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Cardinals WR J.J. Nelson is ‘becoming a mismatch’

Arizona Cardinals' J.J. Nelson (14) catches a touchdown pass as Carolina Panthers' Luke Kuechly (59) defends in the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Somewhat lost Michael Floyd’s inconsistency and John Brown’s health troubles has been the ascension of second-year receiver J.J. Nelson.

The 2015 fifth-round pick out of UAB caught 11 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie, and went into this season with some pretty high expectations.

Nelson did not play in the team’s Week 2 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers due to a shoulder injury, and through the season’s first six weeks had caught just four passes for 51 yards.

Things have turned around for him since.

In the team’s 6-6- tie with Seattle, Nelson caught 3-of-7 targets for 84 yards, and this past Sunday in Carolina he hauled in 8-of-12 passes that were thrown his way, picking up 79 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

“I was prepared and just tried come out and make plays,” Nelson said after the 30-20 loss Sunday. “I felt like I was in a groove, but I did make a few mental errors that I need to improve.

“As a group, we’ve got to clean up all the mental errors and continue to get better.”

Whatever mistakes Nelson may have made, none of it was enough to dampen the strides he has made in his second season. Nelson’s 65 snaps against the Panthers were the most of any Cardinals receiver, and after the game head coach Bruce Arians, when asked about how he felt Nelson did while stepping in as a starter, said that there was no stepping in because it was Nelson’s job.

On Monday, the coach elaborated on that thought.

“J.J., he’s our starter and he’s getting better and better,” Arians said. “He can play better, but he had a heck of a two weeks. He’s just going to get better. We’ve just got to keep him healthy.”

Nelson attributed his strong play to being comfortable.

“I know all the plays,” he said. “I just have to cut down on the mental errors, stay healthy and get my body right.”

Two good games is certainly not enough of a sample size to declare Nelson as the next great receiver, but while his rise may seem a little sudden, Arians said none of this was unexpected.

“No, he had such a great spring,” he said. “I’m actually disappointed because we broke his thumb and that set him way back. He was playing with his cast on and he dropped some balls and he lost some confidence. But, after the spring, I thought this is where he would have been in September.”

So maybe Nelson is a month or so behind schedule, but for the Cardinals, the important thing is that he got there. With Jaron Brown out for the season with a torn ACL and the documented issues with Floyd and John Brown, a team that looks to its passing game to move the ball was running short on reliable options.

And in Nelson, they have a dynamic one.

At just 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds he is on the smaller side for a receiver, but of course he was not drafted for his size. Nelson’s 4.28 second 40-yard dash was the fastest at the 2015 combine, and he’s proven to be quite the burner in his brief NFL career.

“He can’t take as many shots over the middle, but he’s tough,” Arians said. “He can catch the ball. He’s stretching the field. He’s becoming a mismatch.”

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