Lost amid the news of rule changes, compensatory draft picks and debating Nick Collins’ future with the Green Bay Packers was a comment by head coach Mike McCarthy at the NFL owners meeting last week regarding wide receiver Jordy Nelson.
“We’ll keep moving him around, probably play him in the slot a little more than he’s played in the past,” McCarthy is quoted as saying by Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “Those are the kind of things we continue to look at, give him more matchups, expand his route tree where he’s maybe more of the focus. Not that he can’t run those routes, it’s more about having the opportunity because statistics speak for themselves.”
Coming on the heels of his Super Bowl performance in which he had nine receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown, Nelson had a breakout season in 2011.
His 68 catches for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns have put him among his position’s elite players even if Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors aren’t there to publicly justify it. The 15 receiving scores were bettered only by Detroit’s Calvin Johnson.
Undoubtedly, Nelson’s pure talent was a big reason for his production. He’s gotten better each year in professional football.
But to an extent, could it be because Nelson was overlooked? He was on a deep receiving corps and opponents could focus on other threats such as Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley.
The likelihood that Nelson will be afforded that luxury in 2012 has been diminished greatly. So perhaps what’s behind McCarthy’s comments is a need to move Nelson around like a piece on a chessboard, getting him in more favorable positions.
Nelson did most of his damage on the perimeter of the field last season, lined up as the “X” receiver, the one furthest outside. He did, however, play in the slot more often in previous seasons.
According to Nathan Jahnke of ProFootballFocus.com, Nelson lined up in the slot only 8.3% of the time he was on the field in 2011 as compared to 33.7% in 2010.
When a receiver is lined up near the sideline, he has fewer options available to him. He can only run “go” routes or inside-breaking routes, obviously prevented from running outside-breaking routes by the sideline.
Lining up in the slot will allow Nelson to break off his routes inside or outside or straight up the middle. And it’s possible he’ll now be the one that takes away pressure from other receivers on the team.
The question now is what does that mean for other receivers on the team?
Among the receivers currently on roster, Donald Driver has probably spent more time in the slot than anyone else. Driver is also one of the oldest players on the team, and it’s been speculated that he could be cut to create salary cap space.
Whether Nelson’s new role is an indication that the Packers are attempting to phase Driver out of their plans is conjecture as well.
Driver had arguably the best performance on the entire team in the Packers’ playoff loss to the New York Giants this past season, although the argument can be made that Driver played so well because the Giants decided to cover him with linebackers, more concerned with other receivers on the team.
A common line of thinking is that Driver’s replacement would be Randall Cobb who’s skill set seems to fit best in the slot.
Some might argue that Nelson’s occupation of the slot would prevent Cobb from seeing more playing time and perhaps his development as well.
How about Jennings and Finley? Will the new use for Nelson change how they’re deployed?
And then there’s Tori Gurley, the highly regarded practice squad receiver that chose to remain with the Packers late last season despite the offer to join the Minnesota Vikings’ 53-man roster.
As a tall target, maybe the Packers have plans to use Gurly as an “X” receiver in 2012.
Maybe the answer is that the Packers want to move all their receivers around, that McCarthy wants to be as unpredictable as possible.
Considering how explosive the Packers offense was a year ago, that’s an exciting twist to an already potent aerial attack.