What if Jordy Nelson still has juice left?

by Ray Marzarella ·

Everything was going so well for Jordy Nelson. He returned from a torn ACL in the 2015 preseason to post an NFL-second best 19.1 fantasy points per game in 2016. He then began the 2017 season on an absolute tear. His year started with three straight 20-plus point fantasy outings. With six touchdowns in his first four games, all that could derail him was an Aaron Rodgers injury. Week 6 saw Rodgers go down with a fractured clavicle, and the entire offense was torpedoed as a result. No one knew what to expect with Brett Hundley under center. I even advocated for fantasy gamers to acquire him in case he performed above expectation. Lesson learned. The advanced stats, metrics, and analytics player profiles indicate that Hundley was clearly not ready to positively contribute to an NFL offense.

One of 2017’s under-reported fantasy football stories was the degree to which Jordy Nelson‘s production plummeted after Week 6, his final game with double digit fantasy points. He was unusable from that point on, with a single top-48 fantasy performance over his final nine games. He failed to surpass five catches, 35 yards or 7.5 fantasy points in that span. Oddly, more people are blaming this collapse on Nelson looking washed up than on Brett Hundley‘s awful performance under center. As is the case with matters like this, the truth likely lies somewhere in between. But there’s enough information hidden in the metrics to suggest that Nelson’s poor 2017 was more a product of Hundley’s performance than it was of Nelson losing a step.

Target Separation

No one should have expected Brett Hundley to come close to matching Aaron Rodgers in terms of efficiency. Though he played in only seven games, Rodgers continued to post otherworldly efficiency numbers. The biggest indictment against Hundley is that his pass catchers averaged 1.92 (No.3) yards of Target Separation. Granted a big reason for that was Geronimo Allison‘s number of 2.54 (No. 2). But Jordy Nelson‘s number of 1.85 (No. 19) suggests that he was still able to get open regularly. Nelson’s number was lower than Randall Cobb‘s 2.03 (No. 11), but was greater than Davante Adams‘ 1.80 (No.22). So if he was doing his part in getting open, it stands to reason that Hundley wasn’t putting him in a position to succeed. And the numbers back this up.

Target Quality

It’s bad enough that Jordy Nelson failed to break 100 targets for the first time since the 2012 season. With a 70.5-percent (No. 73) Catchable Target Rate, that means that 26 of Nelson’s 88 targets were deemed uncatchable. That equates to nearly 30-percent of all of his targets not having a chance to be converted.

2017 WR Catchable Target Rates & Snap Shares

A quick trip to PlayerProfiler’s Data Analysis Tool shows us that only two receivers with a higher snap share than Nelson’s 93.4-percent (No. 9) saw a lower percentage of catchable targets. One of whom, T.Y. Hilton, went through the entire 2017 season without his starting quarterback. The other, DeAndre Hopkins, led all WRs in targets while spending half the season catching passes from Tom Savage. Hilton and Hopkins each saw 100-plus targets. While Nelson’s combination of situation and decreased opportunity contributed to his sub-10 fantasy point per game season.

Red Zone Efficiency

Imagine for a moment what Jordy Nelson‘s red zone numbers would’ve looked like had Aaron Rodgers not gotten hurt. After leading all wide receivers by a wide margin in red zone targets  (32) and red zone receptions (21) in 2016, he began 2017 with eight catches on ten red zone targets in his first five games. He saw two red zone targets the rest of the way, both from Brett Hundley, and caught both.

Check out Jordy Nelson on PlayerProfiler’s Updated Dynasty Rankings:

In a relatively weak year for red zone targets, his 12 were still halfway to league leader Keenan Allen‘s total of 24. And his red zone reception numbers were also still near the top of the league. If Rodgers had remained healthy, Nelson could’ve easily led the league in various red zone categories once again. It also could’ve happened had Hundley locked onto Nelson the way he ended up locking onto Davante Adams. When in doubt, we shouldn’t be surprised when the inexperienced QB locks onto the receiver who’s almost seven years younger and a more explosive athlete at this stage of his career.

Because Jordy Nelson was outproduced by Davante Adams last year doesn’t mean Nelson is washed up. Especially when his 2017 performance metrics don’t back up that assessment. He was on the field a ton, was getting open and continued to be a force in the red zone. But Brett Hundley‘s inability to succeed at the NFL level has proven to be the biggest reason behind Nelson’s 2017 collapse. People can point to stats like his decline in yards per reception over the last few years as an argument that he’s slowing down. And while his advancing age has contributed to that, he’s shown that he absolutely still has some juice left.

What Happens Next?

No one knows what John Gruden’s NFL version of The Expendables known as the Oakland Raiders is going to look like once the regular season kicks off. We do know that Derek Carr is not as good as Aaron Rodgers, but that he is unequivocally better than Brett Hundley. We know that Carr enjoyed a 91.6-percent (No. 6) protection rate behind an offensive line that remained largely intact from last season. This same line offered a 48.1 (No. 28) Run Blocking Efficiency grade. This bodes well for the chances of the passing game to be efficient enough in 2018 for Nelson to return or exceed his fantasy value.

A point of contention could be that Derek Carr‘s red zone completion percentage has hovered around the 50-percent mark for the last few seasons. To this I say, that Jordy Nelson‘s averaging more yards of Target Separation than both Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree last season inspires hope that he can help Carr improve in that area of the field. Would you be surprised if Cooper, who’s only heading into his age-24 season, continues to struggle in the red zone? Even if John Gruden is serious about making Cooper the focal point of the offense, Nelson could end up being put in a position to score a copious amount of red zone touchdowns in 2018. And as a player who showed last year that he still has juice left, he could once again exceed everyone’s fantasy football expectations.