By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Jordy Nelson is a free agent after the Oakland Raiders released him on Thursday. It should surprise no one if the Patriots took a shot on the veteran receiver.
Now 34 years old, Nelson is no longer the elite big-play threat he was with the Packers. Three seasons ago, he rebounded from a torn ACL that cost him the entire 2015 season with 97 catches, 1,257 yards, and a league-leading 14 touchdowns. Since then, he’s considerably dropped off that level.
Still, Nelson was actually more productive in his lone season with the Raiders than he was in 2017 with Green Bay. He made 63 catches for 739 yards and 3 touchdowns while starting 14 of his 15 games. Nevertheless, his addition to the Patriots would invite comparisons to the 2018 camp trio of Kenny Britt, Eric Decker, and Jordan Matthews. At this point, maybe Nelson is an aged veteran who has squeezed every last drop out of the sponge in his career.
But Nelson is still better now than those three were a year ago, and he’s always had the best body of work.
A look at some of Nelson’s 2018 tape shows that he’s certainly lost a step from his 2011-16 level. He no longer has the explosiveness to consistently burn defenses deep down the field. The big question is how often he can gain separation against tight man-to-man coverage, an issue that plagued Patriots receivers not named Edelman last season.
But Nelson can still make plays with his smarts and route-running, as he did with this fake that helped him burn the Chiefs secondary for 26 yards in Week 17:
Assuming the physical drop-off is minimal this season, Nelson could still find openings in zone coverage and get open in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field. With the Raiders, he was still appreciably efficient when targeted. His 71.6 catch percentage ranked 15th among all receivers – a better rate than DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen, and Edelman. STATS Inc. credited him with just one drop.
Nelson still lines up all over the field, but would have a chance to be a prototypical “X” or “Z” receiver for Tom Brady on the perimeter. Brady would rarely need Nelson to get open more than 10-15 yards down the field. He can still move the chains, run fearlessly over the middle, and catch in traffic.
He may have to do that last part often, because he definitely can’t get separation like he used to. His silence against the Ravens’ top-ranked defense in Week 12 (one target, no catches) shows that he could struggle against more talented, better-coached secondaries. He struggled all afternoon against cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey in that game, regardless of scheme.
But as a Patriots free agent signing? Nelson is still more talented than any of the aging veterans they brought in last year. He’d have a much better chance of sticking as their No. 2 or 3 wideout, would bring some needed size to the position, and he’d likely come at a minimal cost on a one-year deal. If he doesn’t work out, the Pats can simply cut him loose before the season. At the most he’d cost them a little bit of money and time spent in training camp.
For a Patriots roster that’s at least in need of depth at receiver, Nelson would be a worthy pickup in the hope that he can contribute as a secondary weapon for Brady. There’s little to lose in the long run.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.