Aaron Nagler speaks with Michael Cohen about new Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and the team's personnel group scouting for speed during Senior Bowl practices. (Jan. 25, 2018) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
MOBILE, Ala. - Earlier this month, an article in The New York Times confirmed the results of an eye test administered to anyone who watched the Green Bay Packers during the 2017 season. Finally, after years of anecdotal evidence, there was definitive proof of the overwhelming lack of speed at the wide receiver position.
Using data from Sportradar, which gathers information from computer chips in the players' shoulder pads, the article found the Packers’ pass catchers to be the slowest in the NFL last season. The average speed of their receivers was 11.74 mph, more than two-tenths of a second slower than the Oakland Raiders, who ranked 31st, and 1.58 seconds behind the league-leading Los Angeles Rams.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t see it,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said of the study. “It doesn’t bother me. I think we always want to get faster, but I’m not too concerned with what outside sources have to say about our group. I know there’s really good football players in that group, guys that have done a lot of good things in this league. I think speed is important, it’s a very important part of the game. At the same time, being a well-rounded football player is (just) as important.
“People obviously make a big deal about the (40-yard dash) time. The 40 time is really to kind of confirm what you see on film. And if there’s a difference between the 40 time and what you saw on film, then you just go back to the tape and try to figure it out. I think people put too much stock into that 40 time.”
Nonetheless, infusing the roster with more receivers capable of explosive gains should be a priority for Gutekunst, who faces difficult decisions about the futures of Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. To say the Packers are entirely bereft of speed would be incorrect; Trevor Davis and Jeff Janis both ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds or better coming out of college. But coach Mike McCarthy and his staff never have trusted their abilities as pure receivers, and the duo combined for just 56 offensive snaps before the Packers were eliminated from the playoff race this season.
Which begs the question of whether a player such as DJ Chark of Louisiana State might tempt Gutekunst, who will have a treasure chest of picks once the compensatory haul becomes official next month. At 6-2⅝, 196 pounds and with a 40-yard dash that could dip into the 4.3s during testing, Chark is arguably the most enticing height/weight/speed prospect at the Senior Bowl this week. And because he is projected as a Day 2 pick, perhaps as high as the second round, there is potentially less risk than what came with Davis and Janis, fifth- and seventh-round picks, respectively.
“I think you’re always looking for more speed,” Gutekunst said. “I don’t think you can ever have enough. So yeah, that’s certainly one of the traits that as we go out, we’re always looking for. That’s the first thing our guys notice out here when they’re watching (the players), whether they can run or not. I think there’s 32 teams out there looking for more speed.”
Chark first recognized his gift of speed around the age of 6, when he would race his older cousins around the yard. He never beat them, which made Chark fume as he returned home, but the difference in age offered context that foretold of his athletic success.
“My parents used to say I would get mad when I lost and I used to just go out and just run back and forth trying to redeem myself,” Chark said. “I think that’s when I realized I had pretty good speed.”
Pretty good speed was confirmed when Chark was a junior at Alexandria Senior High School in Louisiana and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds at a Nike combine. Then, after catching 48 passes for 554 yards and three touchdowns as a senior, he arrived at LSU and was clocked at 4.40 seconds by the coaching staff.
But the relative brevity of Chark's collegiate career may complicate the evaluation process. Though he stayed at LSU for four years, Chark didn’t catch a pass until his junior season because of the depth at his position. His only touch as a freshman or sophomore was an end around in the 2015 Texas Bowl, which Chark carried 79 yards for a touchdown.
He eased into the offense as a part-time contributor in 2016, catching 26 passes for 466 yards and three touchdowns, plus two more scores as a runner. After contemplating early entry into the draft, Chark stayed in Baton Rouge for his senior season and caught 40 passes for 874 yards (21.9 average) and three touchdowns. He also returned two punts for touchdowns and was named second-team All-Southeastern Conference by both the coaches and media.
“I was only 20 at the time,” Chark said of his decision to return to school. “I didn’t really think I wanted to enter that world yet (of being a professional), and it was my first year playing college football. … I felt like coming back would really help me out. I also wanted the challenge of being the go-to guy and actually seeing the coverages rotated to me at times, instead of being the No. 3 receiver.”
Like most speedsters — Davis and Janis included — Chark continues to fight the notion that his ability to run is the only tool at his disposal, that he lacks the fluidity and schematic savvy to adjust at the NFL level. On tape, Chark’s acceleration freezes defenders who can’t match his top gear. But even on scoring plays his change of direction appears choppy, his cuts somewhat stiff.
“Basically, coming into college you heard all the time that you can’t just rely on speed, which is true because you play guys who have tremendous speed,” Chark said. “But with that being said, I realized once you add technique with the speed that I have, I realized that I did have really good speed.
“I think that’s when the film comes in and these types of practices come in. One thing I’m glad about LSU is I was able to work many positions, so the coaches realized that I can also play slot and can run actually pretty good routes in the slot. I can get open as well as take the top off. I think that’s a big plus.”
The Packers probably are quite familiar with Chark after drafting his college teammate and close friend, Malachi Dupre, in the seventh round of the 2017 draft. Dupre left school early and was disappointed when he fell all the way to the seventh round, where the Packers selected him with the 247th pick. His training camp was interrupted by a violent collision that sent Dupre to the hospital, and the Packers ultimately released him during final cuts.
They didn’t invite him to join the practice squad, either.
"That kind of hurt me, you know, because I felt like he’s definitely better than seventh round," Chark said. "So it was actually shocking."
Instead, Dupre was unemployed for 10 days before signing with the Buffalo Bills’ practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster Dec. 27, though the Bills made him inactive for the regular-season finale and a playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It wasn't what Chark expected to see when his friend left LSU's campus last spring. The NFL draft remains a crapshoot, even when every team in the league covets the same thing.
“You can be projected Day 1 and go Day 3," Chark said. "You never know. I try not to pay that much attention to it and just do the best that I can. I feel like if I do the best that I can while I’m here and throughout the whole process, I’ll be satisfied wherever I end up."
Aaron Nagler took to Facebook Live to talk the latest on Packers and answer your questions. (Jan. 25, 2018) Aaron Nagler | USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin