On the way to NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors, Nelson defied conventional wisdom that says a player isn’t the same until two years after a torn ACL -- an idea that Nelson himself acknowledged last season.
Now here’s Nelson, the year after the year after he blew out his right knee in a 2015 preseason game, and the Green Bay Packers believe he could follow in the path of those who say they’re better two years after the injury than in the first season following it.
“I hope he’s one of those guys who has an even better year the year after,” Packers receivers coach Luke Getsy said as OTAs began last week. “I think as the year went on, I think we saw him get better. And a lot of that, too, was he was not doing many football activities until we started our season. I think he was getting in game shape as the season was wearing on, so that’s probably why you saw a really good player by the end of the season again, and I expect nothing less than him to go out and perform at a high level again as soon as we get going.”
A year ago at this time, Nelson was a spectator at OTAs with his eye on a return for the start of training camp in July. But a self-described “hiccup” with his other knee -- he has never revealed exactly what happened -- kept him out until late in training camp. He wasn’t cleared to practice until Aug. 17, and even after that, he didn’t play a single snap in the preseason. Without a game rep in nearly 13 months, Nelson played 54 of a possible 64 snaps in the sweltering head of Jacksonville in the 21016 season opener.
But it wasn’t until much later in the year when Nelson began to resemble the deep-threat receiver he was in 2014, when he caught nine passes (including six for touchdowns) on balls thrown at least 30 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It was a 60-yard bomb to set up a game-winning field goal in Week 15 at Chicago that offered the first glimpse of the old Nelson.
“I think as the year went on, I think you guys saw a guy who got better, so that’s exciting,” Getsy said. “It’s really fun to have him here at this time. Since I’ve been here, I don’t know if he’s had an offseason with me, so that part of it is exciting -- to see how I can help him become a better player on a personal level. He’s a guy who attacks everything the right way all the time; those thoughts don’t even cross my mind. I’m very excited to see what he can do this year, and I’m sure it’s going to be great stuff and he’s going to help us win a lot of football games.”
Although his yards-per-catch average dropped from 15.5 in 2013 and 2014 to 13.0 last season, Nelson caught 97 passes, 14 for touchdowns -- one short of his career high in each category. In some ways, he reinvented himself, moving into the slot at times. He caught 34 of his 97 passes from the slot and totaled 498 of his 1,257 receiving yards from an inside position, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Both were career highs. Six of his 14 touchdown catches came from a slot position.
Yet Nelson isn’t ready to call himself a slot receiver just yet. “I don’t think it was an emphasis we put on last year,” he said. “I think it was the way game-planning came out. I didn’t even pay attention to it. It’s one thing that we’re all able to move around. It’s good for us to do, put us all in different situations and creating mismatches.”
Nelson isn’t a big-picture kind of player -- something that was reinforced during the grueling one-day-at-a-time rehab process. So all he’s thinking about now is how nice it is to actually be on the field for OTAs, which is why it wasn’t a surprise to see him vigorously attacking drills in practice last week just days before he turns 32 on Wednesday.
“When you're at practice, you go full speed,” Nelson said. “There's no half-speed out there, especially as receivers. You've got to do that, because you've got to work on timing and continue to grow on that. You understand the importance. If there's a 50-50 ball in the air, you've got to be smart on both ends, especially right now. You don't want something crazy happening. Just get to the spot where you're prepared for training camp and Week 1.”