GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers is losing his most prolific receiver, but according to media reports Tuesday he’ll be getting an upgrade at tight end.
The Green Bay Packers released veteran Jordy Nelson, the third-leading receiver in franchise history and one of Rodgers’ top targets in the passing game. Nelson was due to make $10.25 million in the final year of a four-year contract. The Packers announced the move Tuesday, a day before teams can begin to sign free agents.
Former Seattle Seahwks tight end Jimmy Graham was reported to have agreed to a three-year deal, though financial terms had not yet been revealed.
The Packers also made their free-agent splash on defense, signing former Jets first-round pick Mo Wilkerson to a one-year deal, according to media reports. The 28-year-old defensive end had 12 sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2015, but his production fell off after signing a big contract before the 2016 season.
The 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham caught 10 touchdowns in 2017 — leading the Seahawks and setting a team record for single-season TDs by a tight end. But otherwise the season was something of a washout as he had just 57 catches for 520 yards — a career-low average of 9.1 per reception — and was tied for second in the NFL in drops with seven.
After catching 51 touchdowns in 78 games over five seasons in New Orleans, Graham’s number dropped to 18 TDs in 43 games in three seasons in Seattle. His best year with the Seahawks came in 2016, when he caught 65 passes for 923 yards (a career-best 14.2 ypc) and six TDs.
While the Packers had been mentioned as a possible suitor for Graham, there had been a growing thought in the last day or so that he would return to his old home in New Orleans.
Instead, he will join Rodgers as Green Bay for the three straight year takes a shot at a high-profile free agent tight end — the Packers signed Martellus Bennett a year ago and Jared Cook two years ago with neither working out and the Packers remaining in the market for a receiving tight end.
First-year general manager Brian Gutekunst called Nelson “one of the great Packers who played here. He’s everything you want a pro to be — and he’ll be missed.
“I think Jordy is a really good player, and you certainly don’t want to let him walk out the door. But this is a big puzzle, and there’s kind of 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.”
Asked if the Packers offered Nelson the opportunity to come back in 2018 at a reduced salary, Gutekunst said, “There were a lot of discussions that went on. In fairness to him, we won’t get into those kind of discussions.”
Nelson, who turns 33 in May, was scheduled to carry a salary-cap number of $12.52 million.
In a post on his Instagram account, Rodgers wrote that it was “hard to find the right words today to express what ‘87’ means to me. No teammate exemplified what it means to be a Packer quite like him. From living in (Green Bay) full time, his incredible contributions to the city, state, and region, to his consistent, reliable play on the field. Definitely a sad day and the toughest part of this business.”
Asked if he talked to Rodgers about the decision, Gutekunst replied, “Talked to Aaron afterward. Had a conversation with him afterward, but not before.”
Nelson had 53 catches for 482 yards and six scores in 2017, a year after winning Comeback Player of the Year honors. He had 97 catches on 1,257 yards and a league-best 14 touchdowns in 2016, rebounding from a knee injury that sidelined him the previous season.
Rodgers and Nelson had a chemistry built over their time as two of the longest-tenured Packers.
The Packers have Lance Kendricks at tight end, but Richard Rodgers is due to become a free agent.
Davante Adams, who has emerged as the No. 1 receiver, signed a contract extension last year. Randall Cobb remains on the roster, while Ty Montgomery might be used in more of a hybrid role after playing at running back exclusively in an injury-plagued 2017 season.