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Recovering Wide Receivers Could Determine the Balance of Power in the NFC

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 9, 2016

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson stretches during an NFL football practice Monday June 6, 2016, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)
Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

For all the images, sound bytes, tweets, predictions and observations that emanate from minicamps this time of year about who "looks sharp," only two questions really matter: 

1. Who is healthy enough to play right now?

2. Who will be healthy enough to play in September if they are not healthy enough to play now?

Jordy Nelson, Kelvin Benjamin and Dez Bryant are star receivers coming off major injuries for teams with big playoff ambitions. The balance of NFC power pivots upon their health and ability to contribute in 2016.

Benjamin has been practicing during OTAs and is ready to be a nearly full participant at Panthers minicamp.

Nelson has been practicing sparingly during OTAs (and preparing to play a little softball) and is ready to be a limited participant at Packers minicamp.

Bryant has been mostly working out and watching during OTAs. His level of participation at Cowboys minicamp is to be determined.

It's good news, for the most part: no major setbacks, no fears for opening day, no sense that anyone is getting rushed back too soon. But it's news that is worth keeping an eye on. Handicappers may have published point spreads for nearly every game of the 2016 season already, but the smart money is on waiting to determine just how healthy each of these important receivers truly is.

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Nelson, who tore an ACL in a preseason game on August 23, headlines a charity softball tournament this weekend. Packers fans are so jumpy that Aaron Rodgers' low-cheese diet makes headlines (Wisconsin natives believe cheese is a performance enhancer), so of course they are nervous about Nelson suffering a setback while running out a grounder.

"Everyone's scared of it, but I'm not," Nelson told Jason Wilde of ESPN.com early in the week. "You can't run from it. You have to get out there sometime."

More importantly, Nelson was seen catching passes from Rodgers during OTAs. According to Wes Hodkiewicz of the Packers' official website, Nelson was "back running the route tree, cutting sharply and catching passes with his favorite quarterback once again."

Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

Nelson will probably be limited to individual drills during Packers mandatory minicamp next week, even though he told Wilde that he's ready to play. Limiting Nelson is the prudent move. The Packers don't need to see him in 7-on-7s or 11-on-11s; they need to see candidates for their third receiver job like Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery and Jeff Janis on those. They also need to make sure those players don't become candidates for the second receiver job again.

Nelson can spend next week ramping up his load level and doing other things to prevent re-injury. He and Rodgers can re-establish their timing in about 15 minutes at the end of August.

With Nelson in the huddle, the Packers are strong Super Bowl contenders. Without him, the 2016 Packers look too much like the 2015 Packers: hard-pressed to win the NFC North, let alone a championship.

Bryant's right foot underwent X-rays last week. There were no follow-up reports one way or another. The team hopes Bryant is cleared for on-field activities for next week's minicamp.

Bryant has been present for Cowboys OTAs, but his workload has been strictly limited. "He has not practiced," Jason Garrett told reporters last week. "Once he does some of the walk-through stuff, he's really watching practice and doing his rehab on the side."

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Bryant told reporters earlier in OTAs that he is right on schedule, but that he is striving to be patient. Patience is a virtue for Bryant. Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones generated headlines in early May by saying that Bryant's injury-plagued 2015 was the result of reporting to camp out of shape after his contract holdout last year.

"He wasn't around, which is business, and consequently he probably wasn't in his best shape going into the season," Jones said.

A source in the Cowboys organization told me a slightly different version of events last year: Bryant arrived in very good shape but went overboard in early practices and workouts trying to prove it. "Football shape" is about much more than crushing it at the gym, and Bryant didn't ease up the strain on his joints and ligaments the way players do during OTAs, causing himself minor problems that grew into major ones.

Potato, po-tah-to. The Cowboys need Bryant healthy for the season opener on September 11 and have nothing to prove before that. Bryant and Tony Romo, like Nelson and Rodgers, need minimal time to get reacquainted.

With Bryant catching passes from Romo, the Cowboys could easily win the wide-open NFC East. Remember that the core of this team went 12-4 and came within some Bryant near-heroics of the conference championship game two years ago. But without Bryant, the Cowboys will have to rush for 200 yards every week to win games.

It's easy to forget that the Panthers were without their top receiver as they won 15 games and Cam Newton won an MVP award last season. Benjamin tore his left ACL on August 19 of last year. The Panthers got through a Super Bowl season with tight end Greg Olsen as their top receiver and speedy journeyman Ted Ginn Jr. as their top playmaker.

Benjamin missed the early part of OTA on-field sessions. But he was back on the field on May 31. "I'm going full speed on it," Benjamin told reporters last week. "You can't really hold back because if it gives out, it gives out. I just trust in the rehab that we did and feel comfortable with it."

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Benjamin may be going full speed, but his trainers and coaches can still control his workload. Benjamin is not expected to participate in full team drills. The Panthers may make him wear a brace when he faces defenders. Like the Packers with Nelson and Cowboys with Bryant, the Panthers are stressing caution, caution, caution.

But Benjamin is unlike Nelson and Bryant in one important way: He is not nearly as experienced. Benjamin caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2014, but he was very raw, dropping 11 passes, according to Pro Football Focus, and getting shut down hard in several games. Benjamin still needs refinement reps, and his rapport with Newton isn't quite the psychic link that Bryant and Nelson share with their quarterbacks.

That doesn't mean that the Panthers should rush Benjamin into anything. But it does make full-squad participation at the start of training camp a little more critical for Benjamin than it is for the others. With Benjamin returning to the lineup, the Panthers are in good position to repeat as NFC champions. Without him, they look like a contender that lost a lot more than it gained in the offseason.

No, Patriots fans, I have not forgotten Julian Edelman, who suffered a foot injury very similar to Bryant's but much later, or Danny Amendola, on the mend from knee surgery. But the Patriots are the Patriots: Injury information is as forthcoming as news from the Kremlin in 1981, and some unexpected hero will rise to hold down the fort until everyone gets healthy and wins the AFC East. We're talking about the NFC here, where the power structure is less clearly defined and a few wide receiver injuries can change everything.

The Vikings face the Packers in Week 2 and the Panthers in Week 3. Will Benjamin and Nelson be rusty and rickety or ready to dominate? The Vikings face the Cowboys in December (and the Packers again, of course). Will Bryant be catching touchdowns from Romo or limping from injury to injury? The answers to those questions will shape the Vikings' season.

The Seahawks face the Panthers and Packers in December. If they face Nelson and Benjamin at full health and full speed, it makes their road to the Super Bowl very difficult, because it could cost them home-field advantage.

The Cowboys start the season with back-to-back divisional games. Bryant could mean the difference between 2-0 and 0-2 in a division that can be won with a 10-6 record.

You get the idea.

Of course, 1,000 other things can happen between now and the start of training camp, let alone the start of the season. Most of those things cannot be predicted, no matter how carefully we watch minicamp stretches, parse quotes and monitor the news to discover which undrafted rookie made the best one-handed catch.

But we can monitor the progress of three superstar receivers for potential playoff teams and adjust our 2016 expectations accordingly.

In fact, it's one of the few things during minicamps that's really worth doing at all.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeTanier.