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The big Steven Nelson film review: some promising signs

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The draft is only a few days away, and you could cut the tension with a knife.

Every year, we work ourselves into a frenzy trying to figure out who the Kansas City Chiefs should (and shouldn’t take). We develop our favorites, read endless scouting reports, and generally make giant fools out of ourselves. Which, quite frankly, is half the fun of being a sports fan.

However, we’ve still got a few days to wait. So why not kill some time by reviewing the film of a guy we know will be a Chief in 2018?

I asked on Twitter who you fine folks wanted to see reviewed, and Steven Nelson was an overwhelming favorite (well, not overwhelming. But that sounds better, so I’m going to roll with it).

The reasoning for this is pretty obvious: The Chiefs are thin at corner, people are worried, and Nelson is a guy who most fans (including myself) don’t really know what to think of at this point. He’s been with the Chiefs for three years now and has earned a reputation as a tough, if not necessarily dominant player.

For me, looking at Nelson is a window into the draft. What the coaching staff thinks of him could perhaps determine just how desperate they feel the need at corner is (though I’d say that given his injuries last year and the lack of depth at the position make it desperate regardless, but I digress). And so to the film we go.

If you’ve never read a cornerback film review by me, here’s an in-depth explanation of what I do and why. The short version is this: I review every single coverage snap, grading it as a success, failure, or neutral. I do this because it allows you to get a complete picture of how the corner played throughout the entire game, rather than just a handful of snaps.

It also allows you to separate the cornerback’s play from the play of everyone else. Great coverage that results in a catch due to a fantastic throw by the quarterback is a better play than a cornerback getting torched but the wide receiver drops the ball, yet statistically it’s worse. So we gauge every play.

The important number to track is “fail percentage.” We obviously want a cornerback who fails as little as possible. What’s a good number? Well, that’s up for debate. However, based on the similar reviews I’ve done over the years for Darrelle Revis, Sean Smith, Marcus Peters, Phillip Gaines, Terrance Mitchell, Kenneth Acker, Steven Nelson, and a few more, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion (and this has morphed over time as I’ve reviewed more film) that I’m willing to accept a 20-to-25-percent “failure rate” by a corner. Lower than that is good, while above that, I start to get concerned.

For a more recent frame of reference, here’s the film review in which I raved about Kendall Fuller, and here’s the review in which I found David Amerson is flawed, but at least has some promise.

Reviewing Nelson’s film was interesting for me, as I’d never taken an in-depth look at him before. It was also interesting in that I got to really see the difference between a player healthy enough to play and one healthy enough to play well. You’ll see that immediately in the numbers.

Nelson’s numbers came out decent (as I stated earlier, I want a cornerback with a loss percentage under 25 percent at this point), but a couple of things ought to be noted.

First, Nelson’s worst game by far was against Dallas, where he was newly returned from injured reserve. I wanted to see whether there was an uptick in his level of play the more he got back into the swing of things, and there absolutely was. I do think there was also an issue of a bad matchup in Cole Beasley, but on film, Nelson was noticeably slower in and out of breaks and accelerating against Dallas, which could’ve been physical or mental issues coming out of the gate.

Beyond that, it’s worth noting that Nelson didn’t give up many catches, and wasn’t really targeted all that often, except in the Dallas game. Overall, the improvement many people thought they saw in the pass defense after Nelson got healthy (and Revis provided at least decent coverage as the third cornerback) wasn’t imaginary: his loss percentage was solid down the stretch.

It’s also worth noting that while there are plenty of defenders (and players in general) to blame for the playoff collapse to Tennessee, Nelson wasn’t among them. In fact, he flashed on the field multiple times. He was also a major factor in the Chiefs’ solid defensive performance without Marcus Peters against Oakland.

Nelson is not a dominant cover corner, but he’s... maybe the best word for it is, “annoying.”

Nelson is at his best when he’s allowed to make contact with a receiver early in a route and use his hands to accomplish 2 things: impede the progress of the receiver and “read” when/where the receiver is going to cut.

While Nelson isn’t a big corner at all, he’s clearly comfortable jostling with receivers (regardless of size) and seems to thrive when things get chippy. Like I said: annoying.

While Nelson isn’t an explosive athlete from what I can see on the field, he’s quick (at least he was once he had a few games under his belt returning from injury) and keeps his balance trying to mirror receivers. He’s got some flexibility in his hips, though he can’t flip them like Gumby the way you see with Kendall Fuller.

I really like Nelson’s feet. He doesn’t take many false steps, he doesn’t get in his own way, and he’s got quick feet. This is a necessity when defending in the slot, but is a boon when you’re going after any receiver at any position. However, unlike other slot corners, Nelson doesn’t seem to fall off when he’s asked to be physical with receivers.

Nelson definitely toes that almost-too-physical line that got Terrance Mitchell in trouble so often last season, but he stays on the good side of that line a lot better (at least in the games I reviewed). This was true whether he was playing slot receivers or guys on the outside. He didn’t look like a noticeably different corner to me when asked to play the boundary, and even showed some ability to force receivers towards the sideline in that role. That makes me hopeful he can bounce inside and outside as needed next season (I assume Fuller will be taking slot duties in three-cornerback sets).

Nelson also appears to be solid when it comes to awareness, both in reading receiver routes and in zone coverage.

I’ve always been told that any time you see a defender beat the receiver to the spot, it’s indicative not only of good reflexes and quickness, but it’s a testament to the work they do in the film room. From what I could see, Nelson was often able to see where routes were going and start moving before the receiver, rather than reacting. He was also in the right spots in zones from what I could tell, and seemed aware of receivers traveling through his zones.

Another pro with Nelson is that he’s a plus run defender and tackler.

Whether it’s in run defense, tracking down a wide receiver in the open field, or snuffing out bubble or tunnel screens, Nelson isn’t afraid to get physical and hit guys. I like that in a corner, though it’s not a top priority. Brandon Flowers remains one of my favorite Chiefs corners to this day because of his skill as a tackler. Nelson isn’t quite at that level, but he’s within shouting distance due to his solid build and “fly to the ball” nature.

All right, so I’m sure all that sounds great. Am I convinced Nelson will be a really good corner next season? Well... not quite. Because while he has a lot of good qualities, he has some basic limitations. First of all, while he’s quick, he’s not explosive.

While Nelson’s acceleration got better as the weeks went along, the core issue of recovery speed remains. In essence, that means that if Nelson misses on a jam or has a receiver get a free release at the line of scrimmage, or if he doesn’t anticipate a cut and the receiver has a step on him inside, he’s not always going to be fast enough to recover. That can spell trouble against more gifted receivers.

When you don’t have top-end speed or acceleration, that generally is going to limit your upside as a corner. Nelson is a notch below Fuller as an overall athlete on film in terms of “burst,” and I think that’s a big separator between the two of them. Fuller can guess wrong and recover in time to contest the throw. Nelson can’t all the time. And again, that limits a player’s ceiling unless he’s able to get everything else right the vast majority of the time.

Another issue I saw with Nelson was his ability at the catch point. While he’s aggressive and certainly willing in this area, I didn’t see great ball skills from him at any point. This could leave him open to getting beat by great ball-tracking receivers on deep shots. Again, he’s more than willing to get after it, but I’m not seeing the natural ability there to make up for his lack of size (some guys “play big” at the catch point. Nelson, at least from what I’m seeing, does not).

The bottom line

So where do we land overall with Nelson? Well... man, it’s tough to say. He lacks the size and overall athleticism of David Amerson, but looked to have superior feet, hips and instincts. If you could blend the two of them together, I think you’d have a star.

That said, if I had to go into a game with one of them as my second cornerback based upon last year’s film, I’m taking Nelson. After he shook off the rust, he played well for the Chiefs, providing capable coverage both in the slot and on the sideline. There’s a reason he played nearly every snap down the stretch: he was legitimately a solid player on the defense.

My guess is that unless Amerson is able to play better than I expect him to in a press-man scheme, Nelson will win the CB2 spot. He doesn’t have the greatest physical skill set in the world, but his footwork, awareness and physicality should allow him to provide competent corner play across from Fuller. If, of course, what we saw down the stretch is the “real” Steven Nelson. The unfortunate reality is that we’re still dealing with a pretty small sample size of games.

Long story short: it wouldn’t shock me at all if Nelson played well this year... but the if factor remains, which leaves me hoping Brett Veach drafts as much competition for the corner spot as possible, just in case.

From everything I can see, a rookie would have to be able to outplay a pretty competent guy if they wanted to wrest snaps from Nelson. And that’s never a bad type of competition to have.