Rookie receiver Nelson works his way into the mix
GREEN BAY -- Mark Tauscher can't help but feel sorry for Jordy Nelson. It's like watching the kid who gets picked last for playground kickball or has to stay home to practice his piano playing while the rest of the neighborhood is out having fun.
Every day in the Packers' locker room, the team's four longest-tenured wide receivers engage in a highly competitive game of Spades with their "borrowed" Northwest Airlines cards. The pairings are always the same -- Greg Jennings and Ruvell Martin vs. Donald Driver and James Jones -- leaving Nelson, a rookie from Kansas State, on the outside looking in.
"I always kind of feel bad for Jordy. He wants to get in the game so bad, and he's the odd man out," Tauscher said, although he sounded like he was enjoying Nelson's pain a bit too much. "He (even) brings food and drinks to those guys. He tries to bribe them to let him in the game. And he never gets to play."
"I'm an alternate," Nelson said, trying to explain. "I kind of fill in whenever one of them is out for a little bit."
Which is a lot like Nelson's on-field situation.
"Exactly," he said with a laugh.
Going into the Packers' game Sunday at Tennessee, Nelson, the team's top draft pick, has caught 16 passes for 177 yards and a touchdown, ranking him fifth in receptions on the team behind Jennings (37), Driver (29), tight end Donald Lee (19) and third-down back Brandon Jackson (18) and third in yardage behind Jennings (685) and Driver (330).
Nelson has steadily emerged after catching just one pass -- a 29-yard touchdown at Detroit Sept. 14 -- in his first two games. Since then, he's had three four-reception games, and although he had only two catches for 19 yards against Indianapolis in the Packers' last game, the coaching staff can see Nelson coming around.
"My guess is, he probably just feels a little more comfortable with everything," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "When he's jogging into the huddle and listening to the quarterback call, he's probably thinking a little less, the motion sounds a little more familiar, the formation sounds a little more familiar, the route is a route he's gotten more reps at now. When you're a little more confident, you're able to play a little faster."
But this isn't a case of light finally going on for the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Nelson, according to both Philbin and wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson -- as well as Nelson himself.
"It's just getting brighter," Nelson said.
"I don't think it's ever been off. It was never a case of, 'Boy, he just seems to be lost out there.' Not at all," Robinson said. "After the Seattle game (in which Nelson caught four passes for 42 yards), you're watching the film Monday morning and you're saying to yourself, 'Boy, he's just playing a little faster. He's running better routes.'"
With Jones expected back and 100 percent healthy this week after being in-and-out of the lineup with a nagging knee injury that dates back to an Aug. 22 preseason game at Denver, Nelson's development should allow the Packers to resurrect their "Big 5" five-receiver set, which has been in mothballs for most of the season because of injuries to Jones and Martin (broken finger).
Of course, those injuries are what allowed Nelson to log more than 200 snaps during the first-half of the season, accelerating that development. After catching 46 passes despite a late-season fade as a rookie, Jones (five receptions, 38 yards in three games played) came into training camp as the solid No. 3, Robinson said, and Martin (five catches, 61 yards in five games played) as the clear No. 4.
Now, the 3-4-5 pecking order is in flux, which is fine with Nelson.
"Coming into the season, I didn't know what the situation was going to be, having so many good receivers," said Nelson, who caught 122 passes during his senior season at Kansas State last year.
"Unfortunately, James got hurt, but that's when people have to step in, and I've just tried to do my best to fill in.
"Every week at practice and every time I get to experience something in a game, see something new, my confidence starts to build. I think it's starting to get there."
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