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Final hurdle in Jordy Nelson's return to Packers: Confidence in his knee

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Jordy Nelson a crucial component of Green Bay's offense (0:50)

Tim and Matt Hasselbeck explain how crucial WR Jordy Nelson is to the Packers' offense and how Nelson opens up the field for Randall Cobb. (0:50)

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- No matter what Jordy Nelson does when he practices Monday for the first time in nearly a year, it probably won’t reveal much about whether the Green Bay Packers receiver can return to a Pro Bowl level.

But at least his first practice will give the world a look at where the 31-year-old is in his return from the worst injury of his career.

As coach Mike McCarthy said over the weekend, Nelson likely will be limited to only individual and position-group drills at first.

Only Nelson and the Packers’ medical staff know exactly what they’ll be looking for upon his return from his torn right ACL last Aug. 23.

“The Packers' rehab staff likely has a very specific plan for what they'd like to see out of Jordy in his early return to practice, with an outline going forward toward the start of the season, all of which can fluctuate given his response to whatever additions he makes on any given day of practice,” said ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell, a physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist. “There may even be days where he is scaled back that are by design, as opposed to being in response to a setback.”

With the caveat that no one outside of Nelson and the Packers knows exactly what’s going on with both his reconstructed right knee or the “hiccup” -- as Nelson called it -- in his left knee, Bell agreed to help give us a guide of what to look for upon Nelson’s return:

Q: How much is reasonable to expect a player to do after he’s missed nearly a full year of football?

Bell: We also don't know exactly how much he's been doing out of public view so we don't know precisely what his starting point will be in practice. I would not be surprised if he is limited to certain components of practice initially [such as individual or position drills versus 11-on-11]. I imagine there will be plenty of monitoring of his response to various components of practice as well as his response at the end of the session and again the next morning. The fact that he's a veteran and familiar with the offense certainly helps. I also expect his rapport with the coaching and medical staff helps everyone's confidence that they're collectively proceeding and progressing at an appropriate pace.

Q: What should we look for to tell whether the ACL surgery/recovery has impacted the way he runs and cuts?

Bell: He's been running for a while now, so straight running probably isn't going to reveal much. The final hurdle coming off of an ACL reconstruction is confidence in the knee when doing the moves most likely to stress the ACL. That includes sharp deceleration, pivoting, cutting -- most difficult when in combination. Usually those elements are reintroduced softly. For instance, an athlete will typically run more curl routes at a certain percentage of top-end speed before progressing to top-speed, stop on dime, hard break routes. There's the running itself. Then there's the running while trying to catch a pass. Then there's the running with the ball in the air while trying to make a move on a defender. There's also the landing from any aerial movements. As these elements are reintegrated without incident, it builds the athlete's confidence in his surgically repaired knee. The increased reps help reinforce the confidence and improve the timing [one of the elements that suffers the most when an athlete has been away from the game for an extended period]. The rapport Jordy has so well-established with his quarterback certainly helps him here.

Q: What are the potential issues that could come up following a return to practice?

Bell: Swelling is a red flag that medical staffs take seriously, because trying to perform high-level activities on a swollen knee can perpetuate something that is aggravated or increase the risk for further injury. Muscular soreness is to be expected; pain is not. The athlete has to distinguish between the two.

Q: What does the fact that he had the “hiccup” in his other knee tell you about his rehab process?

Bell: It's not uncommon to develop something compensatory on the opposite side. Since we never really got specifics about the injury, it's hard to characterize how significant it is/was or how it might or might not be related to his ACL surgery. Ultimately, we just need to see how he progresses overall to know whether this is also in the rearview mirror. It's also worth remembering that he came off hip surgery entering last season, so he's had to undergo some significant rehab recently. The good news is that he likely has had a very detailed regimen requiring him to address strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, etc., in ways he otherwise wouldn't have. Ultimately those things could help an athlete extend his career.