GREEN BAY – To appreciate just how much the Green Bay Packers’ cup runneth over at wide receiver last season, to understand just how blessed they were to have five wide receivers – yes, even an aging, on-the-verge-of-retirement Donald Driver – who to varying degrees were of starting caliber, no deep reading of the stat sheet is necessary.
Greg Jennings had averaged 69 receptions for 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns over the previous five seasons. In 2012, he played in just eight games, started only five, and set career lows in receptions (36) and receiving yards (366). Thanks to a torn lower abdominal muscle that could be traced to the regular-season opener, and eventually required surgery in late October.
Jennings wound up playing only 531 snaps in 10 games (including two playoff games, where 96 of his snaps were played). Compare that to the 885 snaps he played in 2008, the 917 he played in 2009, the 1,097 he played in 2010 and the 713 he played in 2011, and one would expect the Packers’ passing numbers to have taken a significant dip.
Instead, quarterback Aaron Rodgers still threw for 4,295 yards (third-most of his career), still tossed 39 touchdown passes (second only to the 45 he threw in 2011), still registered a 108.0 passer rating (second-highest of his career) and still completed 67.2 percent of his throws (only his 68.3 percentage in 2011 was better).
Jennings’ dip in production certainly factored into Randall Cobb’s spike in production (80 receptions, 954 yards, eight TDs), and certainly James Jones’ unexpected career year – he set career bests in receptions (64), receiving yards (784) and touchdown catches (an NFL-high 14) – kept the Packers’ air production up.
But what was even more indicative of the team’s depth was the fact that Jordy Nelson missed four full games and parts of two others with a hamstring injury, experienced a precipitous drop in his productivity and wasn’t the game-breaking deep-ball threat he’d been the year before – and the Packers still ranked ninth in passing yards, second in passing touchdowns and first in team passer rating.
Now, while Cobb’s ongoing ascent and Jones’ continued consistency and productivity will also be vital to a passing attack that no longer has Jennings (now with the rival Minnesota Vikings) or Driver (retired) and has young, unproven commodities at the shallow end of the depth chart, Nelson returning to his 2011 form would tilt the field in the Packers' favor again, despite Jennings' departure.
“I love our weapons,” Rodgers said at the end of organized team activity practices. “We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things for you. We have two of the top outside receivers in the league in Jordy and James. Look at the catches James made last year – incredible. Look at the production Jordy’s had here for us, his ability to make second-reaction plays, his ability to go up and get the ball, his ability to hardly ever – other than last year in Minnesota – get caught from behind. Those are talented, talented football players. And then Randall in the slot, I think he’s really refined his craft and become a very good slot receiver, and I think the best is yet to come with him.”
The same could be said for the 28-year-old Nelson, who came on late in the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV-winning season of 2010, then had one of the most efficient and impressive seasons in Packers history in 2011. Not only did he put up huge numbers – 68 receptions for 1,263 yards (an 18.6-yard average) and 15 touchdowns – but he did it while only having been targeted only 93 times (a 73.1 percent reception percentage) according to ProFootballFocus.com. Nelson only dropped three passes that season.
Last season, though, a hamstring injury that first flared up in the days leading up to an Oct. 28 victory over Jacksonville plagued him for the rest of the year. He missed games against Detroit on Dec. 9, Chicago on Dec. 16 and Tennessee on Dec. 23, then had three catches for 87 yards – but was caught from behind, as Rodgers gleefully pointed out – against Minnesota in the regular-season finale.
Nelson finished the year having played 670 snaps (including playoffs) and caught only 49 passes for 745 yards (15.2-yard average) and seven TDs – respectable numbers but not good enough for him.
“Everybody is going to talk about us missing Donald and Greg – which we will. It’ll be an adjustment,” Nelson said. “But we know we have an opportunity to step up, we believe in what we can do.”
The Packers certainly know what Nelson can do. The three-year contract extension he signed in October 2011 still looks like an incredible bargain, with Nelson under contract for two more seasons at bargain rates of $2.7 million this year and $2.55 million in 2014.
Asked how motivated he is this year by what he dealt with last season, Nelson replied, “To me, it’s stuff I can’t control. I mean, it’s something to be motivated, but I just have to hope I stay healthy. I trained the same way I had my whole life. And last season, for some reason, the hamstrings weren’t taking it. For whatever reason. It’s just all about staying healthy. A lot of people think it’s about big games, but if you stay healthy and play 16 games, you’re going to have a good season no matter what. That’s the key. So hopefully I’ll be blessed enough to stay on the field.”
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