Considering that they let go of Michael Crabtree and signed a man nearly three years older to a contract worth up to $15 million, you could say the Raiders have bet the farm on Jordy Nelson.
The shoe fits, too. Nelson grew up on a farm in Kansas — 1,000 head of cattle on 4,000 acres. He still goes back most years to help with the wheat harvest before training camp and is fond of joking that it takes him awhile “to get back into farming shape.”
This next part is no joke, though.
“It set the foundation of who I am,” Nelson said of farm life. “The hard work, the day-in, day-out grind. Understanding that you have to go to work every day.”
Nelson, who turns 33 in May, isn’t being counted on just for running routes and catching passes. The Raiders also think the 6-foot-3, 217-pound wide receiver can help a locker room that seemed to fray last season as the team tumbled to a 6-10 finish.
New Raiders wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett was in Green Bay for the entirety of Nelson’s nine-year career with the Packers and he believes Nelson’s NFL success began with his upbringing.
“That’s the starting point, and the way he is I’m sure came from how he was raised by his parents, being able to stay true to who he was, being disciplined,” Bennett said. “There’s a carry-over to his football career.”
Until the Raiders signed Nelson on March 15, their public stance on Crabtree had been that he was in their plans for 2008. But it was clear something had gone wrong in that relationship during the second half of last season.
There was the one-game NFL suspension for his fight and ongoing feud with Denver cornerback Aqib Talib and there were times when Crabtree was not on the field when game situations suggested he should be.
The Raiders contacted Nelson on March 13, the day he was released by the Packers. Two days later, he was in Alameda, Calif., and he didn’t leave until putting pen to paper. Crabtree, 30, was released and signed with the Baltimore Ravens.
The swap hasn’t exactly been met with universal acceptance, given that Nelson had significant drop in production last season, catching 53 passes for 482 yards and a career-low 9.1 yards per catch in 15 games. In 2016, Nelson had 97 receptions for 1,257 yards (12.9 yards per catch).
Former Raiders defensive backs coach and Hall of Famer Rod Woodson recently joined the chorus of those who say Nelson has lost a step.
James Jones, the former San Jose State star who played with Nelson in Green Bay, isn’t buying it.
“I know a lot of people are thinking, ‘Oh, man, Crabtree is younger and better,’ “ Jones said. “Jordy has a lot left. And you’re getting a guy with a chip on his shoulder. He will never say it, but trust me, when he does go out here and have a big-time year, he’s going to have one eye on the Packers, saying, ‘I told you I can still play this game.’ “
In the middle of nowhere, between the Kansas towns of Leonardville and Riley — combined population 1,412 — sits Nelson Angus Farms.
Nelson spent his youth there, glued to ESPN and participating in football, basketball and track — but only after his completing his daily chores on a farm that has been in the family since his great, great grandfather emigrated from Sweden.
Mike Nelson, Jordy’s brother and 18 months his senior, runs the farm and Jordy plans on rejoining him some day.
“I want to be my brother’s hired man,” Jordy Nelson told Wisconsin Agriculturalist in 2016. “He can pay me when I work and if he has to lay me off I think I will be able to survive.”
Nelson was driving pickup trucks loaded with hay into town by age 12 and operating a combine as a teenager. Green Bay, which became Nelson’s home in 2008 when he was drafted in the second round by the Packers, is a metropolis by comparison.
Jones was one of several Green Bay players who visited the farm and experienced the culture shock.
“Every house is three miles away from the other,” Jones said.
“There’s only one restaurant,” he added, “and Jordy owns it.”
Nelson didn’t make his Green Bay guests get up with roosters and do chores. Players went four-wheeling, played some evening wiffle ball with the family, dropped by the family-run sports bar “Jordan’s Landing” and even went golfing.
“One of the worst golf courses I’ve ever been on,” Jones said with a laugh. “No putting greens, just rock. Once you hit the ball off the tee you’re in a grass area, but when you get on the green it’s always going to take a two-putt because it’s all rock.”
The fun and games stands in stark contrast to a typical day on the farm.
“You get tired of doing the work when all your buddies are playing basketball,” Mike Nelson said. “But after awhile, it’s what you know and what you want to do. You develop a passion for it, and the next thing you know you love it. It’s a good life.”
In between chores, Jordy Nelson excelled at Riley County High School in football, basketball and track. In his senior year at quarterback, he passed for more than 1,000 yards and rushed for 1,500 more. But no Division I scholarship offers came to him, so Nelson walked on at Kansas State, a 20-mile drive his parents had made many times as football season ticket holders.
Nelson began his career at Kansas State as a defensive back until a fateful meeting with legendary K-State coach Bill Snyder.
“I told him I thought he might have a better chance to play a little quicker at wide receiver and that I wanted him to at least think about it, and then come and see me tomorrow,” Snyder said. “He said, ‘Coach, I don’t have to think about it. If it’s something you think I should do then that’s what we’ll do.’ “
It was a fairly standard reaction from Nelson, a player from whom Snyder said he never once saw a self-aggrandizing or “look-at-me” moment.
“He is the epitome of consistency,” Snyder said. “He’s not one way one day and another way the next day. He’s the same Jordy Nelson, day in and day out. There’s no pretense to him whatsoever.”
In his senior year, Nelson caught a school-record 122 passes and was drafted in the second round by the Packers. (The Raiders took Darren McFadden in that draft.)
Nelson’s transition to the NFL was gradual. His coming-out party was a nine-catch, 140-yard game with a touchdown reception in Super Bowl XLV, a 31-25 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers following the 2010 season.
The next season, Nelson exploded. He caught 68 passes fro 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns, becoming the prime target for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Coming off a two-year run in which he averaged 91 catches for 1,416 yards and scored 21 touchdowns, Nelson missed the 2015 season after tearing his right ACL in an exhibition game. But he was back the next season — all the way back. After catching 97 passes for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns, Nelson was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
Last year’s drop-off was at least in part attributable to an injury to Rodgers. His replacement, Brett Hundley, struggled mightily in eight games.
“We’re not playing fantasy football,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “I realize his production fell off, but so did Davante Adams, so did Randall Cobb and so did the Packer offense when Aaron Rodgers went down.”
Nelson dismisses claims that he’s no longer fast enough to separate from defensive backs, noting that he was never a burner when it came to the 40-yard dash but has always been plenty fast enough in shoulder pads.
“It’s still there,” Bennett said. “He still has the ability to catch the football, catch it in traffic, run after the catch, create separation. He can do all those things.”
When Nelson visited the Raiders in March, quarterback Derek Carr took him on a drive to the Tri-Valley area where he lives to help alleviate whatever big-city concerns Nelson might have been feeling.
Nelson laughed out loud when asked about the sticker shock of home prices — he is so tight with a dollar he says he won’t spend a single one of them to get the No. 87 jersey he wore in Green Bay from Raiders teammate Jared Cook.
No surprise to his brother Mike, who understands how difficult it is to make a farm work financially: “It’s easy to grow up conservative around here because you really learn how to push the pennies.”
Nelson’s value system, Snyder said, remains intact.
“He comes back home and works on the farm. His family has a restaurant and he works in the restaurant,” Snyder said. “That’s what I appreciate so much about him. He hasn’t let the NFL go to his head. To me, Jordy has not changed. He’s not any different the last time I saw him then when he graduated from here. When you get down to it, he’s a small-town, working class young man.”
Nelson concedes he’ll have to get used to Bay Area traffic. But Carr’s guided tour served its purpose.
“I mean, we were driving around and seeing the hillside, the grass and cattle and deer running around,” Nelson said. “I think there’s still that aspect there. But it’s also going to be great to be close to the city and be able to go downtown and experience some different things. I think you get the best of both worlds here.”