After years of searching for a good returner, the Green Bay Packers finally found a great one in a place where nobody expected. During the last couple of seasons, general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted running back Kylin Hill and wide receiver Amari Rodgers, and both had their opportunities as returners. Hill got injured, and the Packers cut him because of off-the-field issues. They waived Rodgers because he led the NFL in fumbles and cost the Packers at least two games. Ultimately, their answer at returner was a former Las Vegas Raiders cornerback and special teamer who had never been a returner before — not in college or even high school. Keisean Nixon signed with the Packers with special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia’s blessing on a veteran minimum deal last offseason.
Even if he only became a regular returner in Week 6 and the starter in Week 8, Nixon led the NFL in kickoff return yards. He was selected as a First-Team All-Pro in 2022 and became an integral part of Green Bay’s increased performance in special teams. According to Rick Gosselin’s Special Teams Ranking, the Packers jumped from 32nd to 22nd in special teams in 2022. Even though it’s not great yet, that’s a significant improvement compared to last season, when special teams was mainly responsible for Green Bay’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round.
Now, there’s another question. How can the Packers keep Nixon? He’s an unrestricted free agent again after getting a veteran minimum deal, but now his market value is much higher than it was a year ago. Still, it’s hard to determine a precise value for a returner, because most returners also contribute on offense and defense, and all those roles contribute to determining a player’s value. Nixon is a backup cornerback for the Packers, and that role grew after Eric Stokes got hurt. Nixon started playing regularly as a nickel corner, but his main role was returning kicks by the end of the season, while safety Darnell Savage moved to the slot. Therefore, Nixon’s value as a defender is minimal.
In the last five years, five players got new deals after achieving an All-Pro season as a returner — three of them signed them right after receiving the award. Tarik Cohen signed a three-year, $17.25 million extension ($5.75 million average per year) from the Chicago Bears two years after being an All-Pro punt returner in 2018. The problem here is that Cohen was also seen as a gadget offensive player. Andre Roberts was voted as the best kick returner in football for the New York Jets in 2018 and signed a two-year, $4.6 million ($2.3 million APY) with the Buffalo Bills in the following offseason.
Two players selected to the All-Pro team last season got new contracts. New York Jets’ Braxton Berrios re-signed for two years for $12 million ($6 million APY), but he is also a slot receiver. And former Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears returner Jakeem Grant signed with the Cleveland Browns in a three-year, $10 million deal ($3.3 million APY).
The last comparable case is Cordarrelle Patterson. In 2021, he signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons after being selected to the All-Pro team. Atlanta eventually increased his offensive role, and Patterson got a new two-year, $10.5 million contract.
Considering Nixon is mainly a special teamer, Andre Roberts and Jakeem Grant are the best comparisons. Those deals were 1.22% and 1.58% of the salary cap by the time they were signed. The projected cap space for 2023 is between $225 million and $230 million. 1.5% of $230 million is a yearly average of $3.45 million, which seems a decent deal for a returner.
Therefore, the Packers should be able to re-sign Keisean Nixon in a two-year, $7 million deal. That would more than double what Nixon has earned throughout his NFL career ($3.25 million), and Green Bay could structure the deal in a way that moves most of the cap hit to 2024, allowing them to navigate a difficult cap situation in 2023.
Fans generally don’t care much about special teams, but the Green Bay Packers know how difficult it is to find impactful players in that area. Keisean Nixon finished the season with 1,009 kickoff return yards and one touchdown, with 28.8 yards per return. He also returned 11 punts, with an average of 12.7 yards per return. It’s time to value that contribution, and a new contract for him is a no-brainer.