Just about 24 hours before the start of free agency, major news emerged from Green Bay, as the Packers cut wide receiver Jordy Nelson and reportedly plan to sign tight end Jimmy Graham.
New general manager Brian Gutekunst officially announced Nelson's release on Tuesday afternoon, while ESPN reported Graham's signing, which it said was for three years. The deal won’t become official until free agency begins at 3 p.m. on Wednesday.
"We cannot thank Jordy enough for all that he has given the Green Bay Packers and our community for the past 10 years," Gutekunst said in a statement. "He has been an exemplary professional and teammate and greatly contributed to our success. Jordy will always be a member of the Packers family and we look forward to his eventual induction into the Packers Hall of Fame. We wish Jordy, his wife Emily, and the rest of their family all the best."
The 32-year-old Nelson has been one of Green Bay’s most popular and productive players, though he had his worst statistical season since 2009 last year. Nelson played in 15 games – more than half of them with Brett Hundley at quarterback in place of the injured Aaron Rodgers – and he caught just 53 passes for 482 yards and six touchdowns. Long known as a speedy, downfield threat on the outside, Nelson’s 9.1-yard average was the lowest of his 10-year career.
By cutting Nelson, the Packers save more than $10 million in salary cap space for 2018. It's possible Green Bay wants to re-sign Nelson to a more team-friendly contract for next season, or perhaps the veteran wideout will retire. Regardless, it is hard to believe Gutekunst wouldn’t have already had those conversations with the fan-favorite receiver – as well as with Rodgers, one of Nelson’s close friends – before making such a big decision.
"You certainly don't want to let (good players) walk out of here, but this is a big puzzle," Gutekunst said during a press conference Tuesday night, declining to divulge whether he offered Nelson the chance to return on a restructured deal. "There are limitations, and you can't keep everyone. He's a good player, and those shoes will be hard to fill, but we're going to work really hard to do that."
As for Graham, this would be the second year in a row the Packers added a pass-catching tight end in free agency. Last season, they signed Martellus Bennett to a three-year, $21 million deal, though it didn’t work out as planned, with Bennett underperforming (24 catches for 244 yards and zero touchdowns) and then leaving the team under injury controversy.
Gutekunst, who took over for longtime GM Ted Thompson immediately after Green Bay's season ended without a playoff appearance for the first time since 2008, has said publicly before that the Packers would be more aggressive in free agency than they were under his draft-and-develop predecessor. Green Bay had been linked to high-profile players such as cornerback Richard Sherman, defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and receivers Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson. Gutekunst couldn't made any specific free-agency player comments on Tuesday night.
Graham, considered the top tight end on the market, had been one of the NFL’s best pass-catching weapons for the Saints from 2010 to 2014, and recent league rumors had him returning to New Orleans. Over the last three seasons with the Seahawks, however, Graham wasn’t as prolific, averaging 57 receptions for 683 yards and six touchdowns per year in Seattle.
Still, since entering the NFL as a third-round pick in 2010, Graham’s 69 total touchdowns rank second among tight ends and third among all pass-catchers, behind only Rob Gronkowski (76) and Dez Bryant (73).
The 6-foot-7 Graham is most dangerous in the red zone, where he caught all 10 of his touchdowns in 2017, tops in the league at his position. But otherwise, his time in Seattle was up and down. The Seahawks acquired Graham in a blockbuster trade with New Orleans in 2015, and that season he suffered a torn patellar tendon in November that caused him to miss five games. Though he didn't miss a game over the next two years, Graham appeared a step slower and he struggled with drops, tying for the second-most in the NFL with seven in 2017.
Last year, Packers tight ends combined for just two scores, tied for the fewest in the league. Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy's offense have been more productive with a pass-catching tight end, such as Jermichael Finley and Jared Cook. Green Bay entered this offseason with only the underwhelming Lance Kendricks and free-agent-to-be Richard Rodgers at the position, so they needed a talent upgrade.
Nelson, who was selected by the Packers in the second round (No. 36 overall) of the 2008 NFL Draft from Kansas State, played in 136 regular-season games (88 starts) during his 10 seasons with Green Bay. He ranks second in franchise history in touchdown receptions (69), third in receptions (550) and fifth in receiving yards (7,848).
Nelson was selected to the Pro Bowl and named second-team All-Pro after the 2014 season, when he set career highs in receptions (98) and receiving yards (franchise-record 1,519), while also catching 13 touchdowns. After he missed the entire 2015 season with a knee injury, Nelson became the first Packer to be named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year after registering 1,257 yards on 97 receptions (13.0-yard average) with a league-high 14 receiving touchdowns in 2016.
In his decade with the Packers, Nelson started eight of the 13 postseason games in which he appeared. He is the franchise playoff leader with 54 receptions, ranks fourth in receiving yards (668) and is tied with Randall Cobb for third in receiving touchdowns (five). He led the Packers with nine catches for 140 yards (15.6 avg.) and a touchdown in the Super Bowl XLV victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.