GREEN BAY – One of the Brian Gutekunst’s first decisions as the Packers’ general manager undoubtedly will go down as one of his most difficult.
Gutekunst, entering his third month on the job, chose to part ways with veteran receiver Jordy Nelson on the eve of free agency Tuesday. A second-round pick in 2008, the former walk-on safety at Kansas State was a staple of the Packers’ passing offense for the past decade and finishes his run in Green Bay as the third all-time leading receiver in franchise history.
The choice to part with the 10-year veteran wasn’t easy. Over the past few days, however, Gutekunst and his front office felt it was a necessary evil as the Packers looked to manage their salary cap and build towards the 2018 season.
“I think Jordy is a really good player, and you certainly don’t want to let him walk out the door,” Gutekunst said. “But this is a big puzzle, and there’s limitations. You can’t keep everybody. As we went through this, we thought this was in our best interest. The best interest for our team moving forward.”
Nelson, who eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards four times with the Packers, won a Super Bowl during his third season in Green Bay and ranks fourth in the NFL in touchdown receptions (63) since 2011 despite missing the entire 2015 season due to injury.
Nelson arguably had his most impressive season coming off his torn anterior cruciate ligament when he caught 97 passes for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns. He later was honored as the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
During his time in Green Bay, Nelson developed a sixth sense on the field with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whether it was their back-shoulder passes, spectacular sideline connections or overall production on scramble drills.
The duo, which had been the league’s longest active quarterback-receiver combination, set a new franchise record for touchdown connections in 2016.
“I think one of the things that always stood out about Jordy to me was his preparation, his sacrifice to the game and to make himself prepared not only physically, but mentally,” said Gutekunst, who spoke with Rodgers after the decision was made to let Nelson go.
“Playing big at big moments, you know, I think he always came through for us. I thought in scramble plays I thought his ability to kind of — his intuition with Aaron and finding open spots and getting open was always very impressive.”
Gutekunst wouldn’t comment on whether there were any discussions about a possible trade or contract restructure with Nelson, but he said once the decision was made, the organization wanted to give the former Pro Bowl receiver a chance to hit the market before unrestricted free agency officially starts at 3 p.m. CT Wednesday.
Although there are no plans to bring Nelson back at the moment, Gutekunst believes Nelson will “contribute for someone next year” and didn’t shut the door on a possible reunion somewhere down the line.
“I don’t think at this time (but) you never say never,” Gutekunst said. “We’d like to keep that relationship as strong as possible, but I wouldn’t say at this time.”
Gutekunst is not able to comment on any of the Packers’ reported transactions until the new league year begins Wednesday, but he acknowledged there have been some “long days” since the negotiating period started at 11 a.m. Monday.
With Nelson’s release, the Packers now turn their attention to finding help on both sides of the ball. Gutekunst said the team is “looking heavily” at the cornerback position, though he likes the prospects the Packers still have on the roster.
Gutekunst lauded Nelson and his wife, Emily, for their contributions to the organization and northeastern Wisconsin. While admittedly “tough,” Gutekunst made the call with the future in mind.
“He’s a good player, and those shoes will be hard to fill,” Gutekunst said. “But we’re going to work really hard to try to do that.”