Arguably the NFL’s top deep receiving threat will be taking the field for Sunday’s 49ers-Packers game on FOX (4:25 p.m. ET kickoff).
Article continues below ...
And it isn’t Randy Moss.
Yes, Moss once held the distinction. But having spent last season out of football after a catastrophic 2010 campaign, there are no guarantees Moss, 35, will be able to stake claim to that title again with the 49ers.
Green Bay has no such concerns about Jordy Nelson.
According to STATS LLC, only four receivers since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 have scored 15-plus touchdowns and averaged at least 18.6 yards a reception in a single season. Jerry Rice and Mark Clayton were two of them. Moss accomplished the feat in 1998 and 2000.
Nelson became the fourth in 2011.
Not only did he enjoy a career year with 68 catches for 1,263 yards, but Nelson, 27, is only scratching the surface of what he may be able to accomplish as he gains more experience.
"He’s going to be one of the best receivers in the game," said Donald Driver, the most prolific wideout in Packers history. "I think a lot of people probably didn’t respect him. Now they do."
The 49ers must respect Nelson or suffer the consequences. He has become quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ top target because of the practice time spent together building chemistry.
"I try to do as much communicating with him as possible getting to know what he wants and how he wants things done so we can be on the same page," Nelson told FOXSports.com. "It’s a process that has obviously been going on for five years now. We were able to click last year."
As good as the Packers were offensively in 2011, the 49ers were just as stout on defense. A strong pass rush was led by outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who led all rookies with 14 sacks. San Francisco also was far better defending the pass in the second half of last season.
Still, getting beat on the long ball can happen with a style as physical as the 49ers’. The 12 passes of 40-plus yards allowed in 2011 was tied for the league’s third-highest total.
The responsibility of keeping Nelson in check will fall largely upon starting cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. Rogers had a breakthrough 2011 with a career-high six interceptions. The same goes for Brown, who finally emerged as a full-time starter after spending his first four NFL seasons primarily as a backup.
"They both have their own style," Nelson said. "Tarell I think plays on top a little bit more and may be a little bit more conservative than Carlos. They’re both aggressive. They both can tackle.
"That’s one thing about the whole defense. They’re very physical. That’s just something we’ll have to deal with."
When the NFL’s current generation of wide receivers were youngsters learning the position, Moss was the one most emulated and respected. That wasn’t the case with Nelson. He didn’t begin playing wideout until his sophomore season at Kansas State after being converted from safety.
Nelson has respect for Moss but said the receivers he studies most are the veterans in Green Bay’s locker room — Driver, Greg Jennings and James Jones.
"I never played receiver growing up, so I never watched any of them," Nelson said. "I watch the game (now,) but there’s not a certain guy I pick to study for a whole summer or anything. I do get little things. But I think we coach each other enough in this locker room."