By the numbers, Jordy Nelson and Jimmy Graham have been pretty close to the same player the last two seasons. Deceiving though the stats may be, what they tell us isn’t that the Green Bay Packers made a mistake by letting Nelson go, but rather that neither player were likely good options for this offense in 2018 and beyond.
We shouldn’t conflate the plan to move on from Jordy Nelson with the plan to pay Jimmy Graham. Even though they happened within mere hours of one another, featured Pro Bowl pass catchers, and were linked all year, they can’t be viewed as a singular move. They weren’t then and their repercussions on this team likewise aren’t linked moving forward as Brian Gutekunst looks to improve the Packers this offseason.
When the Packers decided to move on from Nelson, even the biggest Jordy fans understood why. The pricetag was too high and his physical skills clearly waned. he wasn’t particularly useful with Brett Hundley and if one’s usefulness is tied solely to playing with Aaron Rodgers, then that player may not actually be that useful.
The acrimony came when Nelson intimated he would have been open to returning at a much lower salary number, but the Packers offered what was deemed an embarrassing contract (likely the veteran minimum or something close to it) and fans coalesced behind this slight. How could Green Bay treat one of its heroes this way?
This too isn’t the point, nor is it the problem. Davante Adams was clearly ready to assume the mantle of lead dog in this passing game. Geronimo Allison was leading the Packers in receiving in 2018 before an injury robbed him of his season, but he was on his way to rewarding the faith this Packers coaching staff and front office put in him. Randall Cobb came into the season in a contract year and clearly the front office had the notion of wanting to get younger, more athletic players into the stable of pass catchers. After all, they drafted three of them. And while it would be easy to say “Yeah, after they cut Nelson,” it’s likely the Packers made the Nelson move at least in part knowing they had every intention of going young, bigger, and faster in the draft.
Plenty of Nelson fans and general Packer fan cynics will not be convinced by this, but the reality is Nelson wasn’t good with the Packers in 2017 (9.1 yards per catch with the lowest catch % of his career), and he wasn’t much better for the Raiders despite Oakland trading away its best pass catcher midseason. In fact, Nelson was so ineffective, Jon Gruden built the passing game around another former Green Bay castoff: Jared Cook.
Even if we assume Aaron Rodgers would have been an upgrade over Derek Carr (hardly a big assumption), Nelson simply not longer possesses the physical capabilities of being a down-to-down factor for this or any good passing offense.
Green Bay could not have foreseen losing two of their top three receivers for more than half a season each, and clearly did not predict the stagnation of Mike McCarthy’s offensive scheme. It’s not just possible, but likely the injuries to Allison and Cobb, as well as the loss of Nelson would have been mitigated in the hands of a more innovative offensive coach. Putting rookies in an offense where they don’t have to win isolation routes or show preternatural connection with their quarterback would have provided them better opportunities to succeed, given the estimable physical tools of guys like Equanimeous St. Brown and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
If it takes ESP to make the offense work, it might not be an offense worth trying to make work. That’s clearly the decision the front office ultimately made. Cutting down the lag time between when Rodgers got to start building a connection with these younger receivers, old offense or new, should serve as a boon for this offense moving forward. If the Packers had kept Nelson one more season, Green Bay would be staring at a season of incredible upheaval and the assimilation of myriad new weapons into an entirely new offense.
The real issue with the decision to move on from Nelson wasn’t believing they were better off long-term without him, but rather deciding to overpay to replace his production with Jimmy Graham. Green Bay handed out three-year $30 million deal with more than $13 million in Year 1 going to Graham, making him the most expensive tight end in football for 2018.
Some observers, this author included, suggested given Nelson’s skillset at this point in his career, Graham could essentially replace the third down and red zone ability. Graham produced inconsistently in 2018 to put it mildly, even going so far as to admit he hasn’t done much to help the team. But when two tight ends come out this offseason and say the McCarthy offense isn’t set up for the tight end, it’s worth wondering why Gutekunst thought this was money well spent. It’s likewise possible McCarthy simply showed no interest in consistently finding ways to get Graham involved, but either way this is an unmistakable failure.
He failed to show up in contested catch and adversity situations, one of the areas in which he had been stellar for much of his career thanks to a background in basketball. Graham dropped simple passes, didn’t give effort in the run game, and although he was wildly miscast by Mike McCarthy in this offense, simply didn’t come anywhere near producing at a level worthy of that money.
It felt like good process at the time. The receiver market exploded with guys like Albert Wilson, Taylor Gabriel and Paul Richardson getting huge paydays, contracts they would never be able to match with on-field production. Green Bay needed someone to get open on third down and in the red zone like Nelson. They needed a good tight end. That’s what they tried to get with Graham, they just didn’t get it.
Of the 53 players who saw at least 83 targets last season, no player produced fewer yards per route run than Graham, but Nelson was tied for 43rd despite being a more featured part of his team’s offense. In fact, just seven tight ends saw that many targets in their offense, including Graham and Nelson’s teammate Cook. Cook finished 26th in yards per route run, ahead of players like Stefon Diggs and Alshon Jeffery.
Taking a swing on Graham was good process in some ways, but a poor outcome. They made a logical bet, just on the wrong horse.
Furthermore, we must disentangle the two moves, separating the decision to move on from Nelson with the big-money move to add Graham. Though they are related, they are not one move and while one was likely the prudent choice, the other was hardly a success. What the last two seasons for these two players showed wasn’t that the Packers erred in dropping Nelson in favor of Graham; it’s believing Graham was a superior option and worth the top-of-market tight end money.
This is borne out in how the Packers look to attack the 2019 offseason. They’re not looking for a boundary receiver to make catches on third downs or the red zone like Nelson. They realized they have some really talented players on the roster for that. What they need is a reliable tight end with some blocking ability who can make plays over the middle of the field. In other words, Green Bay found suitable replacements for Nelson as a receiver, but Graham failed to offer that which the team believed it was getting when he signed.
That, in this exchange, represents the clear and obvious failure.
Matt LaFleur’s offense should be much more tight end friendly, but it’s not at all clear the Packers want that tight end to be Graham. A scheme change should further mitigate the loss of Nelson, but likely won’t make the Graham contract look any better, leaving Gutekunst and the Packers to once again stare down a revamped tight end room. First they must look in the mirror to realize the Graham move was a mistake, one that must now be put in the rearview mirror.