It’s a good bet the Packers would have moved on from Nelson whether or not they pursued — and eventually came to an agreement with — Graham on Tuesday.
Regardless, the 2018 season will be a comparison of what Graham does for the Packers’ offense to what those who believe Nelson still had something left in the tank think he could have given them.
It was that kind of emotional swing on Tuesday afternoon, when one minute ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Packers will sign Graham — perhaps the top free-agent tight end — and 14 minutes later he reported that the Packers would cut Nelson.
One can only imagine what quarterback Aaron Rodgers must have felt. In one day, Rodgers lost one of his best friends on the team but gained what could be one of his biggest weapons for this season.
Rodgers, like everyone else, had to see that Nelson wasn’t himself late last season — and not all of that should be blamed on fill-in quarterback Brett Hundley‘s inaccuracy. Nelson lacked explosiveness, as evident in his career-low 2.45 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Any hope that the Packers might bring back Nelson at a lower cost than his $10.25 million scheduled pay for 2018 should have been dashed when new general manager Brian Gutekunst essentially said the next time they will see Nelson is at his “eventual induction into the Packers Hall of Fame.”
In Nelson, the Packers moved on from one of their all-time best receivers; he ranks third in team history in catches (550), fifth in receiving yards (7,848) and second in touchdowns (69). His chemistry with Rodgers was unmatched. Together, they hooked up for 65 touchdowns, breaking Brett Favre and Antonio Freeman’s club record of 58.
Nelson wasn’t the fastest receiver ever to put on a Packers uniform, nor was he the best route runner. But his body control may have been better than anyone who has ever caught passes in Green Bay. His work on the sideline was superb. The way he snapped around to catch back-shoulder passes from Rodgers was unmatched. During the 2014 season, he explained, in part, how he did so for an ESPN story.
In Graham, the Packers will try to replicate what they got from the tight end position in 2016, when Jared Cook played such an immense role in the “run-the-table” winning streak that turned the Packers from a 4-6 team to one that lost in the NFC Championship Game.
An NFL scout said after Tuesday’s moves that, at this point, he would pick Graham over Nelson.
“But I’d rather have Cook,” the scout added.
Cook developed a Nelson-like chemistry with Rodgers during his only season with the Packers. They tried to do the same thing last offseason when they signed Martellus Bennett, but it turned into a disaster.
Now, it will be up to Graham to help soothe the sting of Nelson’s demise.