Nelson trying to shake off rust for opener

Ryan Wood
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GREEN BAY - From the post-practice huddle at midfield, Jordy Nelson jogged on his surgically reconstructed right knee. And his left knee with a hiccup. He took his rightful place, first in line at the JUGS machine, ready to catch spiraling missiles.

It was almost as if nothing ever changed. Then the missiles started flying.

Nelson caught the first football easily enough. With his body turned 90 degrees, rotating his left shoulder forward, the second bounced off his hands. Teammates offered friendly ribbing. An assistant coach demanded 50 pushups as punishment. Once again, Nelson was one of the guys.

He just isn’t Jordy Nelson. At least not yet.

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An All-Pro receiver in 2014, he has a mountain to climb before reaching the level he once attained. Nelson has not played a meaningful snap since the 2014 NFC championship game, quitting football cold the past year.

As his first practice showed Monday afternoon, there’s plenty of rust. He dropped at least one pass from quarterback Aaron Rodgers as they worked on routes off to the side.

Yes, rust is to be expected.

“Obviously, it’s something we need to get used to and be back together,” Nelson said. “He throws the ball different and a lot harder and faster than a lot of guys. Get back used to that and start building that chemistry toward Week 1.”

Since training camp opened with Nelson on the physically unable to perform list, Week 1 has been the only timeline. Nelson expects to play when the Packers travel to the Jacksonville Jaguars for their Sept. 11 opener.

In the three weeks until then, the Packers must decide what it will take for Jordy Nelson to be Jordy Nelson on the first 2016 snap that counts. Given his importance to their offensive machine, his mere presence isn’t enough. The Packers need Nelson at his best, or else find a way to win without their top receiver playing like it.

“It’s going to vary,” Nelson said, “and I’m sure everyone is going to pick it apart. If we miss a play here and there, it’s going to be because we missed all of last year and training camp.”

The Packers plan to increase Nelson’s practice workload a little each day. It would seem unlikely he’ll get team reps Tuesday, or even in their final game-week practice Thursday.

Nelson described Monday as “hardly a practice.” He was limited to individual position drills and a light, jog-through in the final period.

Without team reps this week, it’s hard to see Nelson playing any preseason snaps. The Packers travel to San Francisco for their third preseason game Friday night, and team reps are Nelson’s best chance to connect with the game plan. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is expected to play at least some snaps against the 49ers, but he’s unlikely to dress for the Packers' preseason finale next week at the Kansas City Chiefs.

If Nelson doesn’t share the field with Rodgers in San Francisco, the Packers would have to decide whether it’s worth risking injury for him to play in Kansas City without receiving passes from Rodgers. Such a decision seems unlikely.

With no preseason snaps, the Packers almost certainly would limit Nelson’s reps against the Jaguars. Nelson said his conditioning was in better shape than expected Tuesday, but a game’s speed and physical toll can’t be duplicated in practice.

“I think that anybody that ever tries to condition themselves for a first practice or a first game,” receivers coach Luke Getsy said, “they try their best but are never truly able to do that. Football shape, game shape, is completely different than any other shape you’ve ever been in. … He’s in great shape, but 14-, 15-play drive, and now you’re on the 5-yard line and you’ve got to dig deep. I think that’s different than you can practice on your own some other time.

“It’s not just him. It’s all the receivers that are out there. I mean, how many times have you guys seen us with those long drives, with Aaron in there. Shoot, we had a couple of them last week (without Rodgers).”

Nelson’s return to the field will be a process, one that could be accelerated with preseason snaps.

If he’s held out of the preseason, he’ll face a mental hurdle in his first game. There’s nothing like getting hit for the first time after missing so much football.

Fellow Packers receiver Jared Abbrederis knows what it’s like to return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Abbrederis missed all of his rookie season after tearing his ACL in training camp two years ago. He was new to the NFL, far from a seasoned All-Pro with seven years of experience like Nelson. So it isn’t a perfect comparison, but every player must learn how to trust his knee after ACL surgery.

Abbrederis said his return to the field came incrementally. The first bump in practice. The first hit in a game. Each “first” was a new milestone.

“Being in live reps,” Abbrederis said, “that helps. Once you get that first tackle, you take a good hit, just like any injury. If you take a good hit on it and it holds up, that’s when you gain confidence. When you get those live reps, you’re making the cuts. You’re making the transition from when you’re getting bumped, to you’ve got to kind of catch yourself. It’s all that stuff.

“So, obviously, you do as much as you can training. Once you get live reps, you get more stuff that you won’t get when you’re actually rehabbing and stuff. I think live reps just help a lot.”

Nelson said it isn’t necessary for him to survive a live tackle before Week 1. There are plenty of other factors to focus on, only starting with conditioning and rhythm with Rodgers. He has to learn how to run routes against defenders, not just the air. More advanced, Nelson must once again get familiar with reading coverages before the snap.

The Packers prefer to think about how long it will take Jordy Nelson to become Jordy Nelson again, not whether he will at all. Publicly, they have shown no concern whether their top receiver, at age 31, will regain his old form. Getsy went so far Monday as to say it could take only one rep for Nelson to find his groove.

Privately, they have to hold their breaths. The Packers open their season in three weeks, and nobody knows what to expect from their No. 1 receiver. They, like everyone else, could be left guessing until the opener.

“I don’t think there’s really any way to predict that,” Getsy said. “I think it’s our goal to take every single day and make sure we’re taking another step, honestly. That’s a few weeks away from now, to say what he’s going to be like then. I can’t tell the future, but he’s in great shape.

“As long as he keeps progressing, we’re very happy with where we’re at right now.”

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