Earlier this week, the Jets added cornerback Robert Nelson to their active roster. Nelson had been on the practice squad since last month. We're going to take a closer look at Nelson's strengths and weaknesses.
The 27-year old Nelson was an undrafted free agent out of Arizona State in 2014. He's never started an NFL game but played a significant role as a reserve cornerback and special teams contributor for the Texans last season, recording 20 tackles. He's also spent time with the Browns, Cardinals, and Patriots.
Nelson began his college career in 2009 at Lousiaina-Monroe. After not playing much as a freshman, he had a productive sophomore year with 55 tackles, two interceptions and seven passes defensed. At that point he opted to transfer to Arizona State, which required him to sit out the 2011 season.
He started just one game, but recorded 16 tackles and five passes defensed in a reserve role in 2012, then became a full time starter as a senior. He ended up with six interceptions and was awarded first team all Pac-12 honors.
Although he was projected in some places as a potential late round pick, Nelson went undrafted in 2014 but signed with the Browns and made their roster as a rookie. He played in seven games but only nine snaps on defense and did not generate any statistics.
He spent most of the 2015 season on the Cardinals practice squad and eventually ended up on their active roster but did not play.
However, in 2016, Nelson finally got his chance with the Texans, playing 11 games and recording 20 tackles, two pass-break-ups and an interception in a reserve role and as a special teams contributor. He also played in two postseason games.
After being injured in preseason, Nelson was released with an injury settlement and spent a week on New England's practice squad in September before the Jets added him to their practice squad and then activated him earlier this week.
Let's take a closer look at what Nelson brings to the table, based on in-depth research and film study and divided into categories.
Nelson is listed at 5'9" and 175, although he was actually measured at closer to 5'10" at his pro day and reportedly added some weight since then. He apparently has pretty good length.
At his pro day, Nelson produced slightly above average numbers for speed, strength and agility. He ran a 4.46 40-yard dash. He did not do the bench press due to a shoulder injury at that time.
Throughout his career, Nelson has played mostly on the outside. However, he was called upon to play primarily in the slot in a playoff game against the Raiders last year. He did a solid job, giving up just 21 yards on five targets in the Texans' win.
He's perhaps not played much in the slot simply because the teams he was on had options to play there, including Skrine himself during Nelson's rookie season.
Nelson's coverage numbers were pretty good in 2016. He gave up a low catch percentage and not much in the way of yards after the catch. However, he has been susceptible to being beaten down the field.
Here's one example, as he started off up at the line but allowed the receiver too clean of an outside release:
In preseason this year, Nelson was said to have had an excellent training camp and was even being talked about in some circles as a potential starter. However, he gave up 121 yards and two scores in coverage against Damiere Byrd and the Carolina Panthers in the preseason opener and then missed the rest of the preseason with an injury.
This was one of the touchdowns he gave up:
Nelson doesn't have ideal size and seemed to be mostly employed in off-coverage. He'll stick his nose in and make a tackle here and there though.
Down the field there are some good examples on film of him using the sideline to force a receiver out or ensure he runs out of room.
He once had three pass interference penalties in the same game against the Colts in 2016. However, he only has two defensive holding calls against him apart from that on defense.
Here was one of those calls, as he was fooled on a double move, deliberately tried to grab the receiver and still let him catch the ball and score:
With nine career interceptions and 18 passes defensed in college, Nelson has an obvious ability to jump a route and make a play on the ball.
He's taken that into the NFL as well, with two passes defensed and an interception in regular season action and another five passes defensed and two interceptions in preseason action.
Here was one, to ice a win over the Saints as time expired:
Nelson closes on the ball well, shows some good anticipation and appears to have good hands. His only regular season interception saw him make a tough low grab after basically running TY Hilton's route for him from the slot:
However, he has also tended to gamble and miss at times.
Since he played mostly on the outside, Nelson hasn't contributed much against the run at the NFL level. In 2016, he did stuff a couple of runs where he was unblocked or cleaning up, but was also blocked out of one play down the field.
He was obviously pretty productive in college, where he made plenty more contributions in run support. Here's one example:
Nelson uses his closing speed well and seems to have reasonably good technique when tackling. He's only had a few missed tackles at the NFL level.
This was a nice play he made in the flat during the Raiders playoff game:
Nelson has hardly ever blitzed at all in preseason or regular season action. Here's a rare example of him rushing from the slot:
He had one career sack in college.
Nelson was productive on special teams in 2016, with 11 tackles in 11 games. He got plenty of work as a gunner and seemed to do a good job in the vice role, making a key block to spring a punt return for a score in a playoff game, although that was negated by a roughing the kicker penalty.
He did have this costly missed tackle at the 30-yard line in a playoff game, though:
Nelson also has some return experience, albeit without much success. He averaged six yards per punt return in college and returned 12 kick-offs for a 20.4 yard average. The Texans tried him this way as well, as he had a 25 yard kick-off return and an eight yard punt return in preseason action. He had two pick sixes in college, though.
In college, Nelson also blocked a field goal and an extra point.
Nelson's instincts have been praised by his coaches in the past but there were a few examples on film of where he reacted late or was fooled by some kind of misdirection.
He seemed to react late and then took a bad angle on this play for example:
One criticism that has been levied at him is that he beats himself up too much when he makes a mistake this can affect his performance.
Nelson developed into a leader with a mature attitude in college and has worked hard to improve his conditioning and techniques since becoming a pro. He has said he learned a lot from going up against Nuk Hopkins every day in practice.
Nelson doesn't seem to have had any serious injuries but has had some ongoing issues with hamstring injuries. He missed a few games in the 2014 season and the entire 2015 preseason, as well as the 2017 preseason.
As noted, he had a shoulder injury when he attended his pro day.
As mentioned earlier, Nelson has been called upon to play in the slot in a big game before. This could be extremely relevant with Buster Skrine's availability for Sunday's game uncertain.
In terms of his size and athletic ability, Nelson perhaps matches up better with a smaller receiver than any of the Jets' current top three corners if Skrine is out. However, the Falcons typically line the bigger Mohamed Sanu up in the slot and the diminutive Taylor Gabriel out wide.
Nelson's numbers were pretty good and he did a solid job for the Texans in a reserve role last season. However, there were some worrying lapses.
What's more exciting is the fact that they had high hopes for him entering preseason. He didn't get to deliver on that potential due to injury, but they were obviously high on him at that time. When the Jets signed Darryl Roberts from New England, he had been in a similar situation.
Initially, Nelson was probably just brought in as cover for Xavier Coleman and not expected to play much, if at all on defense. He should be capable of doing a good job on special teams, if that's the case. However, if the Jets don't have any natural slot corners available on Sunday, then Nelson might be thrown into the fire.