The 26-year old Nelson is a 6’5″, 215 pound receiver who was an undrafted free agent in 2010 out of Florida. He has started 17 games over the course of his three year career, catching 94 passes and scoring eight touchdowns. However, he missed most of last year with a torn ACL.
After the jump, a review of Nelson’s career and observations from having looked at film from the past three seasons to evaluate some of his strengths and weaknesses.
Who is David Nelson?
David Nelson was an undrafted free agent in 2010, but was still quite well known, as he was a teammate of Tim Tebow’s on the 2009 BCS champion Florida Gators. He finished third on the team, behind Aaron Hernandez and Riley Cooper, with 25 catches, the most memorable of which was on a Tebow jump pass in the championship game. In 2008, he had caught just 12 passes, but five were for touchdowns, underlining his ability to be a red zone threat. In 2007 (another national championship year) and 2006, he had caught a total of just nine passes.
After going undrafted, Nelson ended up with the Bills and won a spot on their roster, playing in 15 games and starting three. He would catch 31 passes as a rookie and then started 13 games in his second season, catching 61 passes for 658 yards and five touchdowns. Last season, he suffered a season ending knee injury during the opening day loss to the Jets and the Bills decided against re-signing him.
Cleveland picked him up instead, but he missed time in preseason and was only able to suit up for the final preseason game. Although he showed some flashes – catching four passes for 54 yards – he was targeted a total of 10 times, slipping twice, juggling a pass thrown behind him that the defender was able to break up and seeing another pass intended for him picked off. He did not make it through final cuts with the Browns and was signed by the Jets after they had worked him out last week.
94 catches, 1,042 yards, eight touchdowns
11.1 yards per catch
64% catch rate
Five career tackles
One offensive penalty committed
12 20+ yard plays but no 40+ yard plays
Based on all the footage watched, here was what Nelson brings to the table, divided into categories:
Usage - In Buffalo, Nelson was used almost exclusively as a slot receiver. He was on the outside just 10.5% of the time. However, interestingly, while with Cleveland in preseason, he played 32 of his 35 snaps on the outside. Clearly he had more of a possession receiver role in Buffalo, but they did look for him downfield a few times in that one game with the Browns. In 2011, the Bills also motioned Nelson into the backfield seven times, from where he stayed in to pass protect three times.
Deep threat – It’s obvious from the fact that he has no 40-yard plays in the NFL that he hasn’t been the kind of player to go deep very often. He ran a 4.54 forty at Florida’s pro day in 2010, so he lacks that kind of speed. However, he does have a 38-inch vertical, which can be an asset not just in the red zone, but also on throws down the middle or to the outside, so he could still help to stretch the field even if he can’t get deep separation. For his career, he has caught four passes for 111 yards on 14 balls thrown more than 20 yards downfield and none of these were more than 25 yards downfield.
Blocking - The standard of Nelson’s blocking is a pleasant surprise. When blocking downfield, he has a good understanding of how to size his man up in order to prevent him from getting any kind of leverage advantage and the Bills actually relied on him to make key blocks from the slot in certain situations. As noted, Nelson lined up in the backfield and stayed in as a pass blocker three times in 2011. On each occasion he executed a cut block to allow the quarterback to get the throw off, although on one his man hit the quarterback after the throw was made. One went for a 60-yard touchdown and that’s an interesting personnel option to have when lining up with five receivers as the Jets occasionally do. His run blocking when he motioned into the backfield or onto the tight end or tackles’s outside shoulder was also pretty good. His one penalty came on a screen pass where he was blocking too early, before the ball was caught, and got hit with an offensive pass interference flag.
Routes - Nelson started off his career by doing most of the damage over the middle. 24 of his 31 catches as a rookie were on balls thrown between the numbers. However, in 2011, almost half of his catches came on the outside, so he seems to have broadened his scope. Nelson’s route running isn’t too bad – on one play, he froze a linebacker with a double move to find a gap in the zone and on another he started off like he was going to block, then ran a lazy out pattern before breaking sharp back to the ball. Like most possession receivers, he runs a lot of slants and out patterns and is sometimes able to use his size to box defenders out effectively. As noted, he did slip a couple of times in preseason though and he has had 11 passes thrown to him intercepted in his career, so perhaps he could do better at not allowing his man to undercut his route or contesting bad throws.
Hands - Nelson has a high catch rate and just six drops, so his hands are pretty solid. As a rookie, he let a high pass go through his hands in the season opener for a near interception and then failed to bring in a pass thrown behind him the following week, but then he didn’t drop another pass until week eight of the following season. He then went through a span of five games where he had one drop in all but one, with all of them coming with a defender either draped all over him or about to lay the lumber. He was drop free over his last six games and in the first game of 2012, though. In terms of catching the ball, he usually does a good job of catching the ball cleanly, even when facing tight coverage or absorbing a hit. He doesn’t make a ton of spectacular plays, but this catch was a nice one.
Yards after the catch – Statistically, he has not made a great deal of yardage after the catch with his numbers (3.2 YAC per reception) well below average, but he did break 11 tackles over his first three seasons, so there is some ability there to get a few extra yards. Here’s one example of such a play.
Special Teams – Nelson hasn’t been much of a special teams contributor over the course of his career. His tall, lanky frame doesn’t really lend itself to such a role. He has no special teams tackles and no kick returning experience, other than fielding one punt in college.
Demeanor - Like most receivers, Nelson will occasionally get involved in trash talking with defensive backs or be demonstrative when not given a call following some physical coverage. He also can get fired up when he makes a big play. I saw nothing to suggest that he doesn’t have a good attitude though and it would appear that he is a good teammate and hard worker.
Injuries – Nelson obviously had the torn knee ligament which ended his 2012 season prematurely, but the knee injury that sidelined him this preseason was reportedly an unrelated bone bruise. Prior to that, the only game he missed in his first two seasons was the final game of his rookie year with a rib injury. Clearly he has proved to the Jets he is healthy, but didn’t get a chance to show the Browns enough in preseason. He had signed a deal for $680,000 with just $25,000 guaranteed in Cleveland.
Based on the footage I watched, Nelson can hopefully provide the Jets with a steady presence, a solid possession option and a potential upgrade in the red zone.
One other interesting wrinkle is the fact that the Jets have not actually activated Mike Goodson yet and will need to release somebody (or put someone on injured reserve) if they do so. Everyone’s been talking about what Goodson will bring to the table in his first game on Monday night, but I wonder if it’s even a foregone conclusion that he’ll be active. They currently have a roster exemption in place, but that will have to be lifted if they activate him for Monday’s game. This might factor into the wide receiver group over the next couple of weeks.
A couple of seasons ago, the Jets signed another former Bills player called Nelson to their active roster who was expected to contribute on offense, but he had migraine issues in practice, never played and in fact hasn’t been in the league since. Hopefully this move will go a little better than that.
It remains to be seen what kind of contribution Nelson can make, but I want to leave you with this. It doesn’t have much to do with football, but it sure does make a guy like Nelson easy to root for:
Welcome to the Jets, David.
Some stats from PFF were used in the completion of this article.