PackersNews.com reporters Ryan Wood and Michael Cohen discuss the strides being made by Jordy Nelson and Demetri Goodson in their respective phases of recovery from knee injuries. (July 6, 2017) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY - To Jordy Nelson, the catch was easier than it looked. Back end zone, Aaron Rodgers’ latest missile approaching, Nelson let his feet go dead. He fell in place, cutting his route before momentum carried him out of bounds.
Most impressive, Nelson somehow held onto the football, beating blanket double coverage from cornerback LaDarius Gunter and linebacker Jake Ryan.
In the Green Bay Packers' organized team activities, very few plays are memorable. The monotony of reps without pads — which is to say reps without live contact — can make these open sessions blend together. Here was something different: a play worth noting.
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Last week, coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers' defense got the better of its offense, the norm this time of year. No more. A patently perfect red-zone rep between Rodgers and Nelson left the defense helpless. After the catch, all Ryan could do was turn around in disbelief.
“What?” he shouted reflexively.
It was Nelson’s casual reaction to the play while strolling through the locker room two hours later that reminded, yes, he’s still one of the league’s best receivers.
“That’s the easy stuff,” Nelson said of getting both feet inbounds. “It’s just reactionary. It’s repetition to where when you get into that situation, you have the confidence and you don’t need to think about it.”
It was repetitive, no different a catch than you’d see Nelson make in December and January. Those are much more important; they actually count. Yet it’s been years since Nelson made a highlight catch — or any catch — during team drills in June.
Hip surgery cost Nelson the entire offseason program in 2015. He returned in training camp that year, only to tear his right ACL in the Packers' second exhibition. After knee surgery, Nelson missed not only all of 2015 but also the next offseason, finally returning for training camp.
The last time Nelson participated in OTA drills was 2014. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that was the best season of his career, leading to Nelson’s lone Pro Bowl selection.
The chance to go through an entire offseason program could help Nelson improve this season, even after catching 97 passes for 1,257 yards and an NFL-leading 14 touchdowns last fall.
“It’s all about sharpening your skills,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “The proof is in the pudding. Any time you come back from a major injury, history would support a jump in the second year. Because that first year back, there’s a number of different thresholds you have to get over. So now Jordy in here working on the specifics of getting better, not only himself but working (with) the other quarterbacks, and we have receivers and concepts that we may have in and so forth. It’s not that rehab component of we have to get to the next spot and get to the next spot and get back.
“I think that in itself is a big key for Jordy or any player in a second year coming off of a major injury.”
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Nelson said he uses the offseason program to “experiment” for the season. If something doesn’t work, he has veteran experience to fall back on, limiting the risk of tinkering with his game. So he’ll try a new way to run an inside route, a new release.
Certain reps, like a back-end-zone catch from a scrambling Rodgers, also help Nelson’s timing stay sharp with his quarterback.
“It never stops,” Nelson said. “There’s always little things, conversations throughout the day, throughout the year — if it’s in-season, out of season, whenever — that will eventually come up in game time. You want to have those conversations, you want to be in those situations, so come game time you can react and you’re in a good situation to make the plays.”
There’s no shortage of things to work on this offseason.
Though he stopped short of calling himself a slot receiver, Nelson’s routes might migrate to the middle of the field even more this fall. It’s where he saw the most success last season, his push for the NFL’s comeback player of the year award mirroring his move inside. In the final 10 games, Nelson’s routes were split almost evenly between the perimeter and slot.
It would be no surprise if Nelson runs even more routes from the slot this season. Receivers coach Luke Getsy said Nelson’s size and savvy help in the middle of the field. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Nelson towers over most slot corners, and his route running is difficult to cover for most safeties.
A question earlier this offseason about Nelson’s productivity in the slot referenced Arizona Cardinals All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald following a similar trajectory, and Getsy saw similarities.
“Those are bigger men,” Getsy said, “and whenever you’re dealing with bigger men inside the box, you want a guy who looks like Jordy or Larry to be able to create separation in there and then get mismatches. I think whenever you move a guy around, I don’t think it’s necessarily just an inside position. It’s the ability to be able to be outside and inside that makes it more difficult for another team to game plan against you.
“Larry and Jordy, their football IQs are so high that they’re able to do a bunch of different things, and not just move inside and always run an in-breaker or always run an out-breaker. They’re able to do everything that anybody that lines up as a No. 2 or No. 3 is able to do.”
The football IQ is enhanced when physical traits are retained. Nelson, who turned 32 last week, said his body “recovered well” after last season. The key, he said, was a different approach this offseason.
Recovering from knee surgery was a yearlong grind. Rehab was constant. Progress came in slow increments. Playing 19 games with no offseason to prepare is hard on any player’s body, much less a 31-year-old receiver.
By the time the Packers returned from Atlanta after their NFC championship game loss, Nelson needed rest more than anything. So Nelson did something he hadn’t done for more than a year, putting workouts on hold.
Nelson stayed in Green Bay. He could’ve just as well found a private island with no cell reception. For almost two months, Nelson said, he didn’t go to Lambeau Field once. No weight lifting. No training table. No icepacks.
“Just stayed home,” Nelson said. “I was here in town the whole time. I just never came in the building. Went into dad mode. Do stuff around the house. Just relax. Everything was the same, I just didn’t come in here and work out for an hour and a half or two hours.
“I started up a few weeks before we reported, and the body felt great. Just needed to clear everything physically and mentally and just kind of refresh. I thought it was great for me.”