Jordy Nelson’s struggles raise difficult questions

Zach Kruse
Special to Packer Plus
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Despite the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Packers receiver Jordy Nelson (right) was held to just three catches on Sunday afternoon.

A strong start to the 2017 season has rapidly faded to irrelevancy for veteran receiver Jordy Nelson, setting up a potentially difficult decision for the Green Bay Packers as an uncharacteristically early start to the offseason approaches.

What are the Packers to do with an older, regressing player scheduled to count over $12 million on the team’s salary cap in 2018?

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was certain this past week Nelson had plenty of “juice” left to burn, but the Carolina Panthers still held the 32-year-old receiver to three catches for only 28 yards — marking the eighth straight game Nelson failed to surpass 40 receiving yards. He hasn’t caught a touchdown pass since Week 5.

The production drop-off hit hard and it hit fast, and it’s looking more and more like the issues run far deeper than just the man playing quarterback.

During the first five games of 2017, Nelson caught 19 passes for 230 yards and a league-high six touchdowns. He wasn’t pumping out explosive plays left and right, but his connection with Rodgers still helped create numerous scoring opportunities in the red zone.

Losing Rodgers exposed many of Nelson’s growing limitations.

He no longer possesses elite vertical speed or creates consistent separation against man coverage. Nelson’s game has had to evolve, from a big-play machine and downfield threat to more of an underneath, possession-type receiver. His value is amplified in the red zone but flat-lining everywhere else. That reality often made it hard for backup Brett Hundley to find easy throws to anyone other than Davante Adams.

Over the seven games without Rodgers, Nelson caught 22 passes for 153 yards and zero touchdowns. His longest catch during the stretch? Just 17 yards. Five times, he finished a game averaging fewer than 10 yards per catch. Twice, he averaged fewer than five yards.

The Packers needed more with Rodgers back under center on Sunday in Carolina, especially after losing receiver Davante Adams on an illegal, brain-rattling hit from Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. Nelson caught all three of his passes after Adams exited the game in the third quarter, but the chunk plays the Packers required to complete another comeback weren’t available.

Rodgers’ six targets to Nelson netted 28 yards and an interception.

His 14-game totals this season: 50 catches, 83 targets, 471 yards and six TDs. Of the 49 players in the NFL with 80 or more targets in 2017, Nelson’s 471 receiving yards rank 48th. Only 49ers running back Carlos Hyde has fewer.

Barring an explosion over the final two weeks, Nelson will finish 2017 with his worst statistical season since 2010.

Nelson will turn 33 years old in May. He is owed $9.25 million in base salary in 2018, plus workout and roster bonuses totaling another $1.0 million. His cap number is scheduled to be $12.55 million. As it stands now, only nine receivers in the NFL will count more against their team’s salary next season.

Under normal circumstances, the Packers could probably afford to pay Nelson his salary and not worry about the cap in 2018. But with Adams’ contract about to expire, and the money likely required to keep him in Green Bay, it’s fair to wonder what Nelson’s future holds.

The Packers will likely need to pay Adams $10 million or more per season. Randall Cobb is under contract for another year, at a cap number of $12.75 million in 2018. Having three receivers over $10 million next season doesn’t make for attractive salary cap math, especially when it appears only Adams is truly worth the money in 2018 and beyond.

Maybe a restructured deal would make sense for both sides. Nelson loves Green Bay and he loves playing with Rodgers. He could be open to playing at a lower cap number in 2018 if a restructuring provided a chance to stay with the Packers for another year. It could help free up money to re-sign Adams and ease the burden of the receiver position on Green Bay’s salary cap.

Then again, Nelson openly contemplated his own football future before the season. He revealed in May that he’d like to finish out his current contract, which expires after the 2018 season. But he left the door open to retirement if his abilities started to fade.

“I’m going to take it year-by-year, because it’s 100 percent on how the body feels,” Nelson said. “We love it up here, my son loves his school, everything’s been perfect. As long as the body can handle it and they want me, I’ll play.

“But as soon as one or the other gives in, then I’ll be more than willing to walk away and move back on the farm and kind of disappear from earth.”

No one in Green Bay is going to push Nelson into retirement. But if the aging receiver feels good and wants to keep playing, the Packers might have a hard decision to make this offseason. The price tag no longer matches the production, and the Packers have a talented young receiver to pay at some point in the next few months.

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