If Casey Hayward gets a well-deserved opportunity as the starting cornerback next to Sam Shields, Ted Thompson may look into the middle rounds for a corner. Oregon State’s Steven Nelson could be there in the 2nd or 3rd round, but most likely no later than that. Nelson is arguably the most competitive cornerback in this draft who plays with a chip on his shoulder to make up for a lack of size. His toughness would be an asset to this Packers defense that is ready to take the next step.
Weight: 197 lbs
Year: Senior (junior college transfer, played two years at Oregon State)
40 yard dash: 4.49 seconds
225 Bench Press: 19 reps
Steven Nelson is a physical corner with excellent instincts in the run game. According to Pro Football Focus, Nelson did not miss a single tackle in 2014. He’s the only corner in the draft who that can be said about. He lacks size and speed for a traditional corner but plays with an edge that will likely make up for that. Nelson has exceptional ball skills for a player with his height. Against Arizona State, Nelson went head to head in man coverage with a likely first-round pick in Jaelen Strong and snapped his streak of five straight games with at least one touchdown. Nelson is fearless in run support and there are no questions about his tackling ability. In my opinion, Nelson’s greatest strengths are his toughness and competitive edge.
As I mentioned earlier, he has an excellent ability to play the ball in the air against bigger receivers. The matchup against Jaelen Strong (6’2’’, 215 lbs) is one example. Although Strong still caught 9 passes for 103 yards in that game, none of those receptions had a significant impact. Nelson may have been beaten by Strong on a couple of plays, but he showed the awareness to find the ball in the air and make plays that were instrumental in his team’s 35-27 upset of Arizona State.
Nelson also has the potential to develop into a threat as a punt or kick returner. While attending Northside High School in Georgia, he returned seven punts for a touchdown and was also a part of their 4-by-100 relay team that finished 1st in the country. While his 40 time might not stack up to others, he’s not a guy that will be easy to tackle in the open field.
His size is the primary weakness that leads to a couple more. At times he is a bit too physical at the line of scrimmage, which could be a problem as league officials continue to crack down on holding and illegal contact. He often plays underneath in coverage for fear that a receiver might beat him deep and this leaves him susceptible to underneath passes. That being said, he has the closing speed and tackling ability to limit yards after the catch. He was penalized nine times last season, the second-most of any senior cornerback. However, as I mentioned earlier, he only played two seasons at Oregon State. A few improvements to his technique and the fact that he won't be relied on to cover the opponent's top receiver should alleviate some of the concerns regarding how often he was penalized last season.
NFL Comparison: Orlando Scandrick
Steven Nelson is undersized but makes up for it by being one of the most competitive cornerbacks in this draft class. He projects ideally as a nickel corner who will improve his team’s run defense and turnover differential immediately. He is not the guy that you matchup against a bigger receiver in the red zone. Although he has the ability to play the ball at its highest point, he will lose most of those scenarios in the NFL. He will also need to improve his footwork in man coverage, in order to be less physical and "grabby" at the line of scrimmage.
As of now, Nelson projects as a late-2nd or 3rd round pick. I think he's a nickel corner at this point but he could certainly develop into a starting caliber cornerback as he only played two years at Oregon State. He was tested against the likes of Nelson Agholor and Jaelen Strong last season and he held up pretty well. A few highlights from those games are shown in the clip below.