'Sad day' sees Packers release Jordy Nelson to make way for Jimmy Graham
GREEN BAY - The last two months have included plenty of new experiences for Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, from his first day on the job, to his first big trade, to his first time running the show at the NFL scouting combine. And come Wednesday afternoon, when the new league year officially begins, he’s certain to navigate plenty more.
Few of them are likely to be as disconcerting for a new GM as the decision made Tuesday, on the eve of free agency, when Gutekunst released veteran wide receiver Jordy Nelson as a salary-cap casualty. This “first” meant cutting ties with one of the most beloved players in recent memory.
“These are tough days when you have to release a player that means so much to your organization, to your team,” Gutekunst said in a news conference Tuesday evening. “Jordy Nelson is one of the great Packers to have played here. He was such an excellent player on the field, an excellent player in your locker room, and obviously in the community as well. He’s everything that you want a pro to be and he’ll be missed.”
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There was significant financial motivation to release Nelson, who will turn 33 in May and was entering the final season of a four-year, $39.05 million contract. In addition to his age and physical regression, Nelson was due a base salary of $9.25 million in 2018 while carrying a cap hit of more than $12.5 million. That he was coming off the worst season of his career as a starter — 53 catches for 482 yards and six touchdowns — and displayed a distinct lack of explosiveness surely made the decision easier for Gutekunst.
Most appealing, though, was clearing $10.25 million in cap space the Packers used to secure a verbal agreement with Jimmy Graham, the most expensive tight end on the free-agent market. It marks the second time in as many years the Packers will sign arguably the best tight end available, and they will be hoping it turns out better than the last.
“I think as you go through, you try to build your team and look at some of the different avenues to try to build your team, the different scenarios enter that equation,” Gutekunst said. “So it’s something we’re constantly looking at, and over the last few days is when we came to that decision (to release Nelson).”
Had Nelson been playing on a more affordable contract, the Packers might have kept him for another season to see if the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers would invigorate his old friend. There was widespread speculation about whether the Packers would contact Nelson’s camp in hopes of restructuring his contract, but Gutekunst would not confirm or deny such conversations and said only that “there were a lot of discussions that went on.”
As for Rodgers himself, Gutekunst said he spoke to the quarterback after making the decision to release Nelson but declined to share the specifics of their conversation. Rodgers posted an adoring message to Nelson on Instagram late Tuesday night.
“Hard to find the right words today to express what 87 means to me,” Rodgers wrote. “No teammate exemplified what it means to be a packer quite like him. From living in GB full time, his incredible contributions to the city, state, and region, to his consistent, reliable play on the field. Definitely a sad day and the toughest part of this business. There will never be another quite like white lightning. #leader #brother #friend #baller #loyal #champion #legacy #intact #stillcanplayball #backshoulder #1stSBTD”
But the business of football is conducted sans emotion, and Nelson’s diminished production was jarring. Though he began the year with six receiving touchdowns in his first five games, Nelson did so without the deep routes and big gains that had become synonymous with his performance. He caught only four passes in excess of 20 yards in 2017 after having at least 19 such gains in four of the previous five seasons. His ranked 153rd in the National Football League in yards after the catch (2.5 yards per reception) and failed to reach 80 receiving yards in all 15 games he played.
Yet the Packers stood by Nelson as recently as the scouting combine in late Februrary, when Gutekunst told reporters he still considered Nelson an important player. He answered a question about Nelson and fellow wideout Randall Cobb by saying it’s important to avoid letting good players “walk out the door.”
“He’s been a great player here,” Gutekunst said at the combine. “He’s still a very strong contributor for us. You saw early in the year the impact he had in those games. Yeah, he’s still a really good player in my eyes.”
In hindsight, Gutekunst’s comments seem to be bathed more in courtesy and political correctness than reality. Nelson had been a cornerstone of the franchise for the better part of a decade until his body started to decline, and when the Packers saw an opportunity to acquire Graham — a player who is younger, more athletic and has a better chance of contributing next season — Gutekunst wasted little time parting ways with one of the locker room’s most popular members.
When asked if he noticed deterioration in Nelson’s physical abilities, Gutekunst toed the line while still answering in the affirmative.
“I think it’s only natural as players get older you see some physical decline,” Gutekunst said. “But I think like I said before, Jordy is still a very, very good player and he’ll contribute for someone next year.
“Nothing changed. It think Jordy is a really good player, and you certainly don’t want to let him walk out the door. But this is a big puzzle, and there’s kind of limitations. You can’t keep everybody. As we went through this, we thought this was in our best interest. The best interest for our team moving forward.”
With his career in Green Bay over, Nelson takes his place among the all-time great receivers in franchise history. Drafted by Thompson with the 36th overall pick in 2008, Nelson blossomed into the preferred target for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and in doing so became a mainstay in the team’s record books. A sample of his Packers accomplishments:
» No. 3 in franchise history in receptions with 550
» No. 5 in receiving yards with 7,848
» No. 2 in touchdown receptions with 69
» No. 3 in 100-yard games with 25
» The only player in franchise history to have three seasons with 13 or more touchdown receptions (2011, ’14, ’16)
» The only player in franchise history to be named the league’s Comeback Player of the Year after catching 97 passes for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2016 following a yearlong recovery from a torn ACL
On a broader scale, Nelson was named second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press and was selected to the Pro Bowl for his tremendous 2014 season in which he set career highs in receptions (98) and receiving yards (1,519), with the latter setting a franchise record as well. He caught nine passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XLV as the Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers for their only championship of the 21st century.
“I think there was a number of things that made Jordy unique,” Gutekunst said. “I think one of the things that always stood out about Jordy to me was his preparation, his sacrifice to the game and to make himself prepared not only physically, but mentally. He had excellent eye-hand coordination, his ability to find the ball, track it and get in position to make tough catches, even when he was covered, I think was very impressive. Playing big at big moments, you know, I think he always came through for us. I thought in scramble plays I thought his ability to kind of — his intuition with Aaron and finding open spots and getting open was always very impressive.”
Had Gutekunst opted to keep Nelson, who reportedly wants to continue his career and will visit Wednesday with the Oakland Raiders, Cobb was the other potential cap casualty. At 27, Cobb is entering the final year of a four-year, $40 million extension signed after his tremendous 2014 season. He is due $8.6 million in base salary for 2018 and carries a cap hit of $12.7 million.
While Nelson’s regression seemed to happen all at once, Cobb has turned in underwhelming performances each of the last two seasons. He caught 60 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns in 2016 — his lowest numbers in a full season since 2013 — and saw only a marginal uptick last season, when he caught 66 passes for 653 yards and four scores.
With his diminutive build (5-10, 195 pounds) and unwavering toughness, Cobb has absorbed significant punishment in seven season with the Packers. He is not as explosive as he once was, especially when it comes to top-end speed, and at times he struggled to create separation from defenders.
But in the end he is younger, quicker and more versatile than the player Nelson had become.
“Randall is one of our good players,” Gutekunst said, “and we expect him to be.”