Tuesday, July 26, 2011

James Jones or Jordy Nelson: Who Should Get Paid?

The Packers have a decision to make in their wide receiver corps.

Ted Thompson loves his wideouts, and one of the Packers’ biggest strengths since he came on board has been an extraordinarily deep group of wide receivers. With Greg Jennings and Donald Driver starting, and James Jones and Jordy Nelson backing them up, the wideouts helped take Green Bay all the way to the Super Bowl.

Now it’s contract time, and we have to look at the overall group. Driver will likely retire within the next year or two, and his production has fallen off to the point where he’s more of a No. 3 now than a No. 2. James Jones is a free agent, while Nelson’s rookie contract ends after this year. Whoever gets the contract will eventually replace Driver as the No. 2. So assuming they can’t pay both*, whom should the Packers sign to a long-term deal?
To answer that question, let’s take an in-depth look at both receivers.

 James Jones #89

Over four years (one mostly curtailed by a knee injury), Jones has caught 149 passes for 2,069 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 13.9 yards par catch. He has worked primarily from the No. 3 slot on the depth chart, and has fumbled six times. He led the team this year in average yards after the catch, at 5.16 per, and had two 100-yard games (Minnesota, Dallas). He had one 100-yard game in 2009 (Tampa Bay), one in ’08 (Jacksonville) and one in ’07 (Denver).

Jones definitely possesses more natural talent and speed than Nelson. He’s extremely good at catching low-thrown balls and bailing his QB out on the scramble drill (40 first downs in ’10 to Nelson’s 18). According to the Journal Sentinel’s Bob McGinn, he’s “built like a brick outhouse” and “able to snatch the ball as well as anyone on the roster”; witness his the one-handed touchdown against Minnesota or the fade route over Atlanta’s Brent Grimes for examples.

He’s also prone to drops at the worst possible times. Jones dropped a slant route against Dallas and go routes against Miami, the Jets, the Giants, the Eagles and the Steelers that likely would’ve all gone for touchdowns. In addition, a Rodgers interception against the Dolphins and a Flynn pick vs. the Patriots happened when Jones appeared to quit on the routes. Jones has the speed to outrun the defense on go routes, but he drops too many passes overall (17 in the last two years).

Jordy Nelson #87
Nelson has mostly worked out of the No. 4 slot for the past three years, catching 100 balls for 1,268 yards, six touchdowns and a 12.7 ypc average. He dropped four of 83 targeted passes in his first two years before dropping 10 of 92 this year (inc. playoffs). His résumé includes four drops in the Super Bowl, but more importantly, nine catches for 140 yards and one TD. Also has six fumbles in four seasons, including four lost. Has just one 100-yard game besides the Super Bowl, catching four for 124 against the Giants in ’10.
Nelson’s biggest strength is knowing when to step it up. Played extremely well against the Giants and in the four-game postseason, Super Bowl included. Also made the clutch touchdown catch on fourth down at Atlanta (regular season). His breaks aren’t particularly crisp, but he’s big enough (6’3”. 217 lbs) to effectively box defenders out with his body and keep them away from the football. Definitely the best run blocker among the WRs. Does a good job evading contact at the line of scrimmage. His route-running, hands and agility are all pretty average.

The Verdict?
I honestly don’t have a definitive answer. When I started this, I kept thinking about Jones’ copious drops, and thought that Nelson would be a better, more consistent option. But Jones is more talented and a better possession-type receiver than Nelson is at this stage, and also runs crisper routes.

Both players have benefited from their matchups against No. 3 and 4 corners, and of coverage slanted towards Jennings and Jermichael Finley. I think, however, that Nelson is a bit more suited to deal with defenses paying more attention to him. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of a contract offer they make to Jones, and whether they value Nelson’s big-game production more than they do Jones’ superior potential.
Best guess: Nelson.

*Ted Thompson will need cap space to sign players like Clay Matthews, Josh Sitton and Jermichael Finley to long-term deals in the next year or two. Also, Greg Jennings’ contract expires after 2012, so assuming that the Packers can pick only one receiver is a reasonable assessment.

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