There’s no denying it. Keisean Nixon is having an out-of-this-world season after taking over return duties from former third-round pick Amari Rodgers. He is one of just 23 players in NFL history to ever have recorded five straight 95-plus kick return yard games in a row, the first to do so since 2010 and the first player in Green Bay Packers history to have such a stretch.
Nixon, who had playing experience under Packers special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia when they were with the Las Vegas Raiders, has played well above expectations this year. Despite not being the full-time returner for the entire 2022 season, Nixon was still named a Pro Bowl alternate earlier this week as a special teamer. That doesn’t even give acknowledgment to the fact that he’s recently taken over as the team’s starting nickel back, as he’s managed to play 70 percent or more of the Packers’ defensive snaps in each of the last three weeks. In Week 15 against the Los Angeles Rams, Nixon played on all 45 defensive snaps.
Just a matter of time before Keisean Nixon's name goes up on that Lambeau Field facade... pic.twitter.com/MXFyqzIbXC— Eli Berkovits (@BookOfEli_NFL) December 21, 2022
Here’s the catch: Nixon is an unrestricted free agent in the upcoming offseason, which means the Packers are going to have to pay him like a veteran to keep him in green and gold in 2023.
When looking at the NFL’s veteran returner landscape, it’s fairly difficult to find a one-to-one comparison for what Nixon is bringing to the table in Green Bay. Only eight fifth-year players have recorded at least 15 combined returns (punt and/or kick) this season. The reason I want to focus on fifth-year players is that they are the most recent veterans to come off of their rookie deals and hit free agency as a group.
There's been multiple times this season that Aaron Rodgers has brought up @Keiseannixon unprompted.— Kyle Malzhan (@KyleMalzhan) December 20, 2022
You don't see 12 talking about those 'what if's' much - but he couldn't help himself to think what the season may have looked like if Nixon was the #Packers returner all year. pic.twitter.com/2LzhvbTAns
Among those eight players, five of them are on one-year contracts, with Detroit Lions running back Justin Jackson ($2.1 million) being the only one who is going to make north of $1.1 million for the 2022 campaign. There are a few multi-year deals among veteran returners, though. The three case studies are Buffalo Bills running back Nyheim Hines (three years, $18.6 million), New York Jets receiver Braxton Berrios (two years, $12 million) and San Francisco 49ers receiver Ray-Ray McCloud (two years, $4 million).
Out of the eight fifth-year return men in the league, all but one — Houston’s Tremon Smith — plays on the offensive side of the ball. Smith (129 snaps) hasn’t played nearly as much defensive football as Nixon (282) has this season. The only offensive players who have played as many non-special teams snaps as Nixon this year are Berrios (286, only four more snaps), New York Giants receiver Richie James Jr. (417) and Chicago Bears receiver Dante Pettis (432).
If I were Nixon’s agent, I would point to what Berrios got last season, a two-year, $12 million contract with a $5.5 million signing bonus and $1.5 million in guaranteed salary, as a comparison. It’s harder to make the case that Hines, the only other significantly paid fifth-year returner, signed his contract to be a special teamer. For reference, Hines has 305 carries and 239 receptions in his NFL career. On the flip side, Berrios has only registered 106 receptions in his career despite actually playing “receiver” on paper.
Green Bay’s front office typically follows the market, rather than setting it. Berrios’ contract is the closest hint at what Nixon could bring in when his deal expires. If the Packers stick to the script, they’ll probably hand him a contract that functions as a one-year, $7 million deal with a $5 million team option in 2024 but only carries around a $3.8 million cap hit on Green Bay’s books in 2023. Over the first two years, just in terms of cash flow, that contract would basically be similar to what Rasul Douglas — one of 2021’s breakout stars — received in the 2022 offseason.