Tom Oates: Jordy Nelson long gone, but wide receivers not the problem for the Packers

September 27, 2018

GREEN BAY — As the Green Bay Packers were experiencing a horrendous first half against Washington on Sunday, Oakland’s Jordy Nelson, the star of the Packers’ wide receiving corps for the previous 10 years, was torching a defense 900 miles away.

After a quiet start to the season, Nelson showed he still has some life in his 33-year-old body with six catches for 173 yards and a touchdown in Oakland’s game at Miami. Three of Nelson’s catches for 139 yards came in the first quarter, right about the time the Packers were falling behind Washington by 18 points.

As you can imagine, that didn’t sit well with Packers fans, many of whom have yet to accept Green Bay released Nelson with a year to go on his contract, presumably to create room under the salary cap. The bulk of that cap money was used to sign free agent Jimmy Graham, who is filling a void as a go-to receiver at tight end.

With Green Bay off to an error-plagued 1-1-1 start and Nelson, one of the team’s all-time fan favorites, finally having a big game with his new team Sunday, Packers followers lit up social media with an opinion that could be politely described as, “I told you so.” The fans were further incensed Sunday when Randall Cobb, another veteran wide receiver on the final year of his contract who was retained when Nelson was let go, had a poor second half in which he dropped two passes and lost a fumble.

If you take a realistic look at the Packers’ first three games, however, you will see losing Nelson has been the least of the team’s problems. Indeed, allowing safety Morgan Burnett to walk in free agency and failing to add another edge rusher or offensive lineman are having a far more negative impact than the loss of Nelson.

For one thing, the Packers have adequately replaced Nelson. Third-year pro Geronimo Allison, who moved into the starting lineup upon Nelson’s departure, has won critical acclaim for his play and his statistics are similar to Nelson’s.

“Excellent start,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “G-Mo, if you look at his career here, he’s 100 percent a factor. Every time he’s been given an opportunity, he’s done something very productive with it and I think this is another example of that. I go back to last year where special teams, he didn’t have a whole lot of experience for it. You looked at him as far as his body type and some of the responsibility he was given and he knocked it out of the park. And I think he’s doing the same thing with his opportunity here at receiver.”

Allison has caught 13 passes for 209 yards — a team-best 16.1 yard per catch — and two touchdowns. His 64-yard, over-the-top touchdown catch Sunday was right out of Nelson’s playbook.

In his three games, Nelson has 11 receptions for 226 yards — a 20.5-yard average — and one touchdown. He had receptions of 61 and 66 yards Sunday, though neither went for a touchdown.

The biggest difference between the two? While Allison has been a significant factor in all three of the Packers’ games, Nelson caught only five passes for 53 yards in the Raiders’ first two. The greatest similarity? Allison is using his size and strength to become a playmaker downfield.

“He’s a big-play receiver,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He’s made important plays for us at the right time. He’s just such a detailed guy. When you know that guy’s going to be in the right spot every time, it just gives you a confidence and that’s the type of player he is. ... He has a great approach to the game, his preparation is fantastic and he’s had some good guys to look at. Obviously, Jordy was the best we’ve ever had here and Randall is right in that same vein and Davante (Adams) as well. And that’s what a good young player does. They study the veterans in their room and they figure out how that works, incorporate that stuff in your own game and that’s why he’s been in the right spot. And not just that, but when he’s gotten opportunities, he’s made the plays.”

As for those who think the Packers should have cut Cobb instead of Nelson, I can’t buy it. First, though he’s less durable, Cobb is five years younger than Nelson. Second, while Nelson can line up in the slot as well as outside, Cobb is the more versatile player.

Cobb’s comments indicate he has already put his poor game in the rear-view mirror and you can do the same because it was totally out of character for him. Besides, he was quite good in the first two games, especially on that critical 75-yard touchdown catch against Chicago.

“One of Randall’s many positive attributes is he’s extremely consistent,” McCarthy said. “He’s very consistent in his preparation, his approach and his competitive nature and discipline are top notch. So that in itself will take care of any successful performance and any performance where he wished he may have one or two plays back. I have zero concerns about Randall. He’s got the heart of a lion.”

Look, it’s no fun sending beloved players away, but the elite franchises have always been heartless in that regard. San Francisco’s Bill Walsh and New England’s Bill Belichick, among others, believed it was better to get rid of a player a year too early than a year too late.

Besides, while the Packers have had their problems this season, wide receiver hasn’t been one of them.

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