The Green Bay Packers again were among the NFL’s least active teams in free agency. Yet, with the draft still to come in four weeks, they already look like they could be the most improved team in the NFC North next season.
How could that be? After all, look at what their division rivals have done:
» The Chicago Bears were busy in the early days of free agency, reshaping their defense by signing inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman and defensive end Akiem Hicks. The Bears also signed right tackle Bobby Massie, meaning Kyle Long can shift back to guard. But they lost workhorse running back Matt Forte, who signed with the New York Jets, and tight end Martellus Bennett, who was dealt to the New England Patriots.
» The Minnesota Vikings fortified their offensive line by signing two free agents — guard Alex Boone and tackle Andre Smith — and will welcome back center John Sullivan and tackle Phil Loadholt from injury. They parted ways with disappointing receiver Mike Wallace.
» The Detroit Lions signed wide receiver Marvin Jones and safety Tavon Wilson, among others. But they lost star wide receiver Calvin Johnson to retirement.
So, of the four NFC North teams, which one will be welcoming the biggest difference-maker onto their roster who wasn’t there last season?
The difference-maker? No, it’s not newly signed tight end Jared Cook.
It’s Jordy Nelson.
If Nelson were a free agent, rather than a player returning from a season-long injury, he would rank as the best offseason acquisition of any team in the division.
Look at his 2014 credentials: Nelson earned Pro Bowl honors after finishing seventh in the NFL in catches (98), fourth in yards (1,519) and tied for second in touchdowns (13). He and Randall Cobb became the first teammates in NFL history to each have 90-plus receptions, 1,200-plus receiving yards and 12-plus TDs in the same season.
Clearly, Nelson ranks as a game-changing player, and his mere presence should make all those around him better.
“He’s been probably our top playmaker in our offensive perimeter group, and it’s important to get him back on the field and even more so off the field,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL owners meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. “He went to all the meetings and was involved, but I think for all players when you’re hurt, it’s really not the same as being out there with your teammates. He’s one of our leaders, so it will be great to get him back.”
There’s no way to overstate his importance to the Packers’ offense, and the potential boost that his return will bring. Remember how ineffective the Packers were at stretching the field last season, and how opposing defenses felt comfortable leaving only one safety deep?
In 2013, Nelson led the NFL with 19 catches of 20-plus yards.
So determined were the Packers to soldier on after Nelson was lost during the second preseason game and pretend that everything still was OK, it’s easy to forget how much his absence affected every aspect of the offense.
That’s why his return — assuming that, at age 31, he remains as effective as before — represents the best offseason “addition” of any NFC North team.
Asked how Nelson figured to be deployed and where he most likely would line up, McCarthy said: “He has the ability to play inside and outside. Jordy’s an excellent outside receiver, but when we put him inside it’s a whole different set of the problems. That’s really where he’s excelled and his numbers have gone through the roof. … It’s great to have that weapon back.”
McCarthy gave a glowing report on Nelson’s progress in his return from ACL surgery.
“I know he’s running. He’s ahead of schedule. He’s pushing it,” McCarthy said. “They have thresholds they try to cross each and every time and he’s never been behind on anything. He’s pushing it and he looks great."