In the history of the NFL, 17 receivers have caught a pass in the year they turned 37. At that age, four caught 50 passes or more: Terrell Owens (72), Jerry Rice (67), Charlie Joiner (61) and Tim Brown (52).

Also among those 17, eight caught 25 passes or fewer, which is a sign they were in steep decline, either because of eroding talent or the injury issues that often end careers. Last year, Derrick Mason was the only receiver 37 or older to catch one pass (he had 19 receptions and a 9.0-yard average). And since 2005, five players age 37 or older have caught a pass: Owens (72 catches in ’10), Mason, Joey Galloway (32 catches from 2008-10), Ricky Proehl (28 catches from ’05-06) and Isaac Bruce (21 receptions in ’09).

Driver had 37 receptions last season at age 36. That’s the 17th most catches among the 28 receivers in NFL history who have caught a pass the year they turned 36.

Driver showed enough quickness and bounce in 2011 to suggest that a year later he could be a rotational receiver for an NFL team. But unless the Packers are hit by a couple of season-ending injuries at receiver this offseason or maybe as late as training camp, there’s probably not a place for him with them. The odds are strong that Thompson and McCarthy consider roster spots too precious and promising young players too hard to find to sacrifice one, even for someone who’s done as much for them as Donald Driver.