Why Jordy Nelson is the NFL's Most Grossly Underrated Player

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Why Jordy Nelson is the NFL's Most Grossly Underrated Player
Tom Lynn/Getty Images
Why no love?

The ESPN text alert regarding Jordy Nelson's desire for a deal worth $10 million per season said it all Thursday afternoon. 

"Packers receiver Jordy Nelson (zero Pro Bowls) seeking contract of at least $10 million per season," read the alert, which preceded a report from ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky detailing Nelson's wish to become the ninth active receiver to have a contract averaging at least $10 million per season. 

Without explicitly saying it, the ESPN alert had managed to make its point clear: A 29-year-old receiver, who hasn't yet made a Pro Bowl and has played his entire career with Aaron Rodgers, couldn't possibly be worth $10 million per season, right?

Wrong. 

The (likely) unintentional slight from ESPN highlights how underrated Nelson remains in the NFL landscape. Despite all the numbers suggesting his place amongst his peers, and a highlight reel of catches that would make every receiver in the game (save for maybe Calvin Johnson) jealous, Nelson is still fighting to gain universal respect from those in and out of the game. 

And the $10 million per season? Even a general manager resistant to paying big bucks to veteran receivers like Ted Thompson should be willing to provide Nelson the money he's earned. 

The numbers on the field certainly present a compelling case. 

Production from Jordy Nelson, 2011-2013
G Rec Yrd Avg TD
2011 16* 68 1263 18.6* 15*
2012 12 49 745 15.2 7
2013 16* 85* 1314* 15.5 8
TOTALS 44 202 3322 16.5 30

*Career highs

Over the last three years, Nelson ranks 13th in receiving yards (3,322), fifth in yards per catch (16.5) and sixth in receiving touchdowns (30). Only Johnson and Nelson can claim to have an average reception of over 15 yards and 30 receiving touchdowns since 2011. 

Few are more consistent providing big plays. Last season, Nelson led the NFL with 19 catches over 25 yards. Only four receivers since 1994 have posted more 25-yard receptions in a single season: Johnson (21, 2012), Jerry Rice (21, 1995), Rob Moore (20, 1997) and Marvin Harrison (20, 1999). 

Since 2011, only Johnson (48) and Demaryius Thomas (42) have more catches over 25 yards than Nelson's 41. 

Despite playing with four different quarterbacks, Nelson still finished 2013 with 1,314 yards, good for 10th best in the league. But he was uniquely efficient; among the 17 players with over 1,100 receiving yards last season, only Nelson and DeSean Jackson had under 130 total targets. 

Nelson's efficiency can be summed up in other ways. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Nelson has run routes on 1,469 of his regular season snaps since 2011. Those routes have produced 3,322 receiving yards, which equates to a yards-per-route-run (YPRR) average of 2.26. Generally, the most efficient receivers during a given season average at least 2.00 YPPR

Packers quarterbacks have enjoyed great success throwing to Nelson in recent seasons.

In 2011, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn posted a combined passer rating of 150.2 when targeting No. 87. Nelson caught 73.1 percent of his targets and scored 15 touchdowns. No other receiver came within 10 rating points. 

A year later, the Rodgers-to-Nelson connection produced a passer rating of 130.1, which finished fourth in the NFL. Playing with four quarterbacks last season caused Nelson's targeted passer rating to fall, but his 111.6 mark was still 11th best at his position.

Passer Rating When Targeting Jordy Nelson, 2011-2013
Cmp/Att Yards TD/INT Passer Rating NFL Rank
2011 68/93 1263 15/1 150.1 1st
2012 49/71 745 7/1 130.3 4th
2013 85/120 1314 8/5 111.6 11th
202/284 3322 30/7 135.0 1st

Source: Pro Football Focus

Overall, Packers quarterbacks have a ridiculous passer rating of 135.0 when targeting Nelson since 2011 (first in the NFL), with 30 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a completion percentage of 71.1. 

But enough of the stats. The numbers—while convincing—paint only one-half of the picture. Nelson's game tape might actually be more impressive. 

No receiver in the game today is more effective working the boundaries. Nelson is a master of the back-shoulder, and his catching radius—as pointed out in great detail here by Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders—is unmatched when extending for a throw and still getting two feet inbounds. 

This photo collage tweet from Kacsmar sums up his argument perfectly:

Let's take a closer look at a few of Nelson's more impressive catches from last season. 

Many remember Nelson's sprawling grab along the left sidelines against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 last season. But this first-quarter catch was arguably just as impressive:

NFL Game Rewind

So much to love in just one GIF. First, Nelson is unfazed by the press attempt at the line of scrimmage. This could have stopped the route in its tracks, but he hand fights the corner and gets up field. Next, Nelson creates the necessary separation with a sudden stop-and-go move. Once in prime position, the cornerback is now grasping for Nelson as he scoots by along the sidelines. Finally, Nelson completes the difficult reception by looking back for the football and providing Rodgers an opportunity to make the throw. He latches on to the pass despite the cornerback having an arm inside Nelson's. This wasn't poor coverage; it was determined work by Nelson, and a throw-and-catch only these two could make. 

Jump ahead one week, when the Packers hosted Washington at Lambeau Field. You want catch radius and adjustment to the football? Nelson provides them both here:

NFL Game Rewind

Of course, this is an incredible throw from Rodgers. The safety has a beat on the route the whole way, but Rodgers has so much trust in his arm and in Nelson that it doesn't matter. He simply throws a dart to the outside shoulder, knowing full well Nelson will understand the placement and adjust to the pass. The sequence ends with Nelson planting and twisting his body and then extending to make the catch. It all looks too easy.

Nothing about this touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings should have been easy. But Nelson showed off his awareness, concentration and versatility, helping Rodgers to beat a blitz from the slot:

NFL Game Rewind

You can search throughout the 2013 season, and you still won't find many better throws, or acts of concentration, than this play. Nelson lines up in the slot, where he actually made significant progression 2013 (he ranked eighth in YPPR from the slot, per PFF). The Vikings bring a zone blitz with the middle linebacker and left inside cornerback. The blitz is actually well executed, and the coverage from linebacker Chad Greenway shifting over the middle is strong. 

But Nelson sees the blitz and smartly turns his head as the hot receiver. Rodgers now has an escape plan; he uses it to perfection. His pass whistles by Greenway's ear, and Nelson somehow makes a blind catch with a sizable linebacker right in his face. A lesser receiver might not have understood the blitz, or cowered away from the catch with Greenway bearing down. But Nelson calmly made the reception, broke a tackle and raced 76 yards for six points. 

There's really no great explanation for Nelson catching either of his touchdowns against the Vikings that night. It came down to great throws from Rodgers, incredible concentration from Nelson and an undeniable level of trust between the two players. 

Here's one last example of just how deeply Rodgers trusts his favorite receiver:

NFL Game Rewind

This play kept the Packers' season alive in Chicago. Without it, there's no miracle "Lob to Cobb." And it's certainly telling that Rodgers went to Nelson in this situation. 

Fourth down. The Packers need one yard to save their season. Instead of handing the ball to Eddie Lacy, or letting Cobb get open in space, Green Bay went to Nelson. Coming out of the two-minute warning, it would be foolish not to assume that Rodgers lobbied for this particular play call. 

Nelson did his part. On a cold field with loose footing, he created just enough separation. Rodgers also did his job, delivering a ball that only Nelson could get his hands on. And while clearly a difficult catch, especially considering the circumstances, Nelson still managed to get his arms underneath the throw and then safely protect the football from the cornerback. First down, Packers. Four plays later, Cobb waltzed into the end zone to win the division crown. 

The biggest moments in a game or season are won by the best on the field. Nelson had earned the trust of the best player on the field that night, and Rodgers went to him without hesitation on the game's biggest play. 

Nelson has done it all for the Packers. He's productive and reliable. No one is better near the white lines. He has the unquestioned trust of his quarterback. At 29 years old, he's still in his prime. 

And yet, he's still criminally underrated. Nelson has never been to a Pro Bowl (as the ESPN alert so clearly pointed out). His name has yet to be on an All-Pro team. NFL Network's annual "Top 100 Players" list, which is supposedly voted on by the players, finally included Nelson for the first time this offseason. He came in ranked just 83rd (for context, consider John Kuhn was once ranked No. 92).  

In Nelson's "Top 100" video, Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon might have summed up the public view. 

"He makes it so difficult for DBs, because you don't really expect it out of Jordy," Gordon said.

Maybe everyone should start expecting it.  

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