J.J. Nelson enters year two with more confidence, less thinking
TEMPE, Ariz. — J.J. Nelson did not record his first reception until the eighth game of his rookie season, when he caught three passes for 70 yards against the Cleveland Browns.
He notched his first touchdown three weeks (and two games) later, hauling in a 64-yard strike from Carson Palmer in a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. In front of a sellout crowd and national TV audience, the fifth-rounder from UAB caught four passes for 142 yards and that score.
A breakout it was not, though, as including playoffs he caught just seven passes for 120 yards with one touchdown over his next eight games.
Still, his rookie season was by most accounts a success, as the player who ran a 4.28 second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine showed he has the potential to develop into the kind of deep threat teams covet.
The key is taking another step forward in year two, which Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said he is doing.
“A lot of confidence,” the coach said of the difference in his wideout. “Every day he’s making a big play or two and he’s catching the ball extremely well right now — getting a little bit stronger.
“He might be a buck sixty-one now, so we want to try to get four more pounds on him. That’s like 20 on me.”
Listed at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, the biggest slight against Nelson is his slight build. However, Arians has had success with similarly-sized receivers in the past, including the Colts’ T.Y. Hilton and the Steelers’ Antonio Brown. Hilton is 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, while Brown is 5-foot-10 and 181.
Both are considered to be among the game’s elite receivers.
By no means is anyone expecting Nelson to reach that level this season — or even ever, necessarily — but if the rest of his game catches up to his speed, the Cardinals will have themselves another valuable weapon.
Arians said the jump from year one to year two can be huge for a receiver like Nelson, just as it was for John Brown last season, because of an improved comfort level.
“If a speed guy is thinking, he’s not fast. You don’t want them thinking at all and right now those guys are playing really, really fast,” he said.
A third-round pick in 2014, Brown saw his stats increase from 48 catches, 696 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie to 65 catches, 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns as a second-year pro.
Given the team’s depth at wide receiver and that Nelson is behind at least Brown, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd on the depth chart, similar numbers are not likely in his immediate future.
But the impact can be there, and Nelson said he is more confident this year than last because he knows what he’s capable of and knows what he brings to the team.
He said he spent the offseason working on his explosiveness, his routes and getting stronger, and the early returns appear to be positive.
In terms of his head coach’s comments about thinking less, Nelson said he understands and agrees with Arians.
“When you’re going out there and you’re thinking a lot — this route, do I have this on this route, what’s my depth, what coverage is the defense playing — once you know those things you’re able to play fast,” he said. “You’re not thinking; you’re just focusing on catching the ball.”
Nelson said he notices himself not really thinking too much, and that the light turned on toward the end of last season.
“Coach, he put me in positions to be great and not to think, and I felt like he helped me out and that helped my confidence out a lot, so I felt like coach did a pretty good job of that.”
Arians said Nelson has been catching the ball well, but added that it’s sometimes the way he does it that jumps out to him.
“He has a very unique skill in tracking the ball that the great ones have,” he said, before demonstrating what he was referring to. “When the ball is coming over your opposite shoulder and you just catch it effortlessly when other guys can’t make that catch.
“When you have a little fast guy that can do that, you’ve got a special one.”
For now, Nelson’s role in the offense will continue to be that of a player who can play different receiver positions. He is confident he can step in for the players ahead of him on the depth chart and play without there being a dropoff in production, though he is still constantly finding ways to improve.
Whatever is in store for the 24-year-old — note, both Fitzgerald and Floyd are slated to be free agents following the 2016 season — it appears he is on an upwards trajectory, and the team is excited about the possibilities for the guy who is probably their fastest player.
But the way Nelson sees it, he is becoming more than just a speed guy who can take the top off of a defense.
“I do. I feel like, as they can see, I can run routes, I’m able to catch the ball and get separation off defenders, and like the biggest thing is being a student of the game, learning the coverages, what defenses are running and what route I have to run based off their coverage.”