Stop me if you’ve heard this before, LB Mychal Kendricks is on the trade block. Shocking, I know. One of the reasons is newly acquired LB Corey Nelson, signed after the Eagles reportedly promised him more playing time than the Broncos could offer.
You’re forgiven if you have no idea who Nelson was before he signed. I too, had no clue who he was. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have potential. As we read the tea leaves during this wild off-season, surely there must be a reason the Eagles would feel comfortable, yet again, in moving on from the embattled Kendricks.
Nelson has had an interesting path to this point. After three fully healthy seasons in college, he suffered a partially torn pectoral five games into his final game as an Oklahoma Sooner. He was drafted 242nd overall by the Denver Broncos in the 2014 NFL Draft. In his 2017 season with the Broncos, his season was ended after five games due to a torn bicep.
Before the injury, Nelson contributed in each phase of the special teams and served as a dime package specialist due to his sound coverage skills. The search for his defensive snaps last season was not an easy one. Still, there were positive signs to be found.
Lacking the proper amount of snaps and seeking more context involving different down and distance scenarios, I had to go back to 2016. Filling in for injured LB Brandon Marshall, Nelson started 5 games. His first game with significant snaps (Week 8 @ San Diego Chargers) allowed me to fill in a lot of gaps in his evaluation.
Early in the game Nelson struggled with pre-snap communication, needing extra help getting lined up correctly based on the formation the offense presented. Even with the confusion, he showed good range working outside of the core of the formation when he fired his gun.
As the game went on he became more confident, making calls and confirming coverage responsibilities to those around him. This single game progression is encouraging to see, as he took very little time to acclimate to the full-time role. To continue charting his development, I continued watching his time as a starter, hoping to see another mental leap as I will detail later.
In the Chargers game, he was perfectly capable as a run and chase linebacker but seemed hesitant coming downhill which caused him to give too much ground and lose at the point of attack against offensive linemen.
Extra responsible covering RBs out of the backfield, does not miss his assignment… those were the words I began to write after numerous reps into his film. Until I saw him biting hard on a play-action. To be fair, this was the only instance where he got caught out biting hard enough to blow his coverage. Typically if it only happens once on tape, it’s not an issue, but with a limited sample size it’s worth noting.
The two late drives in the 4th against the San Diego Chargers, as the Broncos clung to a lead, was the worst Nelson looked. After the video above, he got sealed off by a tight while trying to scrape over from the backside of the play. The play after he was stood up in the hole by a fullback on a lead play. On the next drive he and Chargers RB Melvin Gordon were alone in the open-field and Gordon left him grasping at a ghost. It was, as they say, “not a good look”.
To judge a player solely on his first start would be a brutal way to go about crafting an evaluation. Therefore, I fast forwarded to two games later in the season. Those being Week 14 @ the Tennessee Titans and Week 16 @ the Kansas City Chiefs.
Against the Titans the performance was very similar; a mixed bag. While showing better aggression coming downhill against the run, Nelson still served better working laterally. His ability in coverage was largely the same as well and the pre-snap communication issues evaporated. He proved capable of carrying seam routes, affecting routes at the top of the stem with physicality and passing off zones to pick up routes flashing in his area.
He was, however, beaten by a late leaking tight end, blowing his coverage twice in two games. His processing is directly tied to his coverage skills as there is some stiffness when turning his hips and getting back to speed. For the most part he’s where he needs to be, and the athletic limitations are effectively masked, but when he has a mental blip it results in an abundance of space.
The issues in taking on blocks persisted as well, despite some solid wins defeating blocks, as he showed a concerning inability to shed tight ends.
Against the Chiefs was much of the same story, however I was again impressed with his ability to track ball-carriers while scraping down the line. When tuned in, he keeps good leverage in his angles while to prevent gaps in pursuit of the team defense.
Projecting how Nelson will impact the Eagles defense is no easy task. There are coverage and lateral skills to work with, but he requires refinement with recognition and inside gap fills. With time, he could become a decent starter. At worst, he is a passing down specialist capable of sticking with running backs and tight ends while bringing immediate special downs value and versatility.