Shortly after the first official football was formed and made of actual authentic pigskin, a list of commandments was passed. It was much quieter, and no seas were parted, but a set of standard rules predicting football trends was pushed forward and agreed upon unanimously by the elders.
Chief among them was the stipulation that all future Pro Bowl receivers will experience a breakout in their third season. This breakout may come in various forms, with some much larger than others. There is a gray area, but the basic premise remains the same: a noticeable step forward should be taken during a receiver’s third full year.
The three-year rule functions as the indicator of either great performances to come, or a ho-hum, fledgling career of a No. 3 wide receiver. This year, a tame but progressive breakout pointed us to one of the less heralded but highly effective members of the Super Bowl champions: Jordy Nelson.
The season began for Nelson as it would for any receiver buried behind two established veterans, with Pro Bowler Greg Jennings and Donald Driver squarely in the crosshairs of Aaron Rodgers. But once the level of bookings in the Packers’ training room increased, so did Nelson’s looks. His four-game splits including the playoffs show his consistent climb in production.
The midseason dip could be attributed to tight end Jermichael Finley going down for the season, causing Rodgers to develop chemistry with young receivers like Nelson, a process that took a few weeks. Nelson had two games without a reception, one coming in Week 3 before he began to receive more targets, and the other came during a Wild Card Weekend win over the Eagles in which James Starks and the running game was the focus.
Nelson only reached the endzone twice during the regular season, but his production and role in the offence spiked significantly during the final four weeks. That momentum carried him into the post-season, leading to a Super Bowl performance of nine receptions for 140 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter to give Green Bay an early lead.
Nelson’s play could cause a problem in Green Bay…a good problem. At 36 years old Donald Driver’s durability is becoming an issue. He only missed one game this season, but was severely limited by a thigh injury that caused his numbers to decline dramatically. Driver registered 565 receiving yards this season, a steep drop from his average of 1,040 over the last three years. Sometime in the very near future someone will have to replace Driver opposite Jennings, and that someone should be Nelson.
Just don’t tell James Jones.
As the Packers’ other young and blossoming receiver, Jones hauled in 823 yards and seven touchdowns throughout the regular season and playoffs. He also had a touchdown in the Super Bowl, but Jones will be most remembered for a nearly crippling fourth quarter drop that looked to be a sure touchdown.
Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel broke down the season-long battle for touches between Jones and Nelson. It’s a fight that was a dead heat at first until Nelson took advantage of the opportunity presented by Driver’s injury.
Jones had the same opportunity Nelson did to seize an opportunity made available when Driver injured his thigh and saw a radical decline in his numbers. Driver went three straight games without a catch – he was inactive for one of them – and then caught 35 passes for 399 yards (11.4 average) and one touchdown in the 10 games leading up to the Super Bowl.
By comparison, Jones had 29 catches for 366 yards (12.6) and five touchdowns and Nelson had 31 catches for 447 yards (14.4) and three touchdowns in those 10 games.
Jones is slated to become an unrestricted free agent, if there is a free agency period during this offseason that could become very, very long. He hopes to return to the Packers, but hasn’t been shy about his desire to be a starter. With Driver clogging his path, Jones knows that might not be in his immediate future in Green Bay.
“No question. Do I feel like I’m a starter? No question…I know we have something great here. This team can win some championships for the next couple years. But, at the same time, I do want to be a starter. I don’t know if that’ll ever happen here with Donald (Driver) playing until he’s 40.”
Call it selfish if you must, but there would be something terribly wrong if Jones didn’t want to start. The problem is that even when Driver finally wears down or is ready step aside, Jones won’t be the one receiving the baton. It’ll be Nelson.
Nelson still had the standard hiccups of a receiver in his third full season, dropping 10 passes–a number equalled by Jones–and letting a few key balls hit the turf throughout the playoffs. But the momentum he gained late in the season shows a clear shift away from Jones in the Packers’ passing game.
Driver may still have the reliable set of veteran hands, but Nelson’s young legs and rising stock in Green Bay could lead to a change in the depth chart. He’s perfectly aligned to become a major presence in 2011.
If there is a 2011 season (sorry).