GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers pivoted the conversation quickly, unexpectedly.
One moment, the Green Bay Packers quarterback had been reminiscing during an ESPN Wisconsin interview about his good friend Jordy Nelson and the connection the two had shared during a decade of playing throw-and-catch. The next, Rodgers was coming off his former primary target and describing the greatness of — and uniqueness of — Davante Adams, his now-No. 1 pass-catcher.
Rodgers had been joking about the public perception that Nelson would end his brief retirement if his old quarterback called him — something Nelson had said during an interview on the nationally syndicated Dan Patrick Show.
“I saw something that all I had to do was call him, and he’ll come back,” Rodgers said with a chuckle. “Let me just tell you, it’s not that easy.”
Rodgers, of course, had wanted Nelson back last season, but general manager Brian Gutekunst had other ideas, cutting Nelson with one year left on his contract. Rodgers was not pleased, but in Gutekunst’s mind, the move was necessary because he believed Adams, entering his fifth NFL season, needed to be the clear-cut go-to guy, even as he’d usurped Nelson during the 2017 season and had emerged as the team’s obvious No. 1 target.
“I think there’s always times you look back and (question yourself), but in that particular instance, no, I don’t regret that at all,” Gutekunst explained at the annual NFL scouting combine in February. “I think obviously Davante was an emerging player that the offense needed to go through — and I think you saw what he was able to do last year.”
Nelson played his final NFL season with the Oakland Raiders in 2018 and retired last month after the Raiders cut him and the Packers expressed no interest in bringing him back.
“Those are tough decisions. Those are really tough decisions,” Gutekunst said. “But I think for our football team at that moment, it was the right decision.”
All of which led to the conversation earlier this week about Nelson — and, in turn, Adams. Rodgers was asked if he’d ever had more of a connection with a receiver than he’d had with Nelson.
“In our time, when we’re really, really, really rolling, no,” Rodgers said. Then, a pause. And a smile. “But this 17 we got — you might know him, he goes by the name of ‘Davante’ — he’s special.
“He is a different type of guy than we’ve ever had. From a personality standpoint, he’s a fantastic locker room guy, a great leader, and he’s scary enough in his room and in the locker room that guys listen to him. Because he’s passionate. And people follow passion.
“When somebody is passionate about something, it could be any walk of life, it could be any type of job. When somebody is passionate about something in a position of leadership, people follow. And that’s the kind of guy he is. And then when you’re talking about his ability at the line of scrimmage to beat people, (he’s) fast enough to get on top, athletic enough after he catches the ball. He’s a different type of player.”
Adams finished last season with 111 receptions (one fewer than Sterling Sharpe’s franchise record of 112, set in 1993), 1,386 receiving yards (133 shy of Nelson’s team record of 1,519, set in 2014) and 13 touchdowns (five shy of Sharpe’s club record of 18, set in 1994). He almost certainly would have broken the reception record had he not sat out the season finale against Detroit with a knee injury.
Told of Rodgers’ comments, Adams shrugged.
“Anytime a guy of that caliber mentions you in a light like that, it’s obviously pretty flattering. But at the same time, I don’t like to sit here and think about it too much, because there’s a lot more work to be done,” he said. “I think he’s said that about me in the past, too.
“I’ve just got to continue to elevate and be consistent. I want to try to do as much of that this season as I can. I want to be the same guy every week, if not getting better.”
That includes the receiver-room leadership Rodgers spoke of. With Nelson long gone and veteran Randall Cobb having left as a free agent after eight seasons, the 26-year-old Adams is the unquestioned leader of the pack.
And with no other significant experience in the room — the next-most experienced receivers are Geronimo Allison and Trevor Davis, who are going into their fourth seasons and have 63 career receptions, which is the same number of catches as Nelson had in 15 games in Oakland in 2018 — it’ll be Adams showing the way for youngsters Marquez Valdez-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, J’Mon Moore and Jake Kumerow.
“Nothing is going to change for me, really — other than I just need to put a little more on my plate as far as leadership,” Adams said. “But I felt like the past few years I’ve really taken on that role and put as much on my plate as I can. The guys look up to me a lot, so just continue to lead by example. I feel like that’s the big thing guys follow. They see I’m doing things the right way and I don’t necessarily have to bark at guys as much.
“The young guys who approached me throughout the offseason, a few of them reached out and said, ‘Hey, I know last year we may have come in like rookies, or played the rookie card for a minute, but the mindset is there.’ I definitely saw a lot of them getting it in this offseason. That makes a guy like me feel really good because I attack every offseason viciously. To see that, it makes me feel good being a vet in the room.”