GREEN BAY — Hello, Jimmy Graham. Goodbye, Jordy Nelson.
The Green Bay Packers made two major moves on Tuesday, coming to terms with Graham, a five-time Pro Bowl tight end, while releasing Nelson, one of the top wide receivers in franchise history.
An NFL source confirmed both moves, which were reported first by ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The Packers announced Nelson’s release shortly after the news broke.
“We cannot thank Jordy enough for all that he has given the Green Bay Packers and our community for the past 10 years. He has been an exemplary professional and teammate and greatly contributed to our success,” Packers first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst said in a statement released by the team. “Jordy will always be a member of the Packers family and we look forward to his eventual induction into the Packers Hall of Fame.”
Nelson, set to turn 33 in May, was scheduled to earn $10.25 million in 2018 and carry a salary-cap number of $12.52 million. Clearly, in order to sign Graham — whose deal is for three years but cannot become official until Wednesday, when the new league year begins — first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst knew he needed to create enough cap room to not only add Graham but improve the team’s struggling defense.
Graham, 31, spent the past three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks after breaking into the league with the New Orleans Saints as a third-round pick in 2010. A former basketball player at Miami (Fla.) who played only one year of college football, Graham caught just 57 passes for 520 yards (9.1-yard average) last season with the Seahawks but did have 10 touchdown receptions.
The Saints, who traded Graham to the Seahawks in 2015 for center Max Unger and a first-round draft pick, were reportedly interested in bringing Graham back to New Orleans, where he caught at least 85 passes for four consecutive years and had monster seasons in 2011 (99 receptions, 1,310 yards, 11 TDs) and 2013 (86 receptions, 1,215 yards, 16 touchdowns).
Richard Rodgers, a 2014 third-round pick who has played more snaps at tight end for the Packers than anyone else the past four seasons, is an unrestricted free agent. The only other tight ends the Packers had on the roster before moving on Graham were ex-University of Wisconsin standout Lance Kendricks and youngster Emanuel Byrd.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has always believed that his offense is most effective when it has an athletic tight end who can work the middle of the field, as Jermichael Finley and Jared Cook have in the past and as Bennett was supposed to do last season. The 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham would fit the bill.
Nelson, meanwhile, leaves Green Bay having been in the top 5 in franchise history in receptions (third, 550), receiving yards (fifth, 7,848) and touchdown catches (second, 69).
It’s unclear whether the Packers approached Nelson about taking a pay cut to stay and he refused, or if they simply decided it was time to move on from him.
With quarterback Aaron Rodgers sidelined for 10 games with a fractured right collarbone, Nelson caught just 53 passes for 482 yards and six touchdowns last season. All six of those TDs came before Rodgers’ Oct. 15 injury.
After tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during an August 2015 preseason game at Pittsburgh, Nelson returned in 2016 and caught 97 passes for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns to earn the NFL’s comeback player of the year award.
Speaking at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last month, Gutekunst didn’t sound as if he intended to cut Nelson.
“He’s been a great player here,” Gutekunst said. “You saw early in the year the impact he had in those games. He’s still a really good player in my eyes.”
“We cannot thank Jordy enough for all that he has given the Green Bay Packers and our community for the past 10 years.” Packers’ GM Brian Gutekunst on Jordy Nelson