When Steven Nelson signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers a lot of people said, “who”? I am not sure how, though, Nelson started and played nearly every snap for the team that finished with the number one seed in the AFC and made it to the AFC Championship game.
But, it is fair to say for the average football observer that Nelson is not a known name, as he shifted from a slot player in his first three seasons to someone who patrolled the outside for the Chiefs in 2018.
While Nelson was the most targeted cornerback in the NFL last season, the Chiefs defenese was the most targted secondary in the NFL. When your offense has Pat Mahomes you are going to be playing against teams forced to pass the football.
Still, that led to a 53% completion rate. To put that into perspective Joe Haden allowed 59% of his passes to be complete and Artie Burns allowed a whopping 79% of his passes to be complete last season.
This brings us to the main point. Whether you know of Steven Nelson, trust in Steven Nelson or are anxious about the signing, he is an upgrade over their starting cornerback at this time last season.
Burns allowed a passer rating of 149 in 2018 compared to 82 of Nelson. Burns did not pick off a single pass while Nelson hauled in four.
Nelson is 26 years old and coming off of his best season, Burns is 24 and coming off of his worst. There is no way around it, Steven Nelson is a direct upgrade at a position of need.
The question from here becomes how big of an upgrade is he? How can someone start for a winning team all season and still nobody knows who he is?
The way to describe Steven Nelson is almost the exact opposite of Artie Burns. Burns is a big, strong athlete. He brings physical ability that Nelson cannot match. However, he is consistently out of place.
Steven Nelson is a sharp cornerback. He is smart and does not fall for double moves. However, by the same token he is not nearly as athletic as Artie Burns. He also does not have the size, strength, reach or speed.
Burns was much more inconsistent down to down, Nelson was stronger but struggled with the big play. While Burns allowed a paltry 15 yards per reception, Nelson was not far behind allowing over 14 yards per catch. Nelson also was victim to seven touchdowns, the same number as Burns and Sensabaugh combined.
One of the issues Nelson will have to work on is getting his head turned around. Too often Nelson was in the right spot at the right time and was the loser of a jump ball or a deep ball down the field That is how you have a strong completion rate allowed with a ton of big plays surrendered. His size and athleticism deficiencies showed the most when in jump ball scenarios with bigger athletes. This is just something that he cannot get better at.
However, it is fair to say that he is almost always in the right spot. If he can get his head around a bit quicker he could have broke up a few more of those deep passes and turned his stats into gaudy numbers.
What does this mean?
Still, Nelson playing efficient with lapses down the field is better than Burns who was inconsistent near the line of scrimmage and got burnt deep.
Steven Nelson is going to start for the Steelers in 2019 across from Joe Haden. After his breakout 2018, could he be in line for a step forward? Sure. However, that likely means more consistent play in the intermediate with similar success down the field.
Is Nelson a long term solution? We will see. This does not completely take the team out of drafting a cornerback, and the upside of what Nelson can bring is somewhat limited. When an older player like Haden moves on this will not be a player with the upside to step into his number cornerback role.
Still, it is an immediate upgrade at the position they needed it the most. Whatever the upside, it presents a chance to improve in 2019.