Every year, one of the final fantasy football pieces we produce is a bold predictions column. There are hits and misses in each version of the column, but all the predictions within are based on sound analysis. There was one prediction I was particularly confident in last year. Though it’s only the middle of July, and this year’s edition of bold predictions is still about six weeks away, I have a feeling I’m going to making the exact same one right off the top again.
Yes, even though he has climbed up draft boards after his performance the last two seasons, Jordy Nelson is still an underappreciated fantasy asset. How underappreciated, you ask? I’d definitely take him in the first round of a 12-team league, and there’s no receiver I like better at his expected draft-day price.
Talent, opportunity and environment are the three key selling points for any player, regardless of fantasy stock. Every player in Nelson’s rating neighborhood has plenty of the first two, but few are as strong in the final area as Aaron Rodgers’s No. 1 receiver. Say what you will about Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson—and, I agree, there’s a lot to be said for both—but Rodgers is still the best real-life and fantasy quarterback in the game right now. Green Bay’s passing attack remains the most potent and efficient in the league, and one in which fantasy owners want to invest. Want some proof? Nelson had the second-highest wide receiver rating last year, which measures quarterback rating when throwing to one specific receiver. The only receiver to beat him? That would be his teammate, Randall Cobb.
You may have forgotten the exact numbers Nelson posted last season, even though you remember they were great. He caught 98 passes for 1,519 yards, both career highs, and 13 touchdowns. That was good enough to make him the No. 2 receiver in standard-scoring fantasy leagues, trailing only Antonio Brown. In terms of points per game, he was behind Brown and Odell Beckham. Don’t forget, too, that the Packers’ starters sat out four fourth quarters in blowout wins over the Vikings (42–10), Panthers (38–17), Bears (55–14) and Eagles (53–20). If they keep their starters in for even just two of those games, Nelson may have been the top-scoring receiver last year. He had double-digit points in 10 games, and scored fewer than eight points just four times.
Nelson’s track record is also unassailable among the elite wide receivers. He was the No. 11 receiver in 2013 after hauling in 85 balls for 1,314 yards and eight touchdowns. Of course, Rodgers missed all of eight games, and most of a ninth, after breaking his collarbone that season. In the eight games Rodgers started and finished in 2013, Nelson had 49 receptions for 810 yards and seven touchdowns. That means in his last 24 games with Rodgers at the helm, exactly one-and-a-half seasons, Nelson has 147 catches for 2,329 yards and 20 scores. In standard fantasy leagues, that translates to 352.9 points, or 14.7 points per game. That also comes out to a 16-game average of 98 receptions, 1,552.7 yards and 13.3 touchdowns. When Rodgers and Nelson get together, good things happen.
Thanks to the fine folks over at Pro Football Focus, we can really measure just how good it is for their fantasy owners when Rodgers targets Nelson. According to PFF’s metrics, Nelson was the No. 2 overall receiver last season. He was one of the deadliest deep-ball receivers, classified as any pass thrown at least 20 yards down the field. Nelson caught 12 such passes, which had him tied for eighth. His 577 yards and seven touchdowns, however, were both good enough for second. Only DeSean Jackson had more yards (600), while Dez Bryant was the lone receiver to find the end zone more times (eight) on deep passes. Nelson produced seven individual plays that were worth at least 10 points last season. Fellow top-10 receivers Julio Jones, Jeremy Maclin and Mike Evans all had eight 10-plus point games.
Nelson was just as lethal in the red zone. First of all, no team passes more frequently inside the 20. No quarterback had a greater share of his pass attempts come inside the red zone than Rodgers did last season. Nelson was third in the NFL with 28 red-zone targets. He turned five of those into touchdowns. He doesn’t get the same credit other receivers do for being big and physical, but he’s every bit of his listed 6'3", 217-pound frame. Not only does he have the speed to beat any corner deep, he has the size and strength to outmuscle anyone in the end zone.
Dez Bryant, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas and Odell Beckhham can all lay claim to being the top fantasy receiver in 2015, and that says nothing of Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Alshon Jeffery. The more I think about it, however, the more I think nothing has changed since last year. You may not have to take Nelson before all the other receivers in this paragraph, but you wouldn’t be wrong to do so.