Second in a nine-part series of Packers position previews:
GREEN BAY - Of the Green Bay Packers’ six No. 1 wide receivers since their football renaissance began 25 years ago, just one was a great player by his ninth season.
The Packers need the seventh man on that list, Jordy Nelson, to be great in this, his ninth season.
Major knee injuries wrecked the careers of Robert Brooks in the mid-1990s and Javon Walker in the mid-2000s. Nelson is seeking to avoid their fate as he returns from a torn anterior cruciate ligament 11 months ago.
Due in part to surgical advancements and his own strong will, Nelson appears to be well ahead of the curve in his rehabilitation. Nelson even indicated on a national radio show in January that he might have been ready to play in the Super Bowl if the Packers had qualified.
Luke Getsy, Nelson’s first-year position coach, expressed no doubt whatsoever when asked in late May if Nelson would once again be an outstanding player.
“I’d be a fool to say that the way that guy attacks everything,” Getsy said. “He’s a guy that sees a barrier and knocks it down. Anybody would be a fool to say they wouldn’t expect this guy to come back and be who everyone expects him to be.”
That is, the top gun for a unit that failed miserably responding to his absence.
History suggests, however, that Nelson’s road back to his Pro Bowl form of 2014 at age 31 is anything but a fait accompli.
Sterling Sharpe: He was 29, in his seventh season and at the peak of his powers when he suffered a cervical neck injury in December 1994. He never played again.
Robert Brooks: After a spectacular season in 1995, he suffered both a torn ACL and patellar tendon in addition to meniscus cartilage damage on the first play of the seventh game in ’96. A fierce competitor, he served as a suitable No. 2 in ’97 although the knee prevented him from being as explosive or dynamic. He couldn’t separate at all from defenders in ’98, underwent two back operations and retired from the Packers in August 1999, which would have been his eighth season. He was 29.
Antonio Freeman: His finest season, 1998, was his fourth. He lost some work ethic and spirit in ’99 and didn’t play well, performed even worse in 2000 and was finished after a return to the Packers from the Eagles in ’03. He was 31.
Javon Walker: He eclipsed Donald Driver as the team’s leading man in 2004, earning Pro Bowl honors and dropping merely two of 148 passes. After a lackluster training camp, he suffered a torn ACL and meniscus cartilage damage in the ’05 opener at Detroit.
After being traded to Denver during the ’06 draft, he played well for the Broncos although his speed was never quite the same. His second season in Denver was a disaster, as were two years in Oakland. He retired after eight seasons at age 31.
Donald Driver: In 14 seasons, he never suffered a major injury. His play was as extraordinary at age 31 (2006) as it was in his ninth season (’07). Injuries affected him more than ever before in ’10, but still he managed to play 803 snaps.
Greg Jennings: His finest seasons were 2008, ’10 and ’11. Injuries bedeviled him in ’12 before the Packers lost him to the Vikings as an unrestricted free agent in March 2013.
He spent two ordinary seasons in Minnesota as a No. 1. He played 307 snaps (19 receptions) for Miami in ’15, his 10th season. Now 32, he hasn’t signed with another team on the street since his March 7 release.
The Packers were so confident in Nelson’s future that they made no attempt to re-sign James Jones, their most productive receiver, and made Trevor Davis, a fifth-round draft choice, their only addition of possible significance.
“Any time you lose a great player, which Jordy is, it has an effect on you,” said Tom Clements, the associate head coach. “For whatever reason we did not overcome that as well as we should have.
“It’s a new year. Jordy will be back, and guys got a lot of experience. So that should be helpful.”
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Nelson probably played slightly better in 2011 and ’13 than he did in ’14, his last season. Still, he epitomizes professionalism, is a grooved route runner and had become a premier deep threat despite a 40-yard dash time of 4.54 seconds coming out of Kansas State in 2008.
The Packers sorely missed Nelson’s ability to stretch defenses vertically. Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery and Jared Abbrederis offer little deep dimension on the outside, and it remains to be seen if speedsters Jeff Janis and Davis can make the team or win a role from scrimmage.
Green Bay’s passing game was a mix of dink-and-dunk, screens and botched catches. The wide receivers dropped 35 of 418 targeted throws, a drop rate of 8.37 percent that was the unit’s worst since the last year (1991) of the Lindy Infante administration.
Jones, a nine-year veteran, Adams and others were too often tied up at the line against press coverage.
“We’re going to win them this year, I can promise you that,” coach Mike McCarthy said in March of one-on-one matchups on the perimeter and in the slot. “We didn’t do a good enough job collectively getting that done last year, and we’ll learn from that.”
One of the disappointing players was Cobb, who was paid like an elite slot in March 2015 ($10 million per year) but didn’t play like it. In fact, he was more impressive in 77 snaps at running back.
Given that Cobb dropped 14 passes in 2015 (most by a Green Bay receiver in more than 25 years), nine in ’14 and 10 in ’12, his hands and focus just might not be good enough.
“As a receiver (drops) are an important part of the game,” Getsy said. “He battled a lot of things last year. He was a warrior. I think he made a lot of plays for us that enabled us to win 10 games.”
The redoubtable Jones, whose 17.8-yard average led the NFL’s top 50 receivers, led in wide-receiver snaps with 1,187 followed by Cobb with 1,054, Adams with 801, Montgomery with 232, Abbrederis with 199 and Janis with 175.
Assuming Nelson and Cobb rank 1-2, Getsy said it was impossible to predict in which order the others might fall.
“The good thing is there’s a lot of guys who can play for us,” he said. “We’re definitely on the right track.”
Adams, Abbrederis and Janis all were drafted in 2014.
“Third year, big year for those guys,” Getsy said. “I’d throw ’em all in the same group. They know what’s going on. They’ve played with Aaron (Rodgers) a good bit.”
Adams fell flat on his face given first crack at replacing Nelson. His hands and routes were inconsistent, he offered next to nothing after the catch and his general deportment needs work.
“I wish I had the answer what happened in the past,” said Getsy, who served as offensive quality control coach in 2014-’15. “What I see in him now is a little bit different. He’s hungry right now.”
General manager Ted Thompson has watched as the injury woes that interrupted the collegiate careers of Montgomery and Abbrederis cropped up anew in Green Bay.
Montgomery missed the entire off-season after ankle surgery in late December. He’s a physical, gadget-type player with running-back skills after the catch.
“He can line up anywhere,” Getsy said. “That’s what's special about him.”
Playing the slot, Abbrederis is wiry, anticipates well and can find openings. His upright, aggressive style of running translates into frequent contact and time in the trainer’s room.
Janis piqued the interest of fans and, subsequently, coaches with his rare size, speed and ruggedness. Scouts have downgraded him on the basis of straight-line athleticism, tendency to body catch and average ability to adjust, but it’s incumbent upon McCarthy and his staff to determine this summer just what he can offer.
Davis’ speed (4.41) is on par with Janis', he has large hands and he’s smart.
“He’s a speed guy but just real lean,” an NFC personnel director said shortly after the draft. “He’ll struggle against press. He’d be a good developmental type.”
After how poorly the unit fared last season, the Packers need players who can help them win now.
Career drops/targets: 1/53, 2008; 3/30, ’09; 10/92, ’10; 5/100, ’11; 6/84, ’12; 3/134, ’13; 9/163, ’14. Playoff games included.
Receptions/avg. per catch: 28/14.8, 2011; 86/11.5, ’12; 33/14.7, ’13; 106/13.8, ’14; 82/10.6, ’15. Playoff games included.
Seven catches for 20 or more yards, four drops in 79 targets as a rookie; seven catches for 20-plus, 12 drops in 96 targets last season.
Limited to 242 snaps (10 at RB) as rookie. Vertical jump of 40½ inches, broad jump of 10-6, 16 reps on the bench press and Wonderlic score of 24.
Saginaw Valley State
Played 15 snaps from scrimmage as a rookie and 175 last season, including 80 in two games (San Diego, Arizona in playoffs). Had receptions of 46, 33, 60 and 41 yards in those two games.
Looking for first full training camp. In 2014, he suffered a torn ACL in the second practice in pads. Last summer, he suffered a concussion in first practice (shells) and didn’t return until two days before exhibition finale.
Playing two seasons at Hawaii and two more at Cal, he finished with 109 receptions for 1,672 yards (15.3) and 12 TDs. Missed six games with neck injuries in 2012, ’14.
Weighing 225, he ran 40 yards in 4.58 with a 38-inch vertical jump at pro day in March 2014. First NFL contract was practice-squad berth in Green Bay in late 2015. Caught 23 passes as freshman at Troy in 2010, then 28 for 355 at Alabama State in ’13.
40 time of 4.50, vertical jump of 38½. Career No. 2 receiver with 99 catches for 1,534 (15.5) and nine TDs. One of five rookie free agents to land highest signing bonus ($5,000) from Packers.
40 time of 4.59, vertical of 34½. Former junior-college player spent two seasons with Fighting Illini, catching 106 passes for 1,480 (14.0) and eight TDs. Signing bonus of $5,000.
Fort Hays State
Abbrederis’ injury opened berth on 90-man roster for Williams, who advanced to the final cut before spending all season on practice squad. 40 time of 4.43, vertical of 35.
Acquisition categories: D2 means second-round draft choice, FA means free agent.