The Green Bay Packers don’t have much financial flexibility after three seasons of overspending and adjustments since the pandemic affected the salary cap in 2020. Now that they’re unlikely to have Aaron Rodgers back, the early indications are that the team will be conservative to get their cap situation back on track. So far in free agency, the only external additions have been paying the veteran minimum to safety Tarvarius Moore and long snapper Matthew Orzech. That means the Packers need players to generate surplus value. And one re-signing can do exactly that: Keisean Nixon.
The All-Pro returner signed a one-year, $4 million contract that can go up to $6 million with incentives. That’s around the normal range for elite returners. He is also a slot cornerback, but not exactly a top one. So why not try something new?
Nixon’s playmaking ability is too good of an opportunity to pass up, and the Packers should give him package plays on offense.
During World War II, as many players went to the battlefields, teams decided to specialize their players in order for them to get better without much practice time. Since then, it’s been rare to see athletes who can perform at an NFL level on both sides of the ball. However, Deion Sanders is a famous exception. He was mostly a cornerback and returner, but teams frequently utilized him as a wide receiver. In the 1996 season, he had 36 receptions for 475 yards with the Dallas Cowboys.
Recently, current New York Giants cornerback Adoree’ Jackson played offensive snaps as a running back when he was with the Tennessee Titans. Julian Edelman played almost 100 defensive snaps for the New England Patriots, including one forced fumble and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.
But New England Patriots cornerback Marcus Jones is a recent example who fits perfectly with what the Packers can do. Last season, the rookie third-round pick played mostly as a slot corner and returner. However, he had four receptions for 78 yards and a touchdown playing as a wide receiver, generating yards after the catch. Coincidence or not, Troy Brown is the Patriots’ wide receivers coach and kick returners coach. As a player, he was primarily a wide receiver and returner. However, he also played on defense and had three interceptions in the 2004 season.
The Packers can’t expect Nixon to run precise routes or catch contested balls. They’d have to limit his usage to package plays. Green Bay would have to put the ball in his hands to utilize his playmaking ability and capacity to break tackles and generate extra yards through defenders. However, head coach Matt LaFleur has a track record of using two-way players.
In 2020, kick returner Tyler Ervin played only half a season because of injuries. Even so, he had 13 carries and 11 receptions for 151 scrimmage yards. When Ervin got hurt, the Packers tried to replicate his role by signing Tavon Austin, but he wasn’t as effective.
Nixon had only six kick returns in his first three years in the NFL when he was with the Las Vegas Raiders. So when he came to the Packers, that was not his role. Nixon returned just once in the first seven weeks of last season. However, his performance in the second half of the year was so good that he ended up being a First-Team All-Pro.
“Really proud of the way he responded to the opportunities given to him, not only in the teams stuff but in defense, as well,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said after the season. “When we identified him in the middle of last season as a nickel-corner-type player, we knew we were losing Chandon (Sullivan) at the end of the year and we were going to have to fill that spot. We were really excited about him as that and knew he was a good teams player, good gunner, good cover guy.”
Nixon returned 35 kickoffs for 1,009 yards, with five returns of 50 yards or more. He was the only player in the league to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in 2022. On defense, Nixon played 289 snaps (27.98%), with one interception, one forced fumble, and 23 tackles. Quarterbacks had an 85.7 passer rating when targeting him.
“Probably going to get criticized for not playing him early and that’s fair,” LaFleur said during the season. “We should have had him in there earlier and we didn’t. I don’t think we knew what we had.”
The Packers can’t make the same mistake again. It’s time to discover what Nixon can do for the offense, and it doesn’t hurt to try.