Donald Driver is eternally incandescent. He's got a gigawatt grin that could light up Lambeau Field for a Monday Night Football game. But on an afternoon in late May, following his first minicamp practice and a day after restructuring his contract to stay in Green Bay, Driver was positively glowing.
He stood at his locker in front of reporters, answering questions effusively (“I'm a Packer for life”) and extensively (he spoke for nearly 30 minutes), every bit the media favorite that he has been for 13 years. That is, until the starter question came up.
Amid lighthearted topics like his “Dancing With the Stars” victory, offseason fitness regimen and delight over reworking his deal, someone asked about his place on the depth chart, where the team has a glut of young, talented wide receivers. Suddenly, the mood changed.
“Where am I on the depth chart in your mind?” Driver asked rhetorically with a brush of irritation. “I'm still the starter until they tell me I'm not, and they haven't told me I'm not the starter.
“I've been one of the top two or three guys since I've been here. I don't think that's going to change.”
Let's think about that. In a half-hour media session filled mostly with softball questions and platitude answers, that brief exchange was by far the most interesting. Driver, who is 37 and took a 50 percent pay cut (from $5 million to $2.5 million) to return to Green Bay, still considers himself the starter and one of the team's top receivers.
And the former may be justified. Driver started 16 of 17 games last year and all but 10 of the Packers' last 160 regular-season games -- appearing in all but three -- since 2002. He's the vocal and veteran leader of arguably the league's best receiver unit, a dependable slot man who knows the playbook like Newton (Isaac not Cam) knew physics.
But is he one of the Packers' top five receivers, much less top two or three? Maybe not. Green Bay has a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber wideouts in their prime: Greg Jennings (949 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011) and Jordy Nelson (1,263 yards, 15 TDs). They've got James Jones (635 yards, seven TDs), who they signed to a three-year deal before last season. Then there's second-year livewire Randall Cobb (375 yards, one TD), whose quickness and playmaking ability last season as both a receiver and returner suggest he's Driver's likely successor in the slot. Even the undrafted guys, 6-foot-4 Tori Gurley and savvy quarterback-turned-receiver Diondre Borel, both of whom spent 2011 on the practice squad, have fans debating their 53-man merit.
Driver acknowledged the challenge he faces on his own unit, but he insists that competition won't become opposition in the locker room.
"We've got six great receivers,” he said. “And we're going to all play, we're going to all continue to play together, and hopefully when it's all said and done . . . the torch is going to continue to be passed."
The Packers have lots of capable hands, but there is only one ball thrown by quarterback Aaron Rodgers on each play. Driver, who last year had his fewest receptions (37) and yards (445) since the 2002 season, was quick to point that out.
"People talk about, well, I didn't have 1,000 yards. I didn't have 80 catches. I don't control who throws the ball. … Every ball I caught, it was amazing. I made amazing catches, amazing runs.”
He mentioned his performance in the divisional round playoff loss to the Giants, when, as the offense struggled with drops and fumbles, he caught all three passes thrown to him for a team-high 45 yards and a score.
No one can fault Driver for the confidence he has in himself and his abilities. After all, this is a guy who turned a childhood of stealing cars and dealing drugs into a college scholarship. A seventh-round draft pick who became a three-time Pro Bowler and the Packers' all-time leading receiver. He said his offseason of dancing put him in outstanding shape, that he's got two percent body fat. And he's motivated. That much is certain.
“I'm still the guy until they tell me otherwise,” he said. “I don't think anything changed on that part of it. I'm going to continue to play football. I'm going to embrace every moment of it and when it's all said and done, I can know that one day I'll be in the Packers Hall of Fame, and that's something special."