GREEN BAY, Wis. — Jordy Nelson was third in the NFL last season in receiving touchdowns and ninth in the league in receiving yards, and yet the Green Bay Packers’ talented wide receiver will continue playing special teams this season.
Nelson was part of Green Bay’s kickoff coverage and kickoff return units throughout most of last season, but after a breakout year and signing a new contract, it seemed likely that coach Mike McCarthy would find a less impactful player to take over that sometimes-dangerous role.
Special teams is the area where the Packers lost two of their young, emerging offensive players to season-ending knee injuries last season. Rookie running back Alex Green tore his ACL while blocking on a kick return, and it has taken nine months for him to get back on the field. Tight end Andrew Quarless suffered a gruesome knee injury on kickoff coverage, one that still has him out of action and likely will land him on the regular-season Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
Yet despite being Green Bay’s leading receiver last season in every statistical category, Nelson was back with the kickoff return unit as a blocker in front of Randall Cobb during training camp practice Friday.
“Jordy is a very skilled player in a number of our special team units,” McCarthy said after practice. “With that, he’ll always be part of it.”
Nelson, whose 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame makes him a little more sturdy than the average receiver, seems willing to continue on special teams even though it isn’t his favorite thing to do.
“I don’t think anyone will say they enjoy special teams as much as they do offense or defense,” Nelson told FOXSportsWisconsin.com. “Special teams are mainly blocking, so I’d rather be on offense catching balls.”
The second-string kickoff return group had three players rotating in the spot Nelson occupied with the first-team unit. Wide receiver Tori Gurley — who was on the Packers’ practice squad last season — and undrafted rookie running backs Marc Tyler and Du’ane Bennett each had repetitions there as special teams could ultimately decide if any of them make the final 53-man roster.
But if Nelson performs better there than those three, he’ll continue in the same role.
“Philosophically, I believe starters should or could play special teams,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think there’s an absolute as far starters play or don’t play. I don’t believe in that theory. So (we’ll do) what’s best for our special teams.”
If Gurley, Tyler, Bennett or any other player who’s given a chance there proves capable of handling the blocking responsibilities in front of Cobb, Nelson could be lifted from that spot.
“Jordy Nelson’s responsibility on special teams will really come down to how the rest of the team unfolds,” McCarthy said. “Those types of decisions, as far as how much responsibility your starters play on special teams, to me, it really factors in the other people around them.”
Nelson watched last season as the seasons of Quarless and Green were lost on special teams, but he isn’t worrying too much about the possibility the same thing could happen to him.
“That’s part of the game,” Nelson said. “The same thing can happen on offense. It’s just unfortunate (if it happens). It’s a numbers game. You have to pitch in where you can. We’ve got Greg (Jennings) and Drive (Donald Driver) already ahead of me who don’t play special teams, so you have to help out where needed.
“The part I do (on special teams) is nothing too strenuous, so I’m fine with it.”
In regard to the wide receivers who are ahead of him on the depth chart, Driver technically started 15 games last season to Nelson’s nine starts, but that wasn’t reflective of their contributions on the field. According to statistics from ProFootballFocus.com, Nelson played 136 more snaps than Driver during the 2011 season.
It is Nelson’s total number of snaps which could be another factor in how much McCarthy uses him on special teams.
“You need to be very smart about reps,” McCarthy said. “I’m not really interested in seeing 11 guys play 1,000 reps. It’s important over the course of the season that you try to spread out your opportunities because it not only develops the individual but it develops your football team.”
Nelson made three tackles on special teams last season and did not have any penalties or missed tackles.