Are Packers’ Hopes For 2016 Really Hinging On Health Of Jordy Nelson?

If fans of the Green Bay Packers were forced to name one thing that hindered their beloved team’s ability to defend its NFC North crown and move beyond the second round of last year’s playoffs, it would undoubtedly be the injury-fueled absence of wide receiver Jordy Nelson.

But with Nelson closing in on his highly-anticipated return following months of offseason work in order to be on the field for Green Bay’s season opener in Jacksonville, residents of Packerland had finally begun to breathe a little easier during the past few weeks.

On Tuesday, however, near-disaster dominated team-related headlines when the world learned that Nelson’s other knee has been causing him problems that could delay his return and drastically alter the Pack’s offensive plans for their upcoming campaign.

In the opening drive of a meaningless mid-August preseason contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay’s star receiver suffered a complete tear of the ACL in his right knee, instantly sending him to the sidelines for the entire 2015 season.

Although the Packers were still expected to maintain their offensive dominance during Nelson’s time on the shelf, his absence took an obvious toll on the play of starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers that was often felt throughout the rest of the group.

Since being placed on the team’s “PUP,” or “Physically Unable to Perform” list, one day after announcing his latest injury, Nelson has attempted to calm the raging waters of concern by minimizing the severity of the issue and reassuring Green Bay’s fan base that he’ll be on the field in time for Week 1.

While speaking to the media earlier this week, Nelson insisted that his left knee injury was nothing more than a minor “hiccup.”

“Our end goal is still the same,” said Nelson via ESPN. “We’ll be ready for the regular season. Like I said, there’s just a little hiccup with the other leg.”

“We’re not worried about it,” added Nelson. “We’re going to work through it inside and continue to progress, and we’ll be ready to go at some point during camp and definitely for the season.”

For the offensive future of the Pack, news of Nelson’s latest injury is nauseating. Minus the Pro-Bowler, Green Bay’s supposedly-potent passing attack ranked a horrible 25th in 2015, while the team’s overall offense finished 23rd in the league.

In 2014, Nelson set a new personal standard for success by hauling in a career-best 98 receptions for 1,519 yards — 200 more than his previous high — and 13 touchdowns for the division-winning Packers. Obviously, Nelson and Rodgers developed some serious chemistry during that magical season, and when asked how long it will take to reestablish that irreplaceable connection following the lengthy absence of his favorite target, Green Bay’s star signal-caller told reporters that he was confident it wouldn’t take too long.

“Probably a couple of days,” said Rodgers via ESPN. “He’s a special guy. We’re going to need a little bit of time, not necessarily game reps but just some reps in practice. He’s going to need to feel press coverage again and getting off of that and running and making plays and catches.”

At this point, the worst-case scenario for Green Bay is obvious. If Nelson’s left knee is worse than we think or he somehow makes the injury worse while attempting to return to the gridiron in time for Week 1, the Packers will start the season with some serious question marks at wide receiver.

Last season, former Packer wideout James Jones led the way with a team-high 890 yards receiving — a little more than half of the 1,500-plus yards that Nelson totaled in 2014. And although Randall Cobb caught a team-high 79 receptions and will once again play a huge role in Green Bay’s offense, even he couldn’t match his ultra-impressive numbers from 2014 without Nelson lining up on the opposite sideline.

If another Nelson-related disaster does strike, many within the Packers’ organization seem to think that wideout Davante Adams could shoulder the responsibility of an increased workload despite falling short of expectations for his sophomore season with 50 receptions, 483 yards, and just one touchdown in 13 games.

But even with the off-season acquisition of pass-catching tight end Jared Cook, who’s currently keeping Nelson company on the “PUP” list and a deep receiving corps that includes a handful of promising youngsters, such as second-year wideout Ty Montgomery and playoff hero Jeff Janis, the Packers couldn’t replace the chemistry that exists between Nelson and Rodgers if the team’s star receiver were to miss more time.

For Rodgers, you’d think that the presence of Cobb, Adams, and running back Eddie Lacy would be enough to maintain the notable numbers he posted in 2014. But the stats tell the story, and only one season after finishing with 4,381 yards, 38 touchdowns, a quarterback rating of 77.4, a 65.6 completion percentage, five interceptions, and a passer rating of 112.2 with Nelson, Rodgers totaled 3,821 yards, 31 touchdowns, a QB rating of 64.9, a 60.7 completion percentage, eight interceptions, and a passer rating of 92.7 without him.

In 2011, Rodgers eclipsed almost all of his 2014 totals during an MVP-winning campaign without Nelson, so we know that it’s possible. And if things suddenly go south in training camp and Nelson is plagued by injuries in 2016, that’s exactly the version of Rodgers the Packers will need.

[Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images]