You won’t find '87' on a typical roulette wheel, but then again, the NFL preseason is its own special breed of cruel and unusual. So fantasy owners shouldn’t have been too surprised when Jordy Nelson’s number came up over the weekend. It’s almost as though there’s an omnipresent injury overlord, spinning a wheel every few days before deciding who goes down next.
“Thirteen? Take out Kelvin Benjamin. Twenty-six? Let’s go with Louis Delmas. Eighty-seven? I’ve never liked that Nelson character in Green Bay. Make him next.”
The news of Nelson’s torn ACL reverberated through the fantasy community on Sunday afternoon. He was so many things to so many people, and that’s why his absence for the 2015 season will be felt far beyond the Green Bay city limits. Nelson was the best receiver in the league’s most potent offense. He was the favored target of the league’s best quarterback. Over the last few seasons, Nelson has developed into one of the best receivers in the league. Last year alone, he had 12 receptions on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, totaling 577 yards and seven touchdowns on those plays. He was also a monster in the red zone, catching 13 of his 32 targets for five scores.
Nelson was the No. 5 receiver on my board, and typically ranked no lower than seventh at the position. His average draft position at the end of last week was 18.1. With all due respect to Benjamin, Nelson’s injury has a much greater impact on the fantasy community at large. Let’s examine all the affected stakeholders.
Davante Adams: If there’s a winner in this situation, it's Adams. The second-year player out of Fresno State was already a worthy flier pick as the team’s third receiver. Now that he’ll likely move into the starting job vacated by Nelson, he has legitimate WR2 potential. Adams was good in a limited role last season, hauling in 38 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns. Nelson had 151 targets last season and 126 the year before. Adams, meanwhile, had 66 as a rookie. He’s likely to get the balance of the looks that Aaron Rodgers usually cast in Nelson’s direction. That alone makes him a worthy mid-round pick, likely somewhere in the neighborhood of the 25th to 30th receiver off the board.
At 6’1” and 215 pounds, Adams can be a weapon for Rodgers in the red zone. He has also shown himself adept at the back-shoulder throw and catch that Rodgers and Nelson have turned into an art form over the last few seasons. Having said that, just because he’s taking over Nelson’s role in the offense, doesn’t mean he will come anywhere near replacing Nelson’s production. Adams stands to gain the most out of anyone in this offense in the wake of the star receiver’s injury, but his owners should be thrilled with a 1,000-yard, eight-touchdown season. Those numbers likely represent his best-case scenario, as well.
Randall Cobb: It may seem counterintuitive, but Nelson’s injury doesn’t have much impact on Cobb’s fantasy value. He was already a top-10 receiver in my rankings, and widely seen in the same light across the fantasy community. I did move him up a few slots, and jumped him ahead of Alshon Jeffery, but his numbers aren’t likely to be significantly affected. Cobb had 126 targets last year, and was slated for another 120-plus this season. Perhaps he’ll push closer to 150 than he might have with Nelson healthy on the other side, but it’s not as though he’ll suddenly get 180 targets this year. He could also get a few more looks in the red zone, but, again, he had 27 of those last season. Cobb’s touchdown upside increases a bit with Nelson out, but he was already an elite receiver before the injury.
Aaron Rodgers: The Nelson injury hurts Rodgers. There’s no way around that. At the same time, it’s not like he’ll be out there with just one receiver to throw to. Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league for a reason, and it’s not because of the receivers who have the luxury of playing with him. Quarterbacks make their receivers stars, not vice versa. Rodgers will be just fine with Adams stepping into Nelson’s role in the starting lineup.
Having said that, I did move Rodgers down to the No. 2 slot in my quarterback rankings, dropping him behind Andrew Luck. Nelson is a uniquely talented receiver, equally as dangerous on the deep ball as he is in the red zone. Adams—as well as Jeff Janis and Ty Montgomery, to a lesser extent—may be able to duplicate much of Nelson’s efficiency when the Packers are inside their opponents’ 20-yard line, but none of them will be the deep threat Nelson represents on every play. Rodgers isn’t going to get as many big plays as he did last year, and that ultimately puts a curb on his ceiling.
Still, this is the best real-life quarterback in the league today. Don’t put too much emphasis on him losing Nelson. Even without his best receiver, it would be a shock if he fell short of 4,500 yards and 35 touchdowns. The main fantasy impact, other than making Luck the consensus top quarterback, is it removes from the equation the only signal caller, in my opinion, you can make an argument for taking early in one-QB leagues. At this point, I’m waiting on my quarterback in all one-QB formats.
Jeff Janis and Ty Montgomery: Janis, the second-year player out of Saginaw Valley, and Montgomery, a rookie from Stanford, both become intriguing late-round lottery tickets with Nelson out. Keep your expectations in check, though. While the Packers have had one of the best offenses in the league since Rodgers took over as the starter, they’ve never gotten much out of their third receiver. The fantasy community has long been waiting for a third receiver in a Rodgers-led offense to explode, but it just hasn’t been in the cards. Janis and Montgomery should both be drafted because of the environment in Green Bay, but owners would have to consider it a win if either jumped into even just the top 60 at the position.
The elite WR class: Don’t forget about the players left behind at the top of the receiver rankings. Nelson was one of the true elite receivers, along with Dez Bryant, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green (you could also extend inclusion in this group to Randall Cobb and Alshon Jeffery). Nelson’s absence will have a significant impact on the prices of these players, especially in auction leagues. With all due respect to Benjamin, his injury wasn’t nearly as impactful on the wide receiver position as a whole. Owners could simply move everyone up one spot in their rankings and proceed accordingly. Nelson’s injury robs the fantasy community of one of its best receivers, and it’s not like the top-ranked receiver outside the elite tier suddenly moves up into that group now that Nelson is out. There used to be 10 elite receivers. Now there are nine.
With one fewer elite receiver in the pool, owners should expect to pay a few more dollars for most of them. Bryant and Brown were already among the most expensive players in the league, so their prices may not go up, but every other receiver, reaching all the way to T.Y. Hilton, Mike Evans, Emmanuel Sanders, and DeAndre Hopkins, will likely cost anywhere between $2 and $5 more in an average auction with Nelson off the board.
Photos: Aaron M. Sprecher/AP (Nelson), Al Bello/Getty Images (Adams), Michael Dwyer/AP (Janis), Mike Roemer/AP (Montgomery)