When J.J. Nelson was drafted out of the University of Alabama Birmingham in the 2015 NFL Draft, Arizona Cardinals fans did not know what to expect.
After facing low-level competition throughout his collegiate career, scouts were concerned about Nelson’s route running and slight frame. But with a bevy of athletic tools at his disposal, Nelson showcased the type of agility and top end speed ( Nelson posted a sub 4.3 forty time at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine), that consistently intrigues scouting departments at the professional level. Thus, with the 159th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, the Arizona Cardinals elected to take a chance on Nelson.
In three years of NFL work, Nelson has flashed the type of explosion that prompted Cardinals’ General Manager Steve Keim to draft him. Nelson showcased encouraging potential during his rookie campaign, as he averaged nearly thirty yards per reception. Even as a rookie, Nelson’s dangerous deep threat ability opened up space for fellow receivers Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown, while limiting the amount of eight man fronts opposing defenses could utilize in run support.
Over the past two seasons, Nelson has worked to become a more polished route runner. The results have been staggering. Nelson’s catch percentage has risen over each of his first three seasons, and he has proven to be much more than a one-trick pony.
Most impressive is the fact that Nelson has compiled over five hundred receiving yards in each of the last two seasons, despite only starting a combined 11 games. While Nelson’s touchdown production dipped in 2017, in large part due to a revolving door of mediocre quarterback play, he led the Cardinals in touchdown receptions with six, throughout the 2016 season. Now, Nelson may be poised for a breakout year.
After wading through a disappointing 2017 season, with the likes of Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton leading the way at the quarterback position, the Cardinals finally found a steady hand at quarterback in veteran Sam Bradford. While Bradford has failed to live up to the massive expectations he garnered after a Heisman-winning career at the University of Oklahoma, he is an experienced veteran quarterback with above-average accuracy.
Bradford’s passing ability, combined with newly hired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s dynamic offensive game plans, should pay dividends for all Cardinal pass catchers. But don’t be surprised if Nelson ends up being the player that benefits the most.
Throughout his career, McCoy has revelled in the opportunity to work with dynamic athletes at the receiving position. In his early coaching career, McCoy helped design creative ways of incorporating the uniquely athletic skill set of All-Pro receiver Steve Smith. While serving as Carolina’s receiving coach, and later as their passing game coordinator, McCoy consistently put Smith in a position to gain yards after the catch, while also continuing to exploit favorable matchups deep down the field.
Fast forward to his time as head coach of the San Diego Chargers. McCoy found similar success with wide receiver Keenan Allen.
With McCoy at the helm, Allen set Charger’s rookie records for most receptions and receiving yards by a rookie. Since then, Allen continues to be a dynamic threat in this league, in large part due to his initial relationship with McCoy.
Now McCoy comes to Arizona, where most fans expect him to work wonders with the seemingly ageless Larry Fitzgerald. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see McCoy do his most impressive work with Nelson.
With a healthy David Johnson returning to the mix, combined with an undoubted upgrade at the quarterback position, the Cardinals may surprise a league more enamored with NFC West foes in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The catalyst may just be a rejuvenated J.J Nelson.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know there are still massive concerns surrounding Nelson’s game. Although Nelson’s catch percentage has risen in each of his first three NFL seasons, he still has the second worst drop rate in the league. My biggest concern for Nelson, though, has little to do with his performance on the field, but rather my faith in his ability to stay on it.
Weighing just over one hundred and fifty pounds, Nelson has battled injury issues throughout his career, missing five games as a rookie and another in the 2016 season. While he may have the pure athletic skill-set to develop into a top tier receiver in this league, I’m concerned as to whether or not he has the stature to take the beating week in and week out.
At this point Nelson is far from a sure thing. He will be competing with newly acquired former Cowboys receiver Bryce Butler, as well as returning receiver Chad Williams, for the second receiving spot behind veteran Larry Fitzgerald.
With months still between us and the start of the NFL regular season, and with this month’s NFL draft fast approaching, who knows where Nelson will sit on the Cardinals’ depth chart come September. That said, Nelson has a unique combination of speed and agility, and his upside is through the roof. All things considered, don’t sleep on J.J. Nelson as a potential difference maker this year in Arizona.