Dougherty: Why releasing Jordy Nelson still right move for Green Bay Packers
You might have seen that Jordy Nelson had six catches for 173 yards against the Miami Dolphins a couple weeks ago.
Or that last Sunday he caught a touchdown pass and two-point conversion in the Oakland Raiders’ first win of the season, over Cleveland.
That must mean that Green Bay Packers rookie general manager Brian Gutekunst blew it during the offseason when he cut one of the franchise’s more accomplished players of the past 20 years, right?
Despite Nelson’s good start in 2018, it was time for the Packers to move on from an aging player (33 years old) who would have kept the promising Geronimo Allison on the sidelines. It’s the natural cycle of the NFL that GMs have to accept if their teams are to improve, and was equally true early in Nelson’s career, too. More on that later.
Gutekunst’s decision to move on from Nelson last March of course was unpopular among much of the Packers’ fan base. Nelson and Donald Driver were as beloved players as the franchise has produced in the last decade.
But it also meant parting with a decorated and productive receiver who even in decline was a favored target of Aaron Rodgers’. The two had developed an uncommon chemistry and over the years made an art form of the back-shoulder throw and improvised red-zone touchdown pass.
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Rodgers never explicitly criticized the move publicly but hinted at his feelings in May when he dismissed the possibility of signing Dez Bryant by saying, “I don’t know why you’d cut Jordy and bring in Dez.”
Nelson, likewise, didn’t want to leave the Packers and appeared willing to take a substantial pay cut but never got the chance. Gutekunst had decided it was time to move on.
"The hurt part was, to be honest, the unwillingness to try to make it work," Nelson told ESPN Wisconsin Radio last spring.
Just two days after the Packers cut Nelson last March, he signed a two-year deal worth $14.2 million with Oakland. And the Raiders have played him plenty. He has taken part in 85 percent of their offensive snaps, is averaging 17.1 yards on 16 receptions and is playing good football even with his speed diminishing.
But Allison is off to a promising start himself, his three drops last Sunday against Buffalo notwithstanding. Allison actually has more catches (19) than Nelson (16), and like Nelson has two touchdowns. His average per catch is lower but still is a robust 15.2 yards.
A scout from one of Oakland’s rivals in the AFC West who has watched all the Raiders’ game on video and scouted the Packers as well said that straight up for the 2018 season, he’d take Nelson over Allison, especially if he were the Packers because of Nelson’s chemistry with Rodgers.
“If I’m just team B with no Aaron Rodgers I’d probably still go with Jordy if money’s the same, all those things the same,” the scout said. “Geronimo has done a really nice job, but I’m kind of a Jordy Nelson fan, I think he’s a good football player.”
It’s also likely that Rodgers has missed Nelson in at least one specific area. The Packers’ 41.7 percent touchdown rate in the red zone through four games ranks No. 28 in the league. That’s abysmal for a team with an elite quarterback.
However, a couple important points here.
One, Nelson is being paid $7.4 million this season by the Raiders, whereas Allison is making only $630,000. If you’re looking at bang for the buck, Allison is the better deal.
The Packers used the savings from Nelson to sign tight end Jimmy Graham.
“Apples to apples I’d go with Jordy,” the scout said, “but if money and some other things come into play, you have to balance those out, I’d go with Geronimo.”
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More importantly, by the end of the season, there’s a real chance circumstances will have changed. We can look to Nelson’s breakthrough season, 2010, for what might happen.
That year, Driver at age 35 still was in the top three of the Packers’ receivers rotation. But by the end of the season Nelson (age 25) was the better player.
One source I’ve spoken with over the years still thinks Driver’s ankle injury in the Super Bowl helped the Packers win, because it forced them to play Nelson in his place. Nelson, you might remember, had nine catches for 140 yards (15.6-yard average) and a touchdown in that game.
Allison, 24, has improved as much as any player on the Packers’ roster this year and has had a lock on the No. 3 receiving job since early in the preseason. He has flashed skills digging out low throws and making extended catches along the sidelines. He has had a couple big third-down conversions. And he got behind Washington’s defense for a 64-yard touchdown a couple weeks ago.
Yes, he also had the three drops against Buffalo. That proved costly because on the easiest of them he took a hit that knocked him out of the game with a concussion that leaves his status in doubt for this Sunday’s game at Detroit.
But he’s got more spring in his legs than Nelson and probably will be better in January than he is now. That will not be the case with Nelson. If last season is any indication, he very well might have declined by the time the playoffs roll around.
Rodgers also likes and trusts Allison, so that’s not an issue. It seemed like every time the quarterback talked to reporters during training camp, he brought up Allison’s professionalism unprompted.
As a new GM Gutekunst could have avoided the heat and justified keeping Nelson because of his chemistry with Rodgers and red-zone prowess. It’s not like Nelson can’t play anymore.
But if you want to get better in the NFL sometimes you have to cut the cord and give a promising younger player a chance. By January, the younger player in this case very well could be the better of the two.