GREEN BAY—It was just the first day of training camp, but it was the kind of play Packers fans can expect to see over and over again for years to come, now that Jordy Nelson has signed a multi-year contract extension.
Bracketed in coverage by Sam Shields in front and Micah Hyde over the top, Nelson reached up along the sideline, snared a pinpoint throw from quarterback Aaron Rodgers – who had been rolling to his left, no less – and toe-tapped in bounds for a completion that left Hyde simply chuckling and shaking his head.
“You just laugh and go on to the next play,” said Hyde, who began camp where he was in the spring, as a safety with the No. 1 defense.
The completion showcased Rodgers’ deadly accuracy but also the connection and trust Rodgers and Nelson have developed over the previous six seasons. With Nelson once again in the fold long term, the connection might only grow more dangerous.
“I think he’s got the best instincts in any receiver I’ve ever played with,” Rodgers said. “He has incredible reactions, second and third reactions. He knows where he needs to get to, what spot on the field, to make the proper play.”
Rodgers joked that with his new contract, Nelson can now “buy all the land in Kansas,” referring to the receiver’s home state, but in all seriousness the former farm kid couldn’t have had a better first day of 2014.
Just a few snaps after the eye-catching sideline grab, Nelson leaped to snag a bullet from Rodgers on a crossing route. Then later, Nelson beat cornerback Antonio Dennard deep for a long touchdown pass from Rodgers.
All this was going on amidst high-fives and hugs from teammates as they heard of Nelson’s news. Nelson told the receivers and quarterbacks before practice, and then Rodgers gave a brief congratulatory message in the huddle right before one play to get the buzz going, according to running back Eddie Lacy.
“It’s the first day of camp, so you have all the energy you’re able to have,” said Nelson, who was entering the final year of a contract extension he signed back in 2011. “It was fun. I was excited to get it done. I think other guys were excited for me as well, which is always fun to see. You’re a little more at ease, knowing you don’t have to worry about anything and you can just go play football.”
With Nelson’s deal done, next up for a new one could be fellow receiver Randall Cobb, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Five years younger than Nelson, Cobb hasn’t put up the 1,000-yard or double-digit touchdown seasons that his teammate has, but he was on pace to do so last season before breaking his leg and missing 10 games.
“I’d love for Randall to be next,” Rodgers said. “He’s a guy, again, who’s done it the right way.”
All looked right with the first-team defense on day one with Clay Matthews back on the field. While rehabbing his twice-broken thumb, Matthews missed all of OTAs and minicamp in the spring.
He’s still wearing some protection on his thumb but nothing like the bulky club-case he tried to play with last season before the second break.
“I can’t really put a percentage on it,” Matthews said of the thumb’s overall health. “I’d say it’s strong, quite strong. It was a good step in the right direction for a first day. I’m happy with the reps I took, the movements I made with it. There will be some obstacles to overcome.”
Matthews’ presence meant he and Julius Peppers were on the field together for the first time, rushing the passer from opposite edges. Peppers played from both a stand-up position and a three-point stance, while Matthews at times moved around and attacked from outside or inside.
“It’s a dream come true,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “You always hope for guys like that in front of you. We haven’t had that type of tandem over the years here.”
The news wasn’t all good on defense, though. Pass rushers Nick Perry (foot, knee) and Mike Neal (core) both missed practice with injuries, as did linemen Letroy Guion (hamstring) and Jerel Worthy (lower back).
Head Coach Mike McCarthy said Perry and Neal were “close” to passing their physicals, but Worthy might “be some time.”
The only offensive player held out of practice entirely was rookie receiver Jeff Janis (illness), though guard T.J. Lang (shoulder) participated in only a few drills.
Jack-of-all-trades lineman Don Barclay took most of Lang’s snaps at right guard with the No. 1 offense, and Barclay gave left guard Josh Sitton an occasional breather as well.
A starter at right tackle the past season and a half, Barclay is now behind Bryan Bulaga at that spot but is developing into a most valuable sixth man up front.
“He plays any position,” McCarthy said. “He’s played some center. If he had to, he could go out and play left tackle. He’s a tough guy, technical.
“Don’s a guy you don’t want to compete against, because he’s going to be there each and every day, and he’s exactly what you want.”