Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers’ success in the 2014 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list. You can find the entire list here.
NOTE: This is not a list of the team’s 25 best players, but rather it’s a list of which players mean the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player’s position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
NO. 5 — JORDY NELSON, WIDE RECEIVER
AGE / EXPERIENCE
29 / Seventh NFL season
WHY HE’S NO. 5
Randall Cobb is a very important part of the Green Bay Packers offense, as his spot at No. 6 in this series indicates. However, Jordy Nelson ranks one spot higher because he has proven over a longer period of time to be a reliable target for Aaron Rodgers.
Nelson wasn’t a significant contributor for the Packers in his first three NFL seasons, posting what was then a career-high of 582 receiving yards in 2010 (his third year). Those numbers are what led to Nelson signing a three-year, $13 million contract extension in the early stages of the 2011 season. Oh, if only Nelson had waited another couple months. It was in the middle stages of that season that Nelson had a collection of breakout games, quickly making him look like a very underpaid player.
Injuries in 2012 slowed Nelson from being able to repeat his success of a year earlier, but last season, he was back and arguably better than ever. Nelson was 10th in the league in receiving yards with 1,314, a new career-high for him. Nelson also continued adding entries to his highlight-reel every time he had an opportunity for a back-shoulder catch. That play has perhaps defined Nelson as a player as much as anything he’s accomplished.
Nelson is No. 5 on this list because him being a consistent target for Rodgers is now more important than ever. There’s no Greg Jennings, no James Jones and likely no Jermichael Finley. That makes Nelson option 1A, which is obviously a very important role on a team whose quarterback is a former league MVP.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2014
By the time the 2014 regular season begins, Nelson might have a new contract in hand. But right now, he’s a 29-year-old wide receiver on a team that has let two soon-to-be 30-year-old wide receivers leave in free agency each of the past two offseasons. Nelson could be an unrestricted free agent next March if a deal isn’t reached beforehand. He might need to show general manager Ted Thompson that he brings something more valuable to the table at that age than Jennings or Jones did.
Expectations for Nelson are very high. That is always going to happen for a player who has more than 1,000 yards receiving in two of the past three seasons. The opportunities will certainly be there for Nelson to surpass all of his previous career-highs.
There might be more attention on him from opposing secondaries given that the Packers have fewer proven targets for Rodgers to throw to. Every team in the NFL is well aware of Nelson’s talent, so he will likely be the main receiver that cornerbacks focus on shutting down. Not that there’s any reason to believe he won’t, but Nelson will have to prove himself as a true No. 1 wide receiver who can have success even with many eyes on him.
WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM?
If Nelson suffers an injury, his absence will be very difficult for Green Bay to make up for. The depth that the Packers recently had at wide receiver has dwindled, and they will now be reliant on a trio of rookies. Perhaps Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis or Jeff Janis make an instant Year 1 impact, but none of them is capable at this point in their careers of replacing Nelson’s production.
There is already a lot on the plate of Jarrett Boykin, who’s made it all the way up to No. 3 on the receiver depth chart. Just two years ago, Boykin was released after only a few days with the Jacksonville Jaguars, so this has been a very quick rise for him. It would be Boykin, though, who would see even greater expectations if he had to step into a bigger role in the event that Nelson misses any time.