During last Sunday’s 31-28 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, NBC commentator Chris Collinsworth uttered something many Green Bay Packers fans have been holding inside. He claimed that wide receiver Davante Adams has taken the title of Packers number one receiver from Jordy Nelson. Nelson has been revered as one of the league’s best pass-catchers over the past few years. He has been quarterback Aaron Rodgers‘s favorite target since the team won the Superbowl in 2010. Adams is in his fourth season and playing the most consistent football of his young career. The future of the Packers wide receiver position must be evaluated this off-season to ensure the Packers offense gets back on track in 2018.
Future of the Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Position
Nelson’s Career Highlights
Nelson has been an integral member of the Packers organization since he was drafted in 2008. Nelson joined the team the year Rodgers took over as the starting quarterback. Although his first two seasons were rather uneventful in a crowded receivers room, Nelson continued to work his way onto the field. Playing beside Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, Nelson posted solid numbers his junior season with over 500 yards on 44 catches. He made his real mark in the Super Bowl when he led the team with nine catches for 140 yards. The Packers captured their fourth Lombardi trophy in franchise history due in large part to Nelson’s breakout performance.
Nelson Helps Rodgers Win MVP
Nelson would quickly become an integral part of the Packer offense. The 2011 season was one of his best. Posting a franchise-best 15-1 record, Rodgers looked to Nelson as the team’s best field stretcher. Nelson posted career highs in catches (68), yards (1,263), and tied for second in the league lead 15 touchdown receptions.
He followed up that performance by posting his second straight thousand yard season in 2013 even though Rodgers was injured half the season. Continuing the streak in 2014, Nelson had his strongest season yet and truly established himself as one of the Packers all-time receivers. He captured the franchise record with 1,519 yards on the season. Rodgers was able to capture his second Most Valuable Player award in four years because of his strong surrounding cast led by Nelson.
Nelson tore his ACL in the 2015 pre-season. The team’s offense sputtered without its number one wideout as Rodgers had his worst season as a starter. The drop off in Rodgers’s production illustrated just how important Nelson is to the offense.
The team bounced back late in the 2016 season to win the NFC North with a 10-6 record. Nelson led the NFL in receiving touchdowns en route to winning Comeback Player of the Year. Rodgers and Nelson looked to continue their rapport in 2017, connecting on six touchdowns in just five games before Rodgers broke his collar bone. However, Nelson has not continued his success with backup Brett Hundley, failing to record over 60 yards or a touchdown since Hundley took the reins.
Adams’s Career Highlights
Adams has had an up-and-down start to his NFL career. General manager Ted Thompson drafted Adams in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He gradually gained playing time over the course of his rookie season. Adams did appear in every game and posted 446 yards receiving on the year, most for a rookie receiver drafted under Thompson’s tenure in Green Bay. In the Divisional Round against the Dallas Cowboys Adams had his best game of the season. He caught seven passes for 117 yards and a 46-yard touchdown on a beautiful move in the open field. There were already high expectations for this young receiver in his second pro season.
After Nelson’s season was lost to an ACL injury, it seemed obvious that Adams would step into the role left by Nelson. These were high expectations for a second-year receiver that was forced to play through a variety of nagging injuries. Adams posted 50 catches for just 483 yards and a single touchdown. His 9.9 yards per catch and catch rate were some of the worst in the NFL.
Adams rebounded in a big way last year. Playing alongside a healthy receiving corps and a healthy Rodgers, Adams posted career highs in every major category. He brought his average up to over 13 yards per reception and finished second in the league with 12 touchdowns. He just barely missed the 1,000 yard threshold but was a consistent redzone threat the entire year.
This season has been quite interesting for Adams. He has been the only consistent receiving threat week in and week out. Regardless of who is in at quarterback, Adams has continued to impress. He already has over 700 yards and seven touchdowns with five games remaining. Adams has proven that he can be the consistent player the team was looking for in 2015.
The Case for Adams
Adams was viewed as a possible replacement for Nelson or fellow receiver Randall Cobb when he was drafted. As a second round pick, Adams had high expectations early. After taking some time but Adams finally looks like the top receiver on the team. He is faster and more athletic than Nelson and bigger than Cobb. He has shown a propensity to make plays when the game is on the line, such as against Dallas in week five.
With under 15 seconds left in the game, Rodgers missed Adams on a back shoulder fade in the endzone. When the offense huddled up, Adams asked Rodgers to throw his way again. With just six seconds remaining, Adams secured the touchdown for the win. These clutch moments when given big opportunities eluded Adams early in his career. Now he has become the focal point of the Packers’ offense and is delivering in a big way.
The Case for Nelson
Although Nelson’s production has trailed off with Hundley at quarterback, he has still been Rodgers’s favorite target over the course of the quarterback’s career. Even when it appears Nelson has lost a step, he has such good chemistry with Rodgers that he finds a way to get open. They always seem to be on the same page the second Rodgers begins to scramble from the pocket.
Nelson still has great hands and impeccable body control to make difficult catches through contact. He can still lose defensive backs on deep double moves and stretch the field. He doesn’t have the same quickness on short screens or pick plays but can still undoubtedly produce next year in a specified role. Whether Adams has taken over as the number one receiver for the moment, Nelson will be no less than a 1B when Rodgers returns.
Adams is going to make some money in free agency this off-season. There are too many teams in this league that could use an upgrade on the boundary. If the Packers let Adams reach the open market, they could get into a serious bidding war with teams that have much more cap space. Adams could take a route similar to that of Cobb in 2015: feel the open market but then return to Green Bay on a discount to play with a quarterback of Rodgers’s caliber.
The Packers should have over $25 million in cap space in 2018. The market for number one receivers is reaching over $15 million annually. The question is whether the Packers will shell out near $14 million per year to keep their fourth year receiver. The Packers would have three receivers accounting for nearly a quarter of the team’s cap with Adams re-signed. Thus brings the debate as to whether Cobb or Nelson may be the odd man out in the receiver room.
Although Adams has proven enough to lead this team’s receiving corps for the years to come, his future will be decided by two people. The first is Rodgers, who will need to be kept happy no matter what. If Rodgers needs Nelson on the team, both Nelson and Adams should continue to man the outside. The Hall of Fame quarterback needs continuity with his offensive core and the team would have a nice mix of experience and potential at the position.
The debate then comes down to the Packers general manager. If Thompson can’t shell out the money to keep three receivers worth high price tags, Adams should be made priority. The team may vote to stay young and attempt to move on from Nelson in his age 32 season. His touchdown production would be impossible to replicate, and Cobb has been the much lesser player as of late.
Cobb is just 27 and still has two years remaining on his contract, same as Nelson. He makes slightly more money than Nelson but hasn’t posted a 1,000 yard season since signing his extension in 2015. Second-year pro Geronimo Allison has impressed from the slot when Cobb has been injured. If Thompson looks solely at production and reliability over age, Cobb could be a potential cap casualty this off-season. Adams should be a priority re-signing, Nelson should continue his rapport with Rodgers, and Cobb is on thin ice as the Packers look towards 2018. There will be several tough decisions to make, but hopefully the Packers can keep this group in tact best as possible.