With Nelson gone, familiar faces step up for Rodgers, Packers

When the Green Bay Packers decided it was time to move on from Jordy Nelson in March, it was hard not to feel like an era came to an end. Nelson finished his Packer career second on the Packers’ all-time list in receiving touchdowns (69), fifth in receiving yards (7,848), and third in receptions (550). The final stat line for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Nelson: 470 completions, 6,919 yards and 65 touchdowns, which stands as the record for touchdowns by a quarterback-receiver duo.

You’ll excuse both the quarterback and the fan base, then, for meeting the news of Nelson’s release with a certain level of incredulity. After all, even with the emergence of Davante Adams and the steady hands of Randall Cobb, who would possibly replace that kind of production?

With the depth at receiver seemingly wavering, general manager Brian Gutekunst committed himself to finding answers, selecting three wide receivers—J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown—in the 2018 draft. After Adams and Cobb, the wide receiver competition was wide open, with Geronimo Allison, coming off a relatively disappointing sophomore campaign, being the only other player on the roster with legitimate game experience running with Rodgers and the first offense.

Still, three rookies would never be expected to come in and fill the shoes of a 10-year veteran and one of the most prolific receivers in team history. But perhaps the Packers could rely on free agent addition Jimmy Graham, whom Gutekunst signed to much fanfare, to add a dimension to the offense and give them another weapon. Throughout camp, that was the popular narrative, especially after Rodgers and Graham connected for a touchdown in the second preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lambeau Field.

While the Graham hype train was rolling along, however, Adams and Cobb continued to anchor the wide receiver group, with Allison solidifying his spot as the third option. Adams, who was coming off of his most productive season as a pro in 2017, was clearly poised for another great year, according to most experts. After that, though, who knows? In fact, Cobb was a frequent target of trade and release rumors, while many wondered if Allison could ever achieve the consistency necessary to make him a regular contributor.

Fast-forward to Sunday night, as the Packers played host to the Chicago Bears in primetime to kick off the 2018 regular season. The game started horrifically for the Green Bay offense, as Rodgers started the game three of seven passing before appearing to suffer a significant injury and being carted to the locker room. In the blink of an eye, 2018 was almost over before it really began.

Everyone knows what happened next as it pertains to Rodgers. He emerged from the tunnel after halftime and led the Packers to the greatest comeback in team history. It was a performance for the ages—one of those Rodgers games that awes you yet somehow doesn’t shock you. The two-time MVP finished 20 of 30 for 286 yards and three touchdowns. While the spotlight shone brightest on the quarterback, though, the men on the receiving end of those magical throws may have snuck under the radar.

Perhaps Jimmy Graham’s presence caused a ripple effect that ended up benefitting the entire team by drawing attention away from other players, or maybe he didn’t. Unfortunately, there is not a quantifiable statistic for that kind of thing.

What is quantifiable, though, is the combined state line of the three receivers atop the supposedly thin wide receiver depth chart.

Adams, Cobb and Allison combined for 19 catches, 199 yards and three touchdowns, all of which came in the fourth quarter.

Allison hauled in the first, laying out in the corner of the end zone on a 39-yard dime from Rodgers, and finished with 69 yards on five catches.

Adams got the next one, juking and jiving his way to a 12-yard score that cut the Bears lead to three. He would end up with five receptions for 88 yards.

And Randall Cobb got the last laugh. In a game that saw him shove all the trade and release speculation back in the faces of those who dared question his value to the team, Cobb went ahead and caught nine passes for a career-high 142 yards, including the 75-yard game-winner with just over two minutes left in the contest.

None of this is to say there won’t be others who break out at some point in 2018. Graham in particular will probably need time to assimilate fully into the offense. But there is something to be said for familiar faces who can be taken for granted simply because they lived in the shadow of a franchise legend for a number of years.

With the game hanging in the balance, the Packers turned to their best player, Rodgers, to get the job done. And, playing on one healthy leg, Rodgers knew exactly where to put his faith—in the men with whom he’s shared the foxhole before.

Top photo: Benny Sieu/USA Today Sports