GREEN BAY — The answer came with no hesitation. As Jordy Nelson looked around the Green Bay Packers’ locker room — his workplace for a decade — that late December afternoon, he was clear on his intent: The veteran wide receiver wanted to finish out his contract and play at least one more season. After that? Wait and see.
“Obviously one more (year) for sure,” Nelson replied when asked how long he planned on playing. “Everyone wants to end playing out their contract. No one wants to get cut. So I think one more, and then I think at the end of that year, I’ll analyze everything, evaluate how I feel, how the game is, and obviously what this organization wants to do.”
The Packers had a different timeline. Nelson found that out Tuesday, when the team decided to release him and create more than $10 million in salary cap space — space they used on veteran tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, whom the team will sign Wednesday when the new NFL league year officially begins. A league source confirmed that the Packers had agreed to terms with Graham, a five-time Pro Bowl selection with New Orleans and Seattle, and Wlkerson, a 2015 Pro Bowler with the Jets.
Whether the addition of Graham will provide a significant boost to the Packers offense that was in dire need of tight end help remains to be seen. But it’ll be strange to see the Packers line up this fall without No. 87 in the lineup.
In a post on his Instagram account, quarterback Aaron Rodgers wrote that it was “hard to find the right words today to express what ‘87’ means to me. No teammate exemplified what it means to be a Packer quite like him.
“From living in (Green Bay) full time, his incredible contributions to the city, state, and region, to his consistent, reliable play on the field. Definitely a sad day and the toughest part of this business.”
Speaking at an evening news conference at Lambeau Field, first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst called Nelson “one of the great Packers who played here. He’s everything you want a pro to be and he’ll be missed.”
Asked if the Packers offered Nelson the opportunity to come back in 2018 at a reduced salary, Gutekunst replied, “There were a lot of discussions that went on. In fairness to him, we won’t get into those kind of discussions.”
But one NFL source said the Packers did make Nelson an offer, one worth slightly more than the 10-year veteran minimum, to return in 2018.
Later in Tuesday night’s news conference, Gutekunst was asked if there was a number at which he would have kept Nelson.
“There (are) those kind of things that you go through,” Gutekunst said. “But at the end of the day, I think ultimately we just decided that where we’re heading, this is the best decision for us.”
Nelson, who turns 33 in May, was scheduled to earn $10.25 million this season and carry a salary cap number of $12.52 million. He leaves the Packers ranked third in franchise history in receptions (550), fifth in receiving yards (7,848), second in touchdown receptions (69) and third in 100-yard receiving games (25).
No one in team history caught more passes in the postseason than Nelson (54), including his nine receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown in the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A 2008 second-round pick from Kansas State, Nelson’s three biggest seasons came in 2011 (68 receptions, 1,263 yards, 15 touchdowns), 2014 (98-1,519-13) and 2016 (97-1,257-14) – with the 2011 season being his breakout year, 2014 being his first Pro Bowl season and 2016 earning him the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award after he missed the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL in his right knee.
ESPN, which broke the news of Nelson’s release before the team officially announced the move, reported that Nelson does not intend to retire and wants to play in 2018. Attempts to reach Nelson Tuesday evening were unsuccessful.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Nelson will meet with the Oakland Raiders on Wednesday, according to a source.
With Rodgers sidelined for 10 games with a fractured right collarbone, Nelson caught just 53 passes for 482 yards and six touchdowns last season. All six of those TDs came before Rodgers’ Oct. 15 injury.
Asked if he talked to Rodgers about the decision, Gutekunst replied, “Talked to Aaron afterward. Had a conversation with him afterward, but not before.”
Nelson knew in December that changes could be in store — in addition to his contract, fellow veteran receiver Randall Cobb has a 2018 base salary of $8.6 million and is set to count $12.7 million against the cap — and pointed to the team’s decision to release three-time Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton on the eve of the 2016 season as proof that you never know what might happen.
“I’ve seen enough crazy things in this locker room that I don’t ever assume anything,” Nelson said. When the idea of a pay cut came up, Nelson said, “If they give me a call, I’ll listen and see what they want to do.”
Asked in December how much wife, Emily, and the couple’s three children would factor into his plans, Nelson replied, “They factor probably more than I want to do. My wife gives me the answer, ‘You can do whatever you want to do.’ She wants me to keep playing because she doesn’t want to leave Green Bay.”