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J.J. Nelson Sizes Up His NFL Career

Wide receiver parlays speed, drive into important role in Cardinals' offense


J.J. Nelson is an adidas guy, and because of that, prone to wearing adidas gear. So when he walked into Enterprise Rent-A-Car recently and the guy behind the counter saw the 5-foot-10, 160-pounder, Nelson was asked if he plays soccer.

"They always think I play soccer," the Cardinals' wide receiver said.

The question always gets a shake of the head from Nelson, although he's not offering up his NFL employment. If people don't automatically see him as a football player, it doesn't make a difference. It's not like it hasn't happened before, even sometimes by those who have already seen him play football.

But the man who had to be cajoled back to the gridiron in high school and who played for a college program that shut down for the season after Nelson left hasn't let any of it impact his play. The Cardinals drafted Nelson – the fastest player at the Scouting combine, running the 40 in 4.28 seconds -- in the fifth round in 2015. Coach Bruce Arians said immediately the idea would be to put 10 pounds on his 158-pound frame.

Last Friday, Nelson weighed 160 pounds. Sunday, he made two gigantic plays, gliding underneath a perfect 45-yard touchdown bomb from quarterback Carson Palmer to get the Cards back in the game, and then a 30-yard sideline catch-and-run to set up the game-tying field goal.

"I've got to stick up for my guy," Palmer said. "I saw him squatting 225 (pounds this week)."

The size thing just doesn't matter to Nelson anymore. He falls back on his football philosophies: He might as well catch the ball, since he's going to be hit anyway, and it's a physical sport, and he chose to play it. These are the thoughts that provide his foundation.

"If you ever train with him, see how fast or how explosive he is, watch him play basketball, he can do windmill dunks," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "He's an unbelievable athlete. To be that slender, don't take him lightly.

"I wouldn't want him in an alley fight, though."

Reuben Nelson Jr. – no relation, but then the head football coach and athletic director at Midfield High School in Alabama – had heard from J.J. Nelson's mother.

The coach had already tried to convince J.J. to play football, but after his size deprived him of opportunities on the football field in middle school, he quit the sport. He fancied himself a basketball player, and indeed, he was the best Midfield had in hoops.

Nelson's mom was direct with the coach. "Why do you keep asking him to play? He needs to play."

Images of the second-year wide receiver taking a handoff 56 yards to the house against the Dolphins

So Rueben Nelson went to the track meet the next day, sitting at the top of the bleachers, watching the sophomore blaze through the 100 and 200 races, bringing Midfield back for a win in the 4x100. Spring football work would begin soon. He met J.J. at the finish line after a race.

"J.J., you're going to play football next year," he told him.

"He was telling me, not asking me," J.J. Nelson recalled.

Rueben Nelson said he even took into account that the slight kid might be wary of getting hit, so he told him he didn't even care if J.J. ran out of bounds after making a catch or returning a kick. It didn't matter. By the time games began, J.J. was not only playing receiver and kick/punt returner but starting at cornerback too.

His speed was undeniable. Nelson won the state 100-meter dash title in both his junior and senior years and would've won as a sophomore except AD Rueben Nelson didn't want to make a three-hour drive to the state meet with only one athlete, which was J.J. (Side note: Nelson's state-winning sprints were honed in the Midfield parking lot, running in tennis shoes on asphalt. The school didn't have an actual track.)

But J.J. showed more than just speed on the football field. In his senior year opener, Midfield was losing to a team they should've been beating. Facing a fourth-and-15 late in the game, head coach Nelson heard the play call and overruled his assistants. "Jailbreak to J.J." was his order – a short pass to J.J., to let him run for a first down -- over the objections of the other coaches. J.J. not only got the first down, he scored on the play.

He emerged as a leader. After rumors surfaced that there could be a coaching change at the school because of first-round playoff failures, Nelson the coach took J.J. and a couple other seniors to Chick-Fil-A for sandwiches and conversation. Rueben Nelson said J.J. assured him there would be no first-round exit, and as motivation, J.J. told his teammates he wouldn't play basketball – he was the best player – if they didn't win a playoff game.

They won two.

"I could go on and on about that kid," Rueben Nelson said.

J.J. Nelson began to think that football could give him an opportunity at a degree, and maybe even reach the NFL. Lightly recruited, he ended up staying home at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, doing well enough to become a pro prospect.

Now, "I'm here," Nelson said.

Nelson has scored nine touchdowns in his last 11 NFL games – eight receiving, and one electrifying 56-yard run in Miami. He has averaged 18.7 yards a reception since he arrived in the NFL in 2015, which is the highest in the league in that span.

With John Brown's lingering health issues, Nelson has become the big-play man. He had an 80-yard touchdown catch in Seattle last year to help spark a win against the Seahawks. He had the TD in Indianapolis (and nearly caught another earlier in the game, but couldn't get a foot down).

He is not a finished product. He had a painful drop in Detroit that could've been a long touchdown and with his size, he still has issues getting off good press coverage. But Palmer likes how Nelson has learned how to read defenses, and he's getting better on the intermediate routes.

"He's not a one-trick pony," Palmer said.

His speed is his most important attribute, obvious with his frame. (There is irony in Nelson being an adidas guy. At the Scouting combine in 2015, adidas promised $1 million to the player with the fastest 40 time, which Nelson was. The catch: The player had to sign an endorsement deal with adidas ahead of time. Nelson did not.) Arians compared Nelson to Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace in that not only can Nelson run, but he can change direction fluidly.

"He's doing a good job of catching balls over the middle now," Arians added. "Just don't try to put him in too much harm's way."

Nelson's teammates like to give him grief for his quiet nature, although Palmer says Nelson does plenty of talking when the cameras aren't around, and Nelson and Brown have an ongoing tease-fest when one or the other is at the center of a media scrum.

While Nelson sees himself as "chill, calm and collected" Fitzgerald said it's a mistake to miss the passion with which Nelson approaches the job. Rueben Nelson swears by J.J.'s work ethic, forged within a tight-knit extended family.

These are the things that have gotten skinny J.J. Nelson to succeed in the NFL, whether or not he looks like he should.

"It's crazy because when you grow up you see a lot of guys that are better than you," Nelson said. "They don't make it, for whatever reason. I always found, 'OK, guy is bigger than me but what do I have over him?' I always look at stuff like that, to this day."

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