Why the Packers released Jordy Nelson after 10 seasons in Green Bay

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Jordy Nelson emerged as Aaron Rodgers’ top target in a decade of playing with the Packers. Now, he’ll have to build a connection with a new quarterback after Green Bay released its longest-tenured wide receiver Tuesday, the team announced.

“We cannot thank Jordy enough for all that he has given the Green Bay Packers and our community for the past 10 years,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said in a release. “He has been an exemplary professional and teammate and greatly contributed to our success. Jordy will always be a member of the Packers family and we look forward to his eventual induction into the Packers Hall of Fame. We wish Jordy, his wife Emily, and the rest of their family all the best.”

Nelson broke into the league in 2008 as a second-round pick of the Packers, but needed time to develop into one of the NFL’s most proficient deep threats. He eclipsed the 1,200-yard mark in four seasons between 2011 and 2016 to help establish Green Bay as an offensive powerhouse. That earned him a four-year, $39 million contract extension in 2014 — a deal he ultimately couldn’t live up to as age and injury eroded his impact on the game.

Why did the Packers cut Nelson?

Nelson has been an integral piece of the Packers’ offense since emerging as a starter in 2011. He headed up a receiving corps that included playmakers like Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and Jermichael Finley as Green Bay stretched its postseason streak to eight seasons from 2009 to 2016. He even earned NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors after returning from a torn ACL to lead the league with 14 touchdown catches in 2016.

But Nelson’s 2017 was a marked decline from his typically lofty standards. Despite playing in 15 games, he managed just 53 receptions and 483 yards. His 9.1 yards per catch were the lowest of his career by a significant margin. The deep threat who had burned defenses in the past was reduced to a role as a possession receiver.

The Packers made an unofficial torch passing by signing Davante Adams to a four-year, $58 million extension back in December. That made Nelson’s $12.5 million cap hit for 2018 untenable — especially given his recent production. Cutting Nelson, despite his decade of loyal service, saves the franchise more than $10 million in cap room.

His release also coincided with news that the team agreed to a three-year deal with tight end Jimmy Graham, that will likely eat the space saved by Nelson’s release.

Where does Nelson go from here?

A prove-it year is on the way for Nelson in 2018 — if he decides to play at all. He’ll be 33 years old next fall and has 149 games of service under his belt. After earning nearly $46 million in his NFL career, he may decide to call it a career rather than relocate.

But he may be welcomed back to Green Bay, just at a significant discount. Nelson is no longer a $12 million player, but he is a valuable veteran presence with a strong relationship to Rodgers. Re-signing him at a market value contract could be Gutekunst’s next move — and one that would appease a fanbase that values loyalty enough to keep an NFL franchise in a town of 105,000.

Otherwise, he may struggle to find suitors on the open market. The 2018 free agent class is talented but flawed at wideout with risky signings like Sammy Watkins, Terrelle Pryor, and Josh Gordon falling in behind top option Jarvis Landry in the desirability rankings. Nelson would be a heady addition if healthy, but also a risky one. Though he was able to overcome a torn ACL and operate at an All-Pro level, outmaneuvering the slow march of time will be even tougher.