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Jordy Nelson: Elite Wide Receiver?

It took three years for Jordy Nelson to make a name for himself in the NFL.

Packers fans had high expectations for him early in his career after being a second-round pick out of Kansas State, but he failed to make a noticeable impact around the league or in fantasy football. He caught 33 passes for 366 yards and 2 TDs in his rookie season. His career highs at that point for a single game was 4 catches for 42 yards (which he did against both the Cowboys and Seahawks.) Not much of a memorable impact.

In his second season, he didn't do much more. He set a new career high for yards in a game, 71 against the Steelers, but overall his numbers went down and he caught 22 for 320 and 2 scores in 13 games. Most wide receivers that become league stars start to show potential around the middle of their second year, but Nelson would wait much longer than that.

During the regular season last year, he was still mostly the same Jordy Nelson, except maybe he was a more consistent version of that. He caught 45 passes for 582 yards and 2 TDs and had his first 100 yard game. But that was the only game of the year in which he had more than 65 yards in a game. His career high for catches in a game was 5. Then all of a sudden he turned a corner in the playoffs (and the Packers are so grateful that he did.)

In the divisional game against Atlanta, he caught 8 passes for 79 yards and a TD.

In the NFC Championship against the Bears, he had 4 for 67.

Then in the Super Bowl he had the best statistical game of his career, catching 9 passes for 140 yards and a TD, but he also had three drops.

Before the season started he was a hot commodity in fantasy drafts, but I had a warning of caution on drafting Nelson: Don't draft the player who had Super Bowl heroics, draft the player that Jordy Nelson is. A 50 catch, 600 yard receiver at best.

Nobody can be right all of the time.

Nelson is enjoying a season so good that he could be considered one of the top 10 players at his position in the game. A look at why after the jump....

Yesterday, I pointed out some interesting statistics on Football Outsiders regarding wide receiver defense. Also on FO, there are rankings of wide receivers based on DYAR and DVOA. The most simple way to put it in terms of footballs advanced stats is "Think of it as WAR." It's not an evaluation of Wins Above Replacement, but more along the lines of Yards Above Replacement. Well.. that's basically exactly what it is.

DVOA represents Value Over Average, with defense being taken into account.

Jordy Nelson ranks third in DYAR, taking defense into account, and 2nd in YAR, which does not. Nelson then ranks first in the NFL in DVOA. He's the most valuable wide receiver per play in the NFL as of today. Why?

Per NFL Advanced Stats, Nelson ranks 2nd in the NFL in catch%, grabbing 74.6% of his targets behind only Percy Harvin. The major difference between the two, and between Nelson and the rest of the NFL, is what he does with those targets. His 13.3 yards per target ranks first in the NFL, and 25.4% of his targets go for 15 or more yards.

Though Greg Jennings is the number one wide receiver in Green Bay, accumulating 22.9% of Aaron Rodgers targets (compared to 16.5% for Nelson) he doesn't do as much with his opportunities as Nelson does. Nobody in the league does.

Consider the fact that Nelson's 59 targets is tied for 46th most in the NFL (with Laurent Robinson, Brandon Gibson, and IM-NOT-EVEN-KIDDING Andre Roberts of Arizona) but that his 782 receiving yards ranks 12th, and his 9 touchdowns ranks 3rd, or 2nd if you don't include Rob Gronkowski.

Now, consider the difference between Calvin Johnson and Jordy Nelson. Are they on the same level? Well, yes and no.

Yes, in terms of fantasy football, you might actually get the same production over the course of a certain time. And there are categories in which Johnson fails to come close to Nelson, like Megatrons catch rate of just 58%. Or that Calvin has been targeted twice as much but doesn't have even close to twice the amount of production.

Then there's the "No" part.

Calvin Johnson is a 6'5, 236 lb, solid muscle, athletic freak with great hands, instincts and at times impossible to cover. He catches 58% of his targets, averages less yards per target and less yards per catch, but he's also the sole focal point of any defense. He draws their best cover corner and then usually a second guy on top of that. Megatron will always be the more valuable wide receiver (and most valuable in the league) because he changes the way a defense plays and what the rest of the Lions offense can do. And even as the most feared receiver in the league that draws the most attention, he's still near the top of every category.

If you had an imaginary draft where every player in the NFL went into the draft pool and teams had to start over, I can't imagine him not being a top 10 pick. Nelson would probably fall a few rounds.

Jordy Nelson also benefits from the Calvin-like attention that Greg Jennings gets for the Packers offense. In the same way that Wes Welker benefits from Tom Brady having reliable targets in Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Deion Branch. The Pats don't have a true number one wide receiver, but Brady is able to keep defenses guessing because of how many options he's willing to use and trust.

Is Nelson on a Welker path to success, potentially catching 75 balls for 1,000-1,200 yards and 12 TDs every season?

It's interesting that teammate Randall Cobb, a rookie that could one day steal much of Nelson's production, compared him to "Ricky Proehl from Carolina."

Mostly interesting because Proehl played in the NFL for 17 years and only spent 3 of them with the Panthers. Understandable though since Cobb is so young, and that Proehl played in the Super Bowl with Carolina in 2005. (Though he made two Super Bowls with the Rams.)

Also interesting because Proehl did once put up numbers that were somewhat similar to Nelson, but Jordy should not want to necessarily be Proehl. He should want to have a 17-year productive career, but Proehl never had an elite season and he peaked at 25.

In his first four years in the league with the Cardinals, Proehl averaged 59 catches for 797 yards and 4 TDs per season. His best year came in 1993 when he caught 65 passes for 877 yards and 7 TDs. That would seem to just be a taste of more to come, but it really wasn't.

He had another decent season with the Cards, then two bad seasons with the Seahawks in 1995 and 1996. He would return to normal Ricky production with the Bears in '97 and the Rams in '98, but once Torry Holt arrived in 1999, he was relegated to being the number three guy and his production suffered. During the Rams Super Bowl year when Kurt Warner was breaking records, he caught 33 passes for 349 yards and 0 TDs.

Nelson is already just a hair shy of topping the best season of Proehl's career, so Cobb sold him a little bit short there and was potentially comparing him to the first white wide receiver that popped into his head that was no longer in the league. I guess he's a little too young to remember Wayne Chrebet.

Football Outsiders similarity scores for his production over 2009-2010 says his most similar production compares to D.J. Hackett, the former Seahawk and Panther wide receiver. He's a player that I obviously remember quite well, and when he left Seattle to join the Panthers, it seemed like he was also a guy on the rise. But he played part of one season with Carolina and was out of the NFL. That obviously is not the same path as Nelson, and it will be very interesting to see what his best sim score is after this year is taken into account.

Nelson is more than just a possession receiver though. He was a track star in high school, played quarterback, and was converted from cornerback to wide receiver at K-State. He's a possession guy that is also a phenomenal athlete. During his senior season with the Wildcats he caught 122 passes for 1,606 yards and 11 TDs. He can put up numbers.

If you took race out of the equation, he might be more like Cris Carter, the NFL Future Hall of Famer from Minnesota. Carter was also a slow starter, not topping 1,000 yards until his 7th season in the league. Carter was of similar size and ability as Nelson, and also benefited from having a number one receiver lining up on the other side.

My biggest concerns with Nelson are this:

Inconsistency - He's been good in 7 games this year, and in 4 games this year he's been useless in fantasy. That would be 5 games if not for a very late 84 yard touchdown catch against the Panthers in week 2. Which means he's that close to being good half of the time and bad half of the time. (Again, this is only fantasy, not saying that Nelson was useless in real life in those games.)

No Longer a Secret - Defenses didn't take Nelson so seriously to start out the year. He's said himself that they don't really look at him and respect him. That's not going to be the case anymore. Even though they can't ignore Jennings, Jermichael Finley, Donald Driver, Randall Cobb, and James Jones, they will focus more attention on Nelson for this year and going forward. It might not matter with his talent, but it's important that they will put more focus on him.

The Ball Has To Go Around - Did you see how many players I just mentioned? Rodgers has weapons. Lots of them. Some days its Nelsons day, and other times it belongs to Jones or Finley, and Cobb is a great up-and-comer.

First Year of Success - In terms of drafts next year, Nelson will be going very high if this continues. He will probably be a top 10 WR. But after four years in the league, he will have had just one great season. I prefer to invest high picks in proven players. As awesome as he has been, he wouldn't be the first player to be amazing one year, and an afterthought the next.

That being said, I like Nelson a lot. The truth is, I probably won't have him in any leagues next year because I won't value him as highly as others will. It's not that I don't see him as a top 10 WR, I've obviously just heaped tons of praise on him, I'm just not as risky as other owners. I prefer to take a safe route and find high potential later in the draft. I would probably rather have Cobb in the 8th round than Nelson in the 2nd or 3rd.

What do YOU think?

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