TEMPE, Ariz. — J.J. Nelson stood in front of his locker this week, surrounded by people with cameras and notepads who wanted to know if he could dunk, why he quit football (and then returned), and how he knows if he can get a step on a cornerback.
The deeper they prodded into the life of the Arizona Cardinals’ speedy, game-breaking receiver, the more Nelson smiled and nodded.
If it was up to him, the cameras would have found someone else to focus on and the reporters would pepper one of his teammates with questions. Being the center of attention is not who Nelson is — it never has been — but after turning in the third-best game of his career Sunday in Indianapolis with five catches for 120 yards and a touchdown, Nelson has been thrust into the spotlight. It’ll only get brighter with the expectation that he’ll continue to be a pillar of Arizona’s passing game with John Brown’s return from a quad injury still unknown.
But Nelson, who rarely turns down an interview request, stood patiently, answering questions all week with his Alabama charm — a mix of humility and humor with a large helping of stories.
“I’m not too much of a talker,” Nelson said. “I just like to sit back and observe. That’s pretty much it.”
“Quiet? I don’t see J.J. as being quiet,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “He’s very talkative. He may be quiet around you guys but he’s talkative in the locker room, especially when I’m making fun of him. I don’t see that. I don’t see that side of him.”
J.J. Nelson ranks tied for ninth in the league with 163 receiving yards through two games. AP Photo/AJ Mast
Nelson’s teammates give him his fair share of flak for being quiet.
Fellow wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald tries to get Nelson to open up, to talk more, especially on the field and especially when it’s loud.
“It’s been a little crazy,” Nelson said. “They’ve been on me every day about not talking so I just let my play talk for the most part. I’ve been like that since I was young.”
He’s ninth in the NFL with 163 receiving yards this season and has become a fantasy star in the first two weeks of the year.
Thus far, Nelson has shown an improved understanding of how to beat press coverage and get past cornerbacks, coach Bruce Arians said.
“He’s always had it,” Arians said. “And he’s gotten better and better. The bigger ones … Pat [Patrick Peterson] gives him a little problem but there aren’t many Pats around.”
Heading into this weekend’s slate of games, Nelson is ranked in the top 30 in receptions, yards before first contact per reception, air yards per target and first downs.
Palmer, who worked out with Nelson away from the Cardinals’ facility this offseason, said there’s more than meets the eye with Nelson, who’s built a reputation since he was drafted in 2015 as a fast, downfield threat but in reality has been more of a short-yardage receiver. Of his 55 career receptions, 38 have traveled in the air 15 yards or less, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“He’s not a one-trick pony,” Palmer said. “It seems like he may be but he catches the ball really strong. You’re talking about his slight build but he catches the ball with really, really strong hands. He’s really smart. He sees defenses unfold. He’s got a lot of plays where they’re built, post-snap reads where he runs one of three routes so he’s really, really intelligent.”
Palmer described Nelson like this: When the lights come on, Nelson makes plays.
“He is a threat, there’s no doubt about it but he can also throw the brakes on you and run comebacks and digs,” Palmer added. “He’s fluid in and out of the top of his routes so he’s a complete receiver in my eyes.”
Which, when you find out that Nelson restarted football nine years ago after a brief hiatus, makes Nelson’s story all the more remarkable.
Nelson quit football in middle school in his hometown of Midfield, Alabama, a southwest suburb of Birmingham. He doesn’t consider himself a quitter, but he looked at the lack of opportunities coming his way and realized his ability and potential in basketball may have been a better fit. He became the team MVP and won all-region honors in basketball.
But then he started seeing point guards who were 6-foot-4 and the realization that a career in basketball at 5-10 may not come to fruition began settling in. Nelson took stock of his athletic options. Track or a return to football sounded like the best routes for him. He did both.
Nelson won two state titles in the 100 meters and one in the 200. A year after returning to football as a junior, he was named the Metro-West Player of the Year by The Birmingham News and landed a scholarship to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“Like I said, here I am,” Nelson said.
Nelson didn’t look like an NFL prospect coming out of college in 2015. He was short. He weighed 160 pounds. And he had calves that weren’t much thicker than most branches. Nelson may look slight of build, but he can bench 225 pounds — which he did recently, Palmer said — and he can dunk a basketball, which he began doing as a ninth grader.
But he had one thing NFL coaches say they can’t teach: speed.
Nelson taught himself how to be fast. His uncle used to line up Nelson against his older cousins to race in the street. It didn’t matter if Nelson was wearing shoes, was barefoot or had socks on, he raced. He didn’t beat his cousins but those races helped build his own speed, which he later used to beat other kids growing up.
That speed has led to a promising NFL career.
“He was a very, very fast guy that could change direction easily and stop easily,” Arians said. “A lot of very fast guys — you go way back to [Olympian] John Carlos and all those guys that tried to play football, they couldn’t stop and they couldn’t turn. He did it fluidly. He had a great high speed.
“Those traits usually show up as a pretty good wide receiver and he’s doing a good job of catching balls over the middle now. Just don’t try to put him in too much harm’s way.”