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The Jordy Nelson Cascade: Will the receiver’s return really be the spark the Packers need?

APC’s Paul Noonan breaks down the impact of Nelson’s absence on the Packers in 2015 and what to expect from him and the offense as a whole this coming season.

NFL: Green Bay Packers-Training Camp Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

It is often a good idea to be honest and upfront about the mistakes you make. Doing so helps you learn about where you went wrong, and serves as a helpful reminder that life can humble you at any given moment. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more wrong than I was in this piece from last season, and taking a critical eye to my own work has me more worried than most people about the state of the offense this season.

I agree that there is reason for optimism as Nelson is back, by all accounts his recovery went well, (except for the recent tweak of his “healthy” knee) and when healthy, he is one of the league’s five best receivers. My problem isn’t so much with Nelson himself, as it is the structure of the wide receiver position on the Packers. This is a team with few real, significant vulnerabilities, but the wide receiver position remains a big one.

1. Injuries Happen

It's clear that the biggest risk factor for injury is previous injury. How big? Turns out the answer is "very." - Russell Carleton, Baseball Prospectus, on pitchers

There was a time, not that long ago, when the Packers were perpetually snake bitten by injuries, frequently dominating stats like Adjusted Games Lost. Football is a dangerous game and players getting hurt is the rule, not the exception. Most analysts hypothesize that injuries are basically random and will regress to the mean, but there have been a few teams including that Packers that seemed to produce an actual negative trend. Some hypothesized that Ted Thompson’s talent for picking up useful waiver-wire fodder might be the cause, as teams were less likely to keep talented, but injury-riddled players leaving them available to the savvy GM. Some criticized the Green Bay training staff. Some criticized the weather. It’s also possible it was just one of those random things that appears to be a trend, and it’s worth pointing out that the Packers have been much healthier of late.

In the quote above, Carleton is talking about baseball pitchers exclusively, and there’s not really any evidence that injured NFL players are any more likely to be re-injured, but there is also a lot of noise in the data of NFL injuries just because of the sheer number of them. There is, as far as I can tell, no really great data on receivers returning from ACL injuries. For every Kenny Britt, who really hasn’t been the same, there’s a Wes Welker, who recovered just fine, and very few receivers will be a good comparison for Nelson in terms of age and talent. Jerry Rice tore his ACL at the age of 35 in 1997 (at the hands of Warren Sapp) and recovered to have several successful seasons, but using Jerry Rice as an example for anything is foolish, and I mention it just to point out how amazing Jerry Rice was.

That said, I suspect that suffering a severe soft-tissue injury does make you more likely to suffer another injury. It weakens the joint, recovery almost certainly changes your gait in subtle ways, and it takes many people time to regain confidence in the injured appendage. Nelson is also 31, and 31-year-olds get injured more than 29-year-olds. As it turns out, Nelson has a cascade injury in his healthy knee, which has him on the PUP list. The Packers and Nelson have spun this as a good thing, as it is at least not an injury to his repaired knee, but this should provide little comfort. This is exactly how one injury can lead to another, and this is a troubling early sign.

It’s not news to tell you that Nelson could get hurt. There but for the grace of God go all of us. What is alarming about this particular situation is the Packer reaction to Nelson’s injury last season. Nelson’s cascade injury, as we now know, is capable of cascading failure throughout the entire offense. Most non-QB injuries do not completely destroy an offense or defense. Nelson’s did (along with a few other factors which I will get to shortly). When you learn of a vulnerability like this, it would be prudent to take steps to fix it, and the Packers did not. It is often smart to let small weaknesses go, and solve them by becoming better in areas where you get more bang for your buck. The Packers’ philosophy at inside linebacker was exactly that for a prolonged period. When you see a big, high leverage weakness, however, that’s a different story.

2. The Nelson Cascade

The Packers are bringing back essentially the same group of receivers as last season, with rookie Trevor Davis taking the spot previously occupied by James Jones. Davis was a productive college player with excellent straight-line speed but was not considered much of a prospect, which is why he lasted into the 5th round, where some still considered this pick a reach. He is likely on the team for his special teams acumen more than anything. If he makes a significant impact on offense it will be pretty surprising.

The big five for the Packers this year are Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery, and Jeff Janis (no offense to Jared Abbrederis, who is in the mix as well). Last year taught us a great deal about how these parts interact, and to be productive, it all starts with Nelson.

It’s easy to forget just how good Randall Cobb can be. Just two seasons ago he lead the league in DVOA. One reason I was wrong about the receivers last season is that I expected Cobb to at least partially fill the hole left by Nelson by soaking up additional targets, drawing extra defensive pressure, and helping to open up things on the outside for Adams, Jones and company. As it turns out, that’s not how football works. Without a reliable down-the-field threat, defenses played up and took away all of Cobb’s advantages in space. They also beat him up pretty well and he was clearly injured for most of the year. The point is that, contrary to Cobb playing up to help the offense, the lack of Nelson on the field took Cobb down as well, leaving late-round talent, waiver wire retreads (ahem, James Jones), and Davante Adams to pick up the slack. They did not.

As it stands, the Packers, outside of Nelson, do not have better outside receivers. They will bring back Davante Adams, and again will hope for a big improvement. They will bring back playoff hero Jeff Janis, but he will have to do more than catch Hail Mary throws to serve as an adequate threat. And Ty Montgomery will be back doing essentially what Cobb does. To be truly great, it looks like Cobb needs that outside threat present, and there is nothing wrong with that as Cobb is amazing when he has the matchups and space to work. But because he needs another star around, it also doubles the Packers risk, sort of like this.

How big was the drop for Cobb? Cobb saw 2 more targets last season than in 2014 (127 vs. 129), but caught 12 fewer balls for a whopping 458 fewer yards (1,287 vs. 829). That stunning lack of efficiency from the 2nd-best receiver on the team was insurmountable for the offense. Now, I’m not sure that Cobb specifically needs Jordy Nelson on the field, but he probably needs, at least, an average outside receiver. A credible outside threat. What he got instead was Davante Adams.

Adams was almost certainly the worst receiver in football in 2015 and we don’t need to rehash all of the reasons why. Yes, he was facing tougher DBs than ever before, and yes, he suffered his own injury during the season, but while some growing pains can be excused, this level of futility was extremely discouraging. If anything were to happen to Nelson, the answer is almost certainly not Adams. It’s also probably not Ty Montgomery, who is best served in the slot. Maybe it could be Jeff Janis, but outside of his playoff masterpiece, he was a non-factor who still has issues in his route-running.

To recap:

  • Nelson (Returning from torn ACL)
  • Cobb (Season long shoulder injury, punctured lung)
  • Montgomery (Catastrophic ankle injury)
  • Adams (Ankle injury caused him to miss multiple games, played terribly otherwise)
  • Janis (In the regular season he had 2 catches on 12 targets)
  • Davis (Late round rookie)

There are a lot of potential issues there. There are a lot of bad injuries across the board, and a lot of questions at non-slot receiver, and it’s all held together by Nelson. Davante Adams was not an adequate replacement last year, and there is no reason to believe he could be this year. Maybe Janis could, but he is still completely unproven, and any given receiver can have a banner day or two.

This leads to another question…

3. Will Nelson Still Be Great?

Even if Nelson doesn’t miss any time, there is no guarantee that he will still be able to play at the level we all expect. Receivers often age well, but not always. Calvin Johnson just retired at the age of 30 after two disappointing (by his standards) seasons. Greg Jennings did not age well. James Jones is barely even older than Nelson. No one likes to predict that a great player will decline, but often 30-year-olds coming off of injury decline, and if Nelson is merely good, what does that mean for Cobb? The good news is that Nelson at 80% probably does not mean Cobb at 80%. It took an epic failure at outside receiver (and injuries) to derail Cobb, but as long as Nelson is at least a threat, Cobb should still thrive. There is a line of productiveness that allows Cobb to work his magic and, at the very least, I expect Nelson to be above that line when on the field.

Conclusion: What Should Ted Thompson Have Done Differently?

I rarely criticize Thompson, and generally share his disgust with signing free agents, but this is a case where signing a safety valve behind Nelson was warranted. Rishard Matthews was 2nd in DVOA last season and signed a very reasonable 3-year deal with the Titans for a total of $15 million. He would have been a welcome addition. If that’s too rich for your blood, there are still plenty of old vets on the market that could potentially provide average productions.

Hopefully Nelson remains healthy and this is the last we hear of a struggling Packers offense, but coming off of a season where injuries were the norm and expecting karma to bail you out is a bad plan. If no one steps up outside and Nelson can’t go, this will be yet another long season for the offense.