Jordy Nelson never had a problem with the term “possession receiver,” but he knew it didn’t really fit him.
A possession receiver makes the key catches on third down to move the chains. It’s a valuable role, but the label also carries the connotation that a receiver lacks big-play ability, that he’s not a game-breaker.
In his last dozen games, Nelson has broken the mold.
“It’s a weird label that’s out there, but I think I’ve proven to be more diverse than whatever that means,” Nelson said.
Dating back to Week 16 of last season, when he caught an 80-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers against the New York Giants to help jump-start what is now a 12-game winning streak for the Packers, Nelson has become as dynamic a big-play threat as anyone in Green Bay’s high-octane offense.
He has 47 receptions for 862 yards and seven touchdowns over the 12 games, including last season’s playoff run. Compare that to Nelson’s numbers from his first 44 games in the NFL: 95 catches, 1,116 yards and six TDs.
The latter numbers are those of a possession receiver – roughly two catches per game, one score every seven contests or so and an average of 11.7 yards per catch.
The more recent stats scream playmaker – four catches per game, a score every other contest and 18.3 yards per catch – and they’re a major reason Nelson, in his fourth season, recently was rewarded with a long-term contract extension.
“He’s grown into his role here,” Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin said. “He’s gotten better every year, which you hope is a common theme in your program, that guys get better as their careers evolve. He’s certainly a poster boy for that.”
What stand out the most, of course, are the big plays. Coming into 2011 off his nine-catch, 140-yard day in the Super Bowl, Nelson caught an 84-yard touchdown pass in Week 2 at Carolina in the fourth quarter to seal a win. Then he hauled in a 50-yard TD against Denver in Week 4 and a career-best 93-yarder last week against St. Louis.
With three touchdowns of 80-plus yards in his career now, Nelson is suddenly tied for second in franchise history in that category. Scoring those three long TDs in a span of eight regular-season games makes him, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the first player since the 1970 league merger to have three 80-plus yard TD receptions in that short a time.
The reasons, in addition to the natural career development of a high second-round draft pick, are numerous.
Philbin believes it’s partly “right place, right time, right coverage, right play-call,” and Nelson has taken advantage of those situations. A good example was last week’s 93-yard TD, when the Rams blitzed their free safety for the first time all game with the Packers backed up inside their own 10.
Nelson’s deceptive speed also is a factor. Edgar Bennett, Nelson’s position coach, believes Nelson’s speed is underestimated by opponents, a sentiment Rodgers has expressed in the past, as well.
“I think it’s always been that way, just based on being a longer strider,” Nelson said. “I don’t think I’m getting any faster or anything. It’s just being more precise with my routes, trying to be quicker in and out of breaks, probably.”
Nelson also has put in the work developing a trust with Rodgers as a guy he can count on when the offense wants to take a shot down the field. So-called “shot plays” require the coaching staff to be confident in the call and the quarterback to be confident in his first read.
“It’s one of those things – once you make a couple of big plays, then it’s a thing that keeps going,” Nelson said. “But once you don’t, someone else is getting that opportunity. We say it all the time, you have to make the most of your opportunities, and I’ve been able to do that this year.”
Bennett believes it’s not just during the games that Nelson has earned that trust from Rodgers. It’s been building over the course of four seasons on the practice field, even though Nelson’s longest career reception prior to last year’s Giants game was 51 yards and his longest TD was just 33 yards.
“I think the more you establish yourself in practice, you practice a certain way, that builds a foundation and builds confidence,” Bennett said. “Our QBs know if they put that ball up there he’s going to attack the football and make a play.”
Nelson is by no means a finished product. His Super Bowl performance might have been even better if not for a couple of dropped passes, and he had his first drop of 2011 last week on a short third-down throw. Still, his 20.7-yard average per catch this season (20 catches, 413 yards, four TDs) ranks second in the league this season among receivers with at least 15 receptions.
Having not played receiver in high school and playing the position only three seasons in college at Kansas State, Nelson admits he was still learning a lot of basics and tricks of the trade when he first entered the NFL. So the current explosion of his career at this stage may have simply been a function of untapped potential.
The Packers can only hope so.
“It’s all about being on the same page, the same landmarks, and Aaron has expectations of me to get open,” Nelson said. “He’s seen it a couple of times, so we just have to continue to do it.” Additional coverage - Oct. 20