Say this about Jordy Nelson: He improved year after year as much as anyone you’re ever going to see in the NFL.
After his rookie season in 2008 until he blew out his right ACL at age 30 in 2015, he was better each season than the one before. Not going by numbers, but by the eyeball test, watching him play week after week, year after year.
Not sure I’ve seen any other Packers player improve that much, that consistently, since I started covering the team in 1993.
Nelson, cut by the Packers this week in a salary-cap saving move, leaves as the franchise’s single-season leader in receiving yards (1,519 in 2016), No. 2 in career touchdown receptions (69), No. 3 in career receptions (550) and No. 5 in career receiving yards (7,848).
He also went to one Pro Bowl and was named second-team All-Pro (both in 2014).
That’s a standout career for any team. But where does it rank for one of the most storied franchises in professional sports in this country?
I contacted several sources who have deep knowledge of the Packers' history and personnel, and best as I can tell, Nelson probably deserves to rank fifth among receivers in team history, behind, in order, Don Hutson, James Lofton, Sterling Sharpe and Billy Howton.
Nelson just noses out former teammate Greg Jennings, and also finishes just ahead of 1960s standouts Carroll Dale, Boyd Dowler and Max McGee, as well as another former teammate, Donald Driver.
It’s a difficult call for that No. 5 spot and there’s plenty of room for reasonable people to disagree. But that’s the call. Here’s a thumbnail look at the top five, with the years he played for the Packers in parenthesis:
1. Don Hutson (1935-44): The NFL’s first great receiver, changed the game with his big-play talent in an era when receivers were basically tight ends who usually lined up close to the tackle. Some of his stats were the NFL’s equivalent of Babe Ruth.
Hutson helped the Packers win three NFL championships and was twice named the league’s MVP. When he retired, his 99 touchdown receptions were nearly triple the No. 2 on the list (Johnny Blood, 37), as were his receptions (488 to Jim Benton’s 190). He held the touchdown record for 44 years and the receptions record for 26.
2. James Lofton (1978-86): Like Hutson, he’s a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Ranks No. 2 on the franchise list for receiving yards (9,656) and averaged 18.2 yards per catch. He was a game changer at a time when NFL rules were in the early stages of a huge shift toward favoring the passing game.
3. Sterling Sharpe (1988-94): Was on his way to the Hall of Fame until a neck injury prematurely ended his career. Still has the two most prolific receiving seasons in team history (112 catches in 1993 and 108 in ’94). Despite playing only seven seasons, he ranks second in team history in receptions (595) and third in yards (8,134).
4. Billy Howton (1952-58): Not nearly as well known as the others on this list, probably because the Packers never finished above .500 in his seven years with the team. He went on to play with Cleveland and Dallas through 1963, and when he retired he was the NFL’s all-time leader (breaking Hutson’s records) in receptions (503) and receiving yards (8,459). Still ranks No. 10 in team history in touchdown receptions, and averaged 18.4 yards a catch with the Packers.
Howton will never get into the Hall of Fame, but Raymond Berry, one of the NFL’s all-time great receivers and a head coach in the league for six years, told Packers historian Cliff Christl that Howton deserves serious consideration.
“I’ll tell you a guy who is overlooked is Billy Howton when he played with the Packers,” Berry said in 2009. “He knew what he was doing to maneuver and fake to get open. He would be effective going inside, going outside, effective going deep. He was an extremely dangerous receiver and had great technique. He wasn’t just consistent over a period of years. You don’t pile up the numbers he piled up.”
5. Jordy Nelson: Picking the No. 5 was a hard call, in part because comparing receivers from different eras is nearly impossible. The rules and game are so different today than in the 1960s, and receivers’ stats have continually inflated over the past 30 or so years as the rules have gradually evolved to favor the passing game.
So, how do you possibly rate Dowler, Dale and McGee, who played when the NFL still was a running game, with Nelson and Jennings? You can’t look only at sheer volume of receptions and accumulation of yards. You also have to look at how they compared to players of their era and their impact on games.
Dowler (1959-69) is in the hunt for the No. 5 spot because he was named one of the two flankers on the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1960s. He was a huge target (6-feet-5) and still ranks No. 6 in team history in receptions (488) and receiving yards (6,918), plus averaged 15.4 yards a reception.
Dale (1965-72) was a big-play threat who has the highest average per catch (19.7 yards) of the top 130 players with the most receptions in team history. He ranks No. 11 in Packers history in receiving yards (5,422).
McGee (1954, ’57-67) was one of the key playmakers for Vince Lombardi’s teams in the early ‘60s and went to the Pro Bowl in 1961. Though he lost two years early in his career to service in the U.S. Air Force, he still ranks No. 7 in franchise history in touchdown receptions (50) and ninth in receiving yards (6,346), and he averaged 18.4 yards a catch.
All three were talented athletes who helped the Packers win championships.
But in the end, it’s hard not to put Nelson and Jennings just ahead of them. Nelson and Jennings were just too talented and produced too much not to.
So why Nelson ahead of Jennings? This was the closest of calls, essentially a coin flip. I went into this inclined to go with Nelson if I had to make the call, and two of the three experts I consulted picked him by the smallest of margins.
Jennings (2006-12) was a good player from the get-go and the team’s best receiver from 2007 through 2010. In ’11, Nelson closed the gap and maybe even surpassed him. Jennings went to two Pro Bowls and was a guy defenses had to account for.
He ranks sixth in team history in touchdown catches (53) and eighth in yards (6,537), and in an era when yards per catch have dwindled, his 15.4-yard average is better than Nelson’s (14.3 yards) and Driver’s (13.6 yards).
But Nelson gets the edge in large part because he kept getting better. By the time Jennings hit his late 20s he was in decline, probably because of an accumulation of injuries. Nelson, on the other hand, kept improving and producing until age 30 and that fateful day in Pittsburgh in August 2015 when his ACL gave out on a non-contact play. He even came back the next season to lead the league in touchdown receptions (14) and catch the second-most passes in his career (97) even though he’d lost speed.
So it’s Nelson by a nose.
If you’re wondering why Driver doesn’t make it ahead of them even though he’s the franchise leader in receptions (743) and yards (10,137), it’s about impact on the game.
Driver had a long (1999-2012), wonderful career and retired as one of the all-time Packers fans favorites. We should all be as good at our jobs as he was at his.
But he didn’t quite impact games like the others on this list did. He’s the only primarily slot receiver of the group, and that’s a position in this league that’s geared toward accumulating shorter catches while often matched against No. 3 cover men. Only in the last few years have defenses been treating nickel cornerback like a starting position.
Give rookie general manager Brian Gutekunst credit for making the hard decision this week to part with Nelson. It’s the kind of unsentimental decision that GMs have to make routinely if they’re going to continually improve their teams.
But give him credit too for holding an evening news conference to give Nelson a proper sendoff. The Packers surely owed Nelson that.