GREEN BAY, Wis. — By early September of 2016, exactly 17 games had come and gone since Davante Adams‘ last 100-yard day — just the second of his career.
Fans had grown impatient.
One longtime NFL scout believed they were justified.
“You keep trotting #17 out there and throwing to him like he’s [Falcons star] Julio Jones or something,” the scout said in a text message sent on Sept. 19, 2016, the day after the Packers lost 17-14 to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2, when Adams was targeted seven times and caught three passes for 26 yards.
Since then, Adams has basically been Julio Jones.
In 70 games since Week 3 of the 2016 season, Jones ranks third among NFL receivers in catches (449), first in yards (6,865) and 12th in touchdowns (27).
In that same span, Adams ranks fourth in catches (413), fourth in yards (5,206) and No. 1 in touchdowns (50) in five fewer games.
Heading into Thursday night’s game at the San Francisco 49ers (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox), Adams is tied for the NFL lead with seven touchdown catches this season despite missing two games because of a hamstring injury.
What makes Adams so successful and so tough to cover?
A few of his predecessors in Green Bay, plus coaches and players from around the league agreed to share their views on the subject. Here’s a look at the 27-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl player through their eyes:
Jordy, James and Randall
James Jones’ career with the Packers (2007-13 and 2015) meant he played with Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and, for one season, Adams. Driver is the Packers’ all-time leader in catches and receiving yards. Jennings was one of the most precise route runners in the league. Nelson’s body control was unmatched and so was his connection with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Cobb was the quintessential slot target. Jones was the strongest, toughest of the bunch.
Jones: “I always pride myself on being a competitor, a humble guy and a very good teammate and as I sit here right now, I can tell you that Davante is better than all of us. And that’s no disrespect to Jordy, Randall or any of those others. Now, I wouldn’t tell Davante that to his face. I’ll tell him straight up to his face, ‘I’m better than you.’ But to you, I’ll say it: He’s the best one out of all us.”
Nelson (laughing): “J.J.’s right. Davante’s shown it the last couple of years. His playmaking ability and the way he can create separation is something that’s very rare.”
Jones: “When you look at the receivers in the league, you can say that this is their strong point and this is their weak point. With Davante, you can’t say any of that. I watch [Cardinals receiver DeAndre] Hopkins, and he’s not very good releasing at the line of scrimmage, for example. But when you talk about Davante, you’re talking about release, he’s phenomenal. [Yards after catch] yardage, he’s phenomenal. Route running, he’s phenomenal. The ability to go up and make the tough catch, he’s phenomenal. Speed, yeah he’s not 4.3 [seconds], but he’s always getting behind and catching the deep balls or not getting caught from behind. He’s just special in every category.”
Nelson: “He has everything you need as a receiver. Now you’re seeing the last couple years with him and Aaron, there’s the chemistry factor of getting on the same page. When they know you’re going to get the ball and you still get the ball, that’s when you know it’s special.”
Jones had a connection to Adams, a second-round pick of the Packers in 2014, even before they became teammates in Green Bay. Adams’ receivers coach at Fresno State, Keith Williams, previously worked with Jones at San Jose State.
Jones: “I wasn’t [with the Packers] when they first drafted him. I was in Oakland but when I saw it on TV — I’ll never forget, I was with my wife watching the draft — I called Jordy immediately.”
Nelson: “I remember calling J.J. because I knew J.J.’s coach was at Fresno State and he had worked out with the guys in Fresno a little bit. I just called him and said, ‘Who is this kid? What do we got?'”
Jones: “I said, ‘You better get your stuff right, you better keep playing at a high level because this dude you just drafted is absolutely special.'”
Nelson: “Yeah, J.J. knew he was the real deal, and that’s what you want. I think [Adams] told you guys, and he has told me, that he thought I hated him when he was a rookie. I told him, ‘No, it was just that you were young, and I was trying to get you going because there was more to it than just playing football.'”
Cobb: “The first indicator [was] just his raw natural ability. The first time I saw Davante on the field, he went up and made an unbelievable catch, and we knew he had something special in him from the day he walked into the building. Can jump out the building, great hands, great route runner. You just see the skill that he’s built, the focus that he’s put into his craft in becoming the best in the league. I’m proud that I got to witness it, to see his growth and see the person that he’s become, the father he’s become and the football player that he is now.”
After two big games as a rookie in 2014 — 121 yards against the Patriots in Week 13 and 117 yards against the Cowboys in the divisional playoff round — expectations soared. At the start of Adams’ second season, Nelson tore his ACL on Aug. 23, 2015, in a preseason game. Less than two weeks later, the Packers re-signed Jones, who had played the previous season for the Raiders and then was cut by the Giants at the end of the preseason. Adams missed three games in 2015 because of an ankle injury and was never the same the rest of the year.
Jones: “[Adams] was frustrated, being the competitor that he is, but he had a lot of good people in his corner. The good thing about the guys he played with, we all went through that. And we were all there to be able to tell him, ‘Bro, it’s all good. This type of stuff is going to happen in your career. Everybody knows what you can do, you just keep going.'”
Nelson: “I think some of it might have been the room that we had, especially the year that he struggled [in 2015] having J.J. back as the veteran leader with Randall as well. And just having the stability in that room and knowing that there’s other guys as well that can make plays and it’s not all on his shoulders. And I think for the most part in our room, we were very honest with one another and helped each other through the good and the bad. Inside the building, you know when a guy’s struggling and when it’s someone as explosive as he is and it was because of a lower-limb injury that’s going to affect his game quite a bit.”
Jones: “We all knew when his time came it was going to be his time. We saw what he had. You’d be blind not to see that. Our job was just to make sure his mind was right. I tell people all the time, ‘Yeah, Aaron Rodgers never had a first-round receiver. But he’s had a lot of special receivers: Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, myself, Randall Cobb and now it’s Davante’s turn.'”
Dan Orlovsky breaks down the Packers vs. the 49ers and explains which team will have the edge on Thursday.
The opposing view
Over the years, Adams has regularly drawn an opponent’s No. 1 cornerback. Try being a first- or second-year player with that assignment. In this year’s season opener, Adams torched the Vikings for 14 catches, 156 yards and two touchdowns. It was rookie cornerback Cameron Dantzler‘s first game. With no preseason action, the only thing he could do was hope one of his teammates could simulate what Adams would do. At least someone like Lions’ second-year cornerback Amani Oruwariye had some experience to bring into a game.
Dantzler: “I felt like during training camp, it started with [Vikings veteran receiver] Adam [Thielen], going against him every day. I felt like he prepared me very well to cover guys like that. I feel like he’s one of the top receivers in the league right now. So just preparing with him during training camp, he has tremendously helped me with guys like Davante Adams.”
Oruwariye: “You can try to get a look at it, try to tell guys to try and give you that look, but coming from the actual source itself, it’s, that’s the real thing. You just got to try managing it and do what you can, but he’s really good at what he does.
“One, he’s mastered his release. Very patient and just knowing when to use his hands based on when you’re shooting your jam and things like that. He’s just very crafty. I would say he’s a polished veteran at this point at that. And then, going along with that, his timing and chemistry with Aaron Rodgers, that is the biggest thing, I would say. He just knows where to be at the right time.”
Two of the three opposing head coaches in the NFC North come from defensive backgrounds: Matt Patricia in Detroit and Mike Zimmer in Minnesota. Patricia got an early look at Adams in that 2014 game against the Patriots, when Patricia was New England’s defensive coordinator.
Patricia: “Pretty sure 2014 was a breakout game against us, when I played him in Green Bay. I think that’s one of the games where he really stepped to the front line and you can just see all the skill set on display. His releases are phenomenal. He has a great skip-step off the line of scrimmage. He can go with speed. He can get vertical. He has a great top-of-the route movement where he can come back and be able to just get separation from the defensive backs at that point. He’s got enough speed to go vertical, run by guys in a heartbeat, and he has tremendous hands. His ability to track the ball in the air, really is phenomenal. He just never loses sight of it, and he’s able to make some pretty incredible catches as he goes through. He is one of the most dynamic players in the league.”
Adams’ past four games against the Vikings: 41 catches, 431 yards and five touchdowns.
Zimmer: “He’s very good at the line of scrimmage in press. He does a great job with the route combinations that he runs. At the top of the route, he’s excellent. Makes contested catches really well. He’s one of those guys that when you play those guys, they’re going to get their catches. You just hope that you can limit them to not being big plays. I think that’s one of his strengths. He catches the ball good over the middle, he catches the ball outside and he’s very, very good against press. It makes it really difficult. And he’s got a guy pulling the trigger that believes in him and can manipulate the defense so many different ways.”
NFL Nation reporters Sarah Barshop, Courtney Cronin and Michael Rothstein contributed.