In the Wake of Jordy Nelson's Injury, What Will the Packers Do?

Jordy Nelson is both an NFL stalwart and a fantasy stud. How will Green Bay replace him?

I’ve been through some tough times in my young life. I was teased for my weight in middle school, classmates ignored me and wouldn’t invite me to birthday parties, and the target of my youthful affection never acknowledged me -- and this was a class of fewer than 20 kids. Still, as a born-and-bred Cheesehead, I can imagine nothing in my life that would hurt more than the news that Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson may have a torn ACL and will be out for the season.

Nothing besides tearing my own ACL, but that would be a different story.

Nelson not only was a linchpin to the Packers’ success on the field but also to many fantasy owners this season -- including yours truly. In the wake of such a disaster for the veteran stud receiver, who will step up to fill the void in the Packers’ receiving game? What does this mean for the Packers offense, and how should we approach this situation in fantasy football?

Stick and Stones May Break My Bones

I don’t know how you handle personal tragedy, but this kind of news makes me about ready to curl up into a ball with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and wait for March to roll around.

Now it’s yet “unconfirmed,” according to the team. They are waiting for the results of tests today to confirm the injury and its degree. Still, many injury experts have commented that the noncontact nature of his injury and the mechanism of force on his knee -- planting and rotating to turn upfield after a catch -- is very characteristic of an ACL tear. The ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) is the piece of elastic tissue that helps stabilize the rotational movement of your knee.

With Nelson’s turn on his leg, the force would go right into his ACL to help shift his momentum upfield, and then if the ligament wasn’t able to withstand that force, it would strain or tear (a higher grade of strain).

But Words Can Never Hurt Me

We in Packers Nation and at numberFire are still hoping for the best, but we have to prepare for the worst. With that in mind, we have to understand just what the Packers are losing on the field in an injured Nelson.

For that, we have to turn to our old friend, numberFire's signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

So, how much value are the Packers missing out on and how many opportunities must they reallocate in the wake of Nelson’s injury? The table below shows his career over the last five years -- as well as an average -- in terms of targets, Catch Rate, Reception NEP, and Target NEP.

Year Targets Catch Rate Rec NEP Per-Target Target NEP
2010 64 70.31% 46.79 0.73 29.77
2011 96 70.83% 117.33 1.22 90.91
2012 73 67.12% 67.95 0.93 46.77
2013 127 66.93% 117.07 0.92 60.13
2014 151 64.90% 140.05 0.93 90.21
Avg. 102 68.01% 97.84 0.96 63.56

What’s interesting to me as I look over this data is that Nelson has only received incredible volume for the last two years or so. He's been an unbelievably good player for a long time, as in the span of 2011 to 2014 only 20 other receivers hit the 0.90 per-target Reception NEP mark with at least 70 targets. The only receiver to do that multiple times was Jordy Nelson himself, and he did that for four straight years. That is incredible efficiency, and it shows just how historic the Packers offense in general and Nelson in specific have been.

On the flip side, we have to note that his once-stellar Catch Rate has dwindled from 70.83% on 96 targets -- which is exceptional with that kind of volume -- to just below 65%. If you notice, though, his value metrics and per-target peripherals are all sustaining around the same high-level rate, as are Aaron Rodgers' numbers.

This seems to indicate that Jordy actually is aging faster than we think he is. His volume and his presence in the Packers offense may be giving us a perception as fantasy players that isn't as true in an NFL sense. As he reaches the twilight phase of his career arc (he turned 30 this past year), the offense that he is in may be sustaining his production somewhat. There’s no denying that Jordy Nelson, whether he’s catching 65% or 71% of his passes, is an elite player in the NFL when healthy, and the Packers' offense is going to sorely miss his nearly 20 touchdowns' worth of expected points.

But perhaps there’s also a little something to the idea that his spot on this team is so prolific that it’s sustaining his peak. We saw that with James Jones' spot. Jones left to become an Oakland Raider, and Jarrett Boykin stepped in and performed admirably. Maybe the same could happen here.

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

We know that there are likely at least 151 targets from last season to account for in this logic puzzle.

Let’s look at the production of remaining Packers’ receivers and tight ends from last season as a reference point and see who the most likely candidates to step up are.

Player Targets Catch Rate Rec NEP Per-Play Target NEP
Randall Cobb 127 71.65% 119.13 0.94 84.93
Davante Adams 66 57.58% 38.42 0.58 14.16
Andrew Quarless 46 63.04% 32.06 0.70 15.92
Richard Rodgers 30 66.67% 18.43 0.61 8.25
Jeff Janis 2 100.00% 2.39 1.20 2.39

So, as we see, per-target Reception NEP and Catch Rate get a little useless as we go lower and lower with the volume of targets a player gets, but this is still good to have as a point of reference. With Nelson’s 151 targets missing, as well as Boykin's 12, the Packers have an interesting challenge on their hands to assign 160-plus targets to these players and new rookie addition Ty Montgomery.

What will likely happen is that Cobb may soak up around an additional 20 targets to fill the volume role left by Nelson, giving him around 145. He won't likely be playing the outside on a strict basis in the same capacity as Jordy was, but with Cobb the most veteran and trusted option in the Packers' receiving corps, he will have to take up the mantle and lead.

Davante Adams is the clear next man on the depth chart, but he’s shown very poorly last year and in preseason; I can’t expect that the Packers will give him more than 35 additional targets, putting him around 100. The average Green Bay second receiver over the last five years has had 100 targets exactly. Adams will not be as efficient as Cobb in this role, but he should still get around 75.00 Reception NEP or more.

This leaves us with around 105 targets after we bump up our starters into the top two roles. From there, we may actually see a slight revival of the tight end position in Green Bay, as Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers have also been in the system for a long time and have the savvy to connect with Aaron Rodgers. I expect the tight ends to split an additional 30 targets, but no Packers tight end has had over 60 targets in a season since Jermichael Finley in 2012, and he only did that twice in the last five years.

This is where our sleepers come in. With around 75 targets to spare, I expect there to be a wide open contest for a third receiver to come in and make a splash, and whoever seizes it between second-year Jeff Janis and rookie Montgomery to receive around two-thirds of those. The average third receiver in Green Bay over the last five years has received about 77 targets, but there just isn't the kind of experience or depth on the team that they once had.

For what it's worth, I expect that step-up winner to be Jeff Janis: experience will be key in creating a connection with Rodgers in this offense. Janis did well in practice last year and now has had good showings in training camp and preseason. In fact, he was the first man off the bench when Nelson went down.

If we expect 50 targets or so, he won't be a stud by any means, but he could provide sneaky value at a discount price.

Though this is a great tragedy, there is always a silver lining: Nelson’s injury will create opportunity for other Packers to step up and prove their worth. Let’s hope they can capitalize on it.