GREEN BAY – Chastin West gets it.
As impressive as the Green Bay Packers first-year wide receiver was last Friday night – West caught five passes for 134 yards, including a 97-yard go-ahead touchdown – he knows that the performance, in truth, doesn’t matter a whole lot anymore.
“There’s two more games left,” West said in advance of the Packers’ third preseason game, Friday night at Indianapolis. “It’s an opportunity for me to changes the coaches’ minds.”
And the best way to do that? Excel on special teams.
For while Mike McCarthy loves big-play wide receivers as much as the next guy – and there’s no doubt that the Packers offensive-minded head coach likes the cornucopia of talent he has at the position after the top five of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver and rookie Randall Cobb – being a good receiver won’t be enough to get West a spot on the 53-man roster when final cuts are made Sept. 3.
To McCarthy, it’s all about who stands out on special teams.
“They’re all competing, making plays on the offensive side of the ball, but frankly, what they do on special teams will matter most,” McCarthy said matter-of-factly. “That’s the area they all need to pick it up
“Definitely that receiver group is talented. Chastin West, what he’s done, he’s done good things on special teams. I don’t think there’s a doubt that these guys have the ability to play, but to get over that hurdle to be a receiver is one thing, but also to play on special teams is another.”
Entering Friday night’s game at Lucas Oil Stadium, one could argue that the Packers have five more wide receivers who merit serious consideration for a spot on the 53-man roster when camp ends: Veteran Brett Swain, West and rookie free agents Tori Gurley, Kerry Taylor and Diondre Borel. Antonio Robinson, who spent some time on the practice squad last year, has also done good things on offense.
But in order to convince general manager Ted Thompson and the personnel staff that a sixth receiver should be kept, that receiver will have to be a key special-teams contributor. That’s what allowed Swain, a 2008 seventh-round pick who spent that season on the practice squad, to make the 53-man roster each of the last two years. While Swain’s 2009 season was cut short by a torn ACL, he came back in 2010 to see action in all 20 of the team’s games, including Super Bowl XLV, even though he only wound up catching six passes for 72 yards.
“You look at our receiving corps, and with Cobb coming in as a second-round pick, there’s five guys there that are pretty solid. If you want to make this team past that, it’s going to be on special teams,” said Swain, who returned to practice this week after sitting out two weeks with a pulled hamstring. “If you look at it, the most receivers you can have on the field at once is five. If there’s going to be a sixth or even more, you’ve got to be a special-teams player. And that’s just what it comes down to.”
And even though Swain is competing with the likes of West, Gurley and Taylor, he’s emphasized that point to them repeatedly.
“With the young guys, I try to explain where I came from and what I had to deal with as a seventh-round pick – having to go the same route, having to get cut (in ’08) because I really didn’t know what I was doing on special teams,” Swain said. “So you have to really make sure special teams is an area you can work on and put emphasis on. It can make you a roster spot on this team.”
The receiver doing the most in that department of late has been Gurley, who has blocked at least two punts in the last few practices.
“Things like that, that’s what I’m watching for,” McCarthy said.
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum admitted that it can be difficult for young receivers to be special teams-ready as rookies, in part because they were key offensive players in college and probably didn’t see much action on return teams or coverage units.
“All of a sudden they’re thrust into that role,” Slocum said.
That’s one of the reasons why West, who has the benefit of having been on the team’s practice squad all of last season, has refocused himself on special teams rather than playing the numbers game of how the roster will shake out.
“You have to make the plays that are given to you. There’s a lot of really, really good receivers on this team,” West said. “I’m trying to find my niche, trying to find my spot, and I’m going to work hard to do that. I need to do everything possible to change the minds of the guys upstairs.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.