Steelers Draft: Breaking Down Steven Nelson


The NFL is an ever evolving game on the field.  Each year teams find success with different methods and, more often than not, other teams try and imitate that successful method.  Ever since the Seahawks have found success with their big, physical corners, that has been the trend that teams are trying to imitate.  It also happens a fair amount that fans root for their team to copy the trends with a disregard to talent on the football field or a fit to their scheme.

As I wrote about when I broke down Trae Waynes at the end of March, Steelers fans are disregarding his scheme fit and talent on the field when they root for him to end up in Pittsburgh.  Waynes isn’t a talented enough player to be picked in the first or even the second round, but his natural traits that frame him similar to the Seahawks’ successful corners are garnering him that consideration.

Steven Nelson is the exact opposite of Waynes in that respect.  He isn’t extremely athletic and he doesn’t have ideal size.  He is, however, an exceedingly better football player.  Nelson will not be a fit for every team and if a team is running a scheme similar to what is run in Seattle he will not find much success.  With that being said, Nelson is an ideal cornerback for the off-man scheme that the Steelers run.

Here are some of the plays that I think best demonstrate Nelson’s strength, weaknesses, and his scheme fit with the Steelers.

In this first play, the beginning gets cut off by the broadcast angle but the part that matters is the end.  As Jaelen Strong is at the top of his curl route Nelson doesn’t have particularly good coverage.  Strong has a big enough cushion that he should be able to make the catch, but Nelson has a great break back towards the ball to break up the play at the last minute.  This is something that Nelson repeatedly does very well.  He often gives up a lot of cushion in order to prevent people from beating him deep, but his closing speed is so good that he can afford to give up a big cushion.

This play is another example of something that Nelson does consistently well.  When he is covering routes down the field Nelson does a very good job of sitting in the hip pocket of the receiver before jumping in the throwing path at the last minute.  Nelson doesn’t have great size but he makes up for it at the catch point by being fantastic at tracking the ball and adjusting in the air to defend the play.

Another thing that Nelson does well despite his size is pin receivers against the sideline in coverage.  Jaelen Strong is much bigger than Nelson and should be able outmuscle him in order to gain the advantage, but Nelson’s positioning in coverage in so good that he doesn’t have a chance.  On top of Nelson’s great play, Strong is very bad at running routes and winning good body position.

I don’t think it’s a reach to say that Nelson may even play with the best body positioning in coverage of any cornerback in this class.  This is what will help mitigate his size concerns and allow him to match up with bigger receivers once in the NFL.

This last positive aspect of Nelson’s game that I want to highlight is his ability to defend against the run near the line of scrimmage.  Nelson is very good at avoiding blocks with his agility and short area quickness in the open field.  He makes is very hard for offensive linemen or receivers to block him in the open field, and even when they do get a clean block on him, he is able to give the blocker a small enough surface area to block that he is usually able to shed the block.

One of Nelson’s weaknesses, albeit a small one, is that he struggles to bring down ball carriers once he reaches them.  I don’t find a huge issue with this because it doesn’t happen very frequently but it is something I noticed when watching him.

These next two plays demonstrate the biggest isssue(s) that I find with Nelson on tape.

In the first play Nelson lines up near the line of scrimmage and appears to try and press Strong at the line of scrimmage.  Nelson, however, doesn’t have the length to successfully press Strong and is also too slow to get his hands on Strong.  This is why Nelson will not be a fit for teams that run a press scheme on the edge.  When Nelson tries to press receivers it rarely ends up well.  Once he loses positioning on the receiver by failing to effectively press him, Nelson is completely overmatched at the catch point by bigger receivers.  Luckily this shouldn’t be a huge issue for Nelson in the NFL as long a team uses him in a way that effectively mirrors his skill set.

On the second play Nelson is also lined up close to the line of scrimmage and doesn’t end up with very good coverage on the play.  Nelson doesn’t have a big enough cushion so the receiver eats it up quickly. Nelson over compensates to make sure the receiver doesn’t beat him deep but ends up giving him too big of a cushion.  Nelson’s recovery speed isn’t fast enough for him to defend the pass on this play but it does allow him to minimize the gain.  I would rather Nelson give up these underneath passes than big plays down the field, but this is somewhat concerning issue because NFL quarterbacks will pick apart a cushion in underneath coverage all game.

This last play is another example of how Nelson being overly cautious of giving up the deep ball could be an issue in the NFL.  It didn’t hurt Oregon State on this play because the receiver Nelson was covering slipped, but there was plenty of cushion for the receiver to make the catch and possibly make a play with the ball in his hands.

As I said before this isn’t a huge issue because Nelson doesn’t typically give up big plays down the field.  It also should be  pretty correctable issue for Nelson in the NFL because it just seems to be him playing overly cautious.  His body positioning is so good and he has good enough long speed to where he shouldn’t be beaten over the top too often even if he corrects this issue.

Nelson’s size will likely keep many teams from being attracted to him as a prospect or viewing him as a high pick on draft day.  Despite Nelson’s size limitations and inability to fit the mold of cornerback that most teams are looking for, he is a better cornerback on the field than most of the other players in this class.  While Nelson is getting hype as a late second day pick by many evaluators that is still underrating his talent.

Nelson simply doesn’t do many things wrong on the football field.  The issues that Nelson does have on the field are either correctable or shouldn’t make too much of an impact as long as he is used correctly.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Nelson is widely viewed as a top ten corner in a few years if he gets drafted into the right offense.  A pretty good comparison for what I think Nelson could become at his ceiling is Desmond Trufant of the Falcons, who is widely viewed as a top five or ten cornerback in the league.  I currently have an early second round grade on Nelson, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised at all if he ends up going a full round later.

If a team like the Steelers, whose scheme perfectly fits Nelson’s talents, gets a shot at him in the second round they would be wise to pull the trigger.

Next: Le'Veon Bell's Suspension Doesn't Add Up

More from Still Curtain