Jordan Love will have to make his debut as the Green Bay Packers’ full-time starting quarterback without his top wide receiver in the lineup.
After Friday’s practice, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur confirmed Christian Watson has been ruled out of Week 1’s season opener against the Chicago Bears after the second-year wide receiver missed the entire week of practice with a hamstring injury.
“Hopefully, [it’s] just a week-to-week [thing],” LaFleur said, later adding it should not impact their gameplan. “We still had a whole week to prepare for this, so I wouldn’t say that will alter the plan too drastically. I think anytime you’re missing one of your better players that certainly throws a little curveball to it, but that happens all the time.”
Watson — a 2022 second-round pick — caught 41 passes for 611 yards and scored nine total touchdowns for the Packers during his rookie season, doing the majority of his damage after his midseason breakout against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 10. He did miss three of their first seven games with recurring hamstring issues, though.
Without Watson, the Packers are down to just two wide receivers on their roster who have caught at least one pass in the NFL regular season, and they could find themselves with just one before Sunday’s kickoff in Chicago. Romeo Doubs, their other top starter at the position, has been listed as questionable to play with his own hamstring injury.
If Doubs is also unable to play, the Packers will be left with 2022 seventh-round pick Samori Toure and three rookies — Jayden Reed, Dontavyion Wicks and Malik Heath — at wide receiver for Love’s first start as the No. 1 quarterback on the roster.
Watson’s Absence Could Put Emphasis on Aaron Jones
The Packers are going to be even greener in the pass-catcher department with Watson no longer available for their 2023 season opener. Not only are three of their five healthy wide receivers rookies, but three of their four tight ends — including second-round pick and expected starter Luke Musgrave — are also embarking on their first NFL seasons.
Fortunately for the Packers, they have star running back Aaron Jones to depend on.
Jones took a pay cut to stay with the Packers for 2023 and remains one of their most electric players on offense after putting up a career-high 1,128 rushing yards in 2022. It has been expected the Packers would switch to a more run-focused offense this season with Aaron Rodgers no longer under center to change playcalls at his discretion, but it is possible they will look to hammer that home in Week 1 without their best deep-ball threat, especially against a Bears defense that struggled against the run in 2022.
Jones is also a major benefit to Love as a safety-net receiver out of the backfield. Over the past four seasons, the 28-year-old running back has caught 207 passes for 1,615 yards and 16 touchdowns with more than 50 receptions in each of the last two years. He has also been a go-to solution for the Packers in the passing game whenever they have been short of receiving depth in previous seasons, such as their 2021 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals in which he caught a team-high seven passes for 51 yards.
Love is still the quarterback and quite possibly their best-kept secret on offense — if he proves to be who they believe him to be — but don’t be surprised if the offense flows through Jones in all phases on Sunday against the Bears.
Packers Plan to Review Training Practices for 2024
In addition to Watson and Doubs, the Packers also had Wicks — a fifth-round rookie — limited with a hamstring injury coming into the week; although, he was upgraded to a full participant for the final two practices and has been cleared on the injury report.
Teams are never going to be able to completely safeguard from injuries, but it does raise a few eyebrows when three players from the same position group are all battling with the same type of soft-tissue injury in the same game week. LaFleur understands that, and the plan is for the Packers to discuss their training practices to ensure they are doing everything they can to minimize those issues — just not until the 2024 offseason.
“I think anytime you have injuries, specifically soft-tissue, that’s something that always sparks a conversation and that you’ll have to do a little digging on, so that’s something we’ll look at,” LaFleur said. “That’ll be more toward when we start to put our schedule and plan in place for next offseason.”