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Representing Virginia, Dontayvion Wicks is a rising star in the NFL

While the former Cavalier wide receiver makes the most of his opportunities as a rookie and is becoming a key contributor for the young Green Bay Packers, his alma mater is an active beneficiary

<p>Wicks has shown promise within a youthful and skilled Packers receiving corps.</p>

Wicks has shown promise within a youthful and skilled Packers receiving corps.

Selected 159th overall in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL Draft, Dontayvion Wicks was not receiving as much interest from professional teams as implied from his illustrious Virginia career. Wicks owned the Cavalier single-season receiving record with 1,203 yards before graduate student Malik Washington topped that mark in 2023. Wicks also had 9 touchdowns in that 2021 season and started a career trend of generating big plays at a clip of 21.1 yards per catch. 

The expectation for his rookie season was that he would need significant refinement before he had any chance of becoming a prominent factor for the Packers — yet at week 16 of the NFL season, Wicks is graded as the fourth-best wide receiver by Pro Football Focus. His 15.8 yards per catch leads Green Bay and is 13th among all NFL players. That mark also leads all rookies and is higher than stars such as Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings, Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs and Davante Adams of the Las Vegas Raiders. Statistically, Wicks has burst onto the scene as a consistent producer of big plays for quarterback Jordan Love. 

On the subject of Adams, his days in Green Bay from 2014-21 featured many considering him the best wide receiver in the NFL — leaving a coveted standard of excellence for Wicks to fulfill as the Packers were suddenly missing a playmaker that was targeted 169 times for 1,553 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2021. After Adams’ departure in 2022, Green Bay faced another monumental change — trading longtime quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Wicks has had to find success amidst a difficult rebuild — the Packers are currently the youngest team in the NFL, at an average age of 25.13 years old. 

Wicks has consistently created separation downfield, but Green Bay’s season has been a rollercoaster. In the season opener at Chicago, Wicks was targeted only twice and did not record a catch as the Packers rolled away with an easy 38-20 win over their floundering rival. In their second game at Atlanta, Wicks registered two catches for 40 yards and an incredible touchdown despite a loss to an average Falcons squad. His recent statline of six catches for 97 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the highest single-season receiving yardage mark by a Packer, as Wicks is starting to build a connection with Love. 

Wicks has usually made a couple of splash plays each week to an average of 37.8 yards per game, but more importantly, has become a go-to target for Love on crucial third downs. In a much-needed win over the Los Angeles Chargers, Wicks averaged 30.3 yards per catch across three huge catches to kickstart Green Bay’s only win streak this season. Since week nine, Wicks ranks sixth across the NFL in yards per route run. 

Unfortunately, the Packers have dealt with a ridiculous injury crisis regarding their star players. In addition to missing multiple All-Pro caliber contributors, Wicks suffered a high-ankle injury in Green Bay’s recent loss at the New York Giants and a chest injury in a victory at the Carolina Panthers on Sunday — yet despite facing far more injuries than the average NFL team, Love and Wicks have the Packers fighting for a chance at the playoffs with two games left to go in the regular season. 

A painful high-ankle injury usually means a recovery timeline of four to six weeks, but Wicks returned to practice in a limited fashion just two days after the injury and was Green Bay’s most productive receiver against the Buccaneers. He may have avoided a season-ending injury, and will be dearly needed for Green Bay’s dire playoff push. Regardless of how 2023 ends for the Packers, however, Wicks has established himself as an important piece of what appears to be a promising rebuild.

His admirable work ethic has been critical for adjusting from Virginia to the NFL, where Wicks has continued to beat talented defensive backs in one-on-one coverage just like he did at Scott Stadium. His main tactic is superb route running to create open space for a catch. In the first six weeks of this NFL season, Wicks led all receivers in separation rate versus man coverage at an astounding 62.5 percent. That ability is eerily similar to Adams’ trademark moves, which Packers wide receivers coach Jason Vrable highlighted. 

“There’s been reps he’s [Wicks] had even back to the spring where everybody’s like, ‘Whoa, that’s old 17 stuff. Like, Tae [Adams],” Vrable said.

Adams’ status as an NFL legend aside, the comparison of play style and early statistics is not as out of reach as one would think. Adams started slowly, as he finished his 2014 rookie campaign averaging 11.8 yards per catch and a 57.6 catch percentage.  Wicks’ aforementioned yards per catch of 15.8 — along with a catch percentage of 62.5 percent — is certainly noteworthy. Context is also important. Adams was a second round pick on a contending team, and Wicks is a fifth round pick on the youngest team in the NFL while dealing with a slew of injuries. It actually makes sense to compare the two wideouts though, as Coach Matt LaFleur often speaks highly of his talented Cavalier alum. 

“He’s physical. He’s smart. He’s a really good route runner, he’s got strong hands and he’s fearless,” LaFleur said. “He’s a guy that we have a lot of confidence in, and we’ve got to find different ways to integrate him into our offense.”

In pre-draft analysis back in March, The Cavalier Daily predicted Wicks would be a meaningful contributor for Green Bay — and he has more than lived up to those expectations. 

While Wicks continues to break out as an above average NFL player, his success reflects well on Virginia’s own intriguing rebuild. Incoming transfer wide receiver Andre Greene Jr. — who is leaving North Carolina as a former four star recruit — cited the success of recent Cavalier legends as an enticing incentive to commit to Virginia.

“Seeing the success Malik Washington and Dontayvion Wicks had at Virginia the past few years was definitely part of my decision,” Greene said. “They are developing culture in producing some of the top receivers.”

Coach Tony Elliott has not been able to helm a winning season with the Cavaliers thus far, but picking up recruits like Greene Jr., Notre Dame transfer Chris Tyree and Kent State transfer Trell Harris to lead the wide receiver position can certainly be marked as substantial progress. Recruits often share Greene Jr.’s mindset of seeking a culture that breeds professional pedigree. Incoming freshman wide receiver Triston Ward has also spoken highly of Elliott’s culture. 

“Honestly, when you look at all the stuff they show us, it’s kind of hard to imagine a place better than the University of Virginia,” Ward said. 

Elliott’s resume of Cavaliers in the NFL is expanding every season, and that fact will only catalyze the rebirth of Virginia football as a winning program. As Elliott continues to gradually build his foundation, recruits are taking notice of what is becoming a fruitful culture of success brewing in Charlottesville. Wicks’ rookie breakout is a shining endorsement of how Elliott’s program at Virginia not only provides a world-class education, but can also lead a young player to NFL stardom as a proud Cavalier alum. 


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