Shawn Nelson was a 6-foot-5, 240 pound blocking tight end, drafted in the fourth round of the 2009 draft by the Bills. I say “was” because he bulked up during the lockout and the Bills were already listing him at 273 pounds back in August. However, he was 240 when the games I analyzed were played, so adjust your expectations in terms of speed, strength and mobility accordingly.
Nelson got plenty of playing time for the Bills in 2009 and although his 2010 season was eaten into by injuries and a suspension, there is plenty of regular season footage to analyze, unlike for the likes of Baxter, Schlauderaff and Riley, who only really played against backups in preseason.
However, I first became aware of Nelson back in 2005 when he caught six passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns to win MVP honors as Southern Miss beat Arkansas State in the New Orleanns Bowl. Back then, he was a 225-pound receiver, but they were already moving him around and using him in a variety of ways. By 2007, he had converted to tight end, although he was still considered more of a pass catching threat than a blocker. In a game against Boise State, he stayed in to block a lot early on, but later got open downfield for a 31-yard catch and scored a 22-yard TD on a screen pass as he ran untouched to the endzone. He could have had another touchdown, but badly dropped an over-the-shoulder catch in the endzone.
At the start of his rookie season, Nelson missed an entire week of OTAs due to “personal problems”. This is perhaps not a big deal, especially since the activities were not mandatory, although it was the first of many occasions where Nelson was not available. He made it into the rotation, even scoring a touchdown in his first game, but then injured his shoulder in week two and missed the next game. After returning to the lineup, he played in the next three games, before missing the next three with migraine issues.
In 2010, he injured his groin in preseason and had to have surgery. Then, it was announced that he had violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy and would be suspended for four games. He returned to the lineup in week seven and played the next five games, only to suffer more migraine issues and end up on injured reserve.
In 2011, he showed up 30 pounds heavier, which he had said was to help him with blocking. However, when the Bills surprisingly cut him, the media reported that it was because he showed up overweight. He hadn’t participated in any camp activities due to an undisclosed injury and the emergence of Scott Chandler obviously made him surplus to requirements.
Clearly, Nelson hasn’t been particularly reliable so far, although much of that probably isn’t his fault. Hopefully he’s spent the last two months getting in shape and re-dedicating himself to the game. Let’s now get a sense of how he performed when he DID play.
Week One – New England
Nelson caught two passes for 13 yards and (his only) NFL touchdown. He also dropped a pass and was called for two penalties.
An interesting sequence of plays late in the first quarter saw him line up on the right hand side and pull to the left three times. On the first one, he made a great seal block on the outside linebacker coming off the edge. This opened up a huge hole for a 17-yard gain. On the next one, a couple of plays later, the outside linebacker read the play and pinched in. Nelson couldn’t really find anyone to block and the run was stuffed. On the play after that, he pulled left again, but this time, as the linebacker avoided him, it was a play-action pass and he leaked into the flat to catch the ball and dive in at the pylon for a nine yard touchdown.
He also showed an ability to run block in space, sustaining his block well on Adalius Thomas on the edge for an 11-yard run that was negated by an illegal formation penalty and again on a 3rd and 3 conversion. However, on one similar play the linebacker battled with him to get outside leverage and in his efforts to allow the runner to turn the corner, Nelson grabbed his man’s arm and was called for a hold. The runner did get to the edge for a 12-yard gain, which was obviously called back. Nelson’s other penalty was a false start in the first quarter.
He was targeted another two times, with a pass in the flat being thrown too high so he had to jump to catch it and was held to a 4-yard gain. On another, he got good downfield separation going across the field on a square-in route, but the pass was thrown behind him and he dropped it.
Week Two – Tampa Bay
Nelson caught one pass for 13 yards, but left with a shoulder injury.
Nelson’s only target in this one saw him leak to the outside where he was wide open for a 13-yard catch and run.
As a blocker, he had mixed results. Early on, he drove DE Jimmy Wilkerson back five yards as the runner gained five up the middle. Later, he met an OLB in space and drove him out of the play as the Bills gained four more. After that, he did a good job of making a block at the second level, but then did not sustain the block and his man was able to get to the runner. That ended up being a six yard gain. Finally, a linebacker diagnosed the run and got to the hole before Nelson could make the block, beating him inside to stuff the run for a loss.
Week Four - Miami
Nelson made his return from injury but was not targeted.
An interesting sequence here saw him blocking Jason Taylor on the outside. On the first play, he met him on the edge and made a good kickout block to set up a nine yard gain. On the next play, he lost outside leverage and Taylor was able to string the play out for a loss.
Week Five - Cleveland
Nelson was targeted four times, but caught just one pass for no gain. He was in the game for a career high 67 snaps (85% of the time).
In this game, Nelson’s only catch saw a cornerback come off his man to tackle him in the backfield. This was almost a safety. As a blocker, he had problems sustaining his blocks on a couple of occasions. On one, his man got off his block on the outside and missed the tackle in the backfield before recovering to make the tackle for a loss with his second effort. On another, his man got off his block on the inside and held the run to a three yard gain.
Week Six - Jets
Nelson caught two passes for 34 yards and was called for one penalty. After this game, he missed three weeks with migraine issues.
This must be where Nelson first found his way onto Rex Ryan’s radar screen. Entering the game, the Jets were hitting the opposing quarterback five times per game on average and the Bills were not regarded as a strong pass-protecting team. However, in this game, they thwarted the Jets’ overload blitzes by leaving extra guys in, moving the pocket and generally being extremely well-organized in pass protection. Nelson was one of these guys, as he stayed in seven times and did not allow any pressure. Overall, the Jets blitzed 14 times, but had just one sack and one QB hit.
As a pass catcher, he had a 25 yard gain on a seam route and a nine yard reception on his only two targets.
In the running game, he threw a good early block to set up a 12-yard run, but was beaten on two runs that were stuffed either side of the end of the first quarter. He also had a false start. In the third quarter, he made three consecutive good blocks as the Bills gained nine yards on three straight runs. The first saw Terrell Owens gain nine on an end around as Nelson made a pulling block. Nelson also made a good pulling block on the third of those runs.
Week Ten - Tennessee
Nelson made his return and caught three passes for 13 yards and was also called for a hold on a kickoff. In addition, he recovered a fumble early in the second half.
His most important catch was a five yard gain as he leaked out into the flat on 2nd and 3. As a run blocker, he had a good early block where he blocked the first guy, then peeled off to block a second guy on the edge. The run went for seven yards. Later on, he tried to make a pulling block, but Kyle Vanden Bosch diagnosed the play and avoided him to make the tackle, albeit downfield for a five yard gain, so at least he did enough to enable the runner to get through the line. As a pass blocker, William Hayes got a step on him to the outside and used his strength to pressure the quarterback. This is the only pressure Nelson has given up so far in his career, having stayed in to block 79 times.
Week Eleven - Jacksonville
Nelson was thrown at three times and caught one pass for 25 yards. He also had a costly penalty.
His one catch, late in the second quarter saw him leap over a linebacker to make the grab downfield. On one of the other two targets, he was well-covered and the pass was broken up.
Late in the first quarter, he lined up in the slot and made a cut block on the defensive end to spring an outside run for a 9-yard touchdown. Unfortunately, blocking below the waist is illegal if you are lined up outside the tackle box, so the touchdown was negated.
Other than that, he had mixed results as a run blocker. He made a good second level block on an outside run for 11 and combined with a fullback to seal a run-blitzing linebacker on the inside as a run went outside. He also made two good pulling blocks, cutting his man to the ground on one. Unfortunately, those last three plays netted just seven yards as his linemates didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Another run went for four yards, but this time it was Nelson’s man who made the stop as he pulled but did not sustain.
Week Twelve - Miami
Nelson was in for 58 snaps, but caught just one pass for 22 yards. Overall, he was targeted four times and had one drop.
Nelson’s one catch here came on a crossing route. Aside from his drop, he also ran a poor route to allow Yeremiah Bell to jump in front of him and intercept a pass. He didn’t have much of an impact as a blocker.
Week Thirteen - Jets
Nelson was not targeted in this game, but again had an important role in pass protection, staying in to block on 12 snaps and helping limit the Jets to just nine QB disruptions.
Nelson’s best block here came on special teams as he met James Ihedigbo head-on and turned him around. You may remember Fred Jackson’s 36-yard run where Kerry Rhodes seemed to be running away from the ball carrier downfield. That play came about because Calvin Pace was blocked on the edge and David Harris got caught in traffic. On that play, Nelson was looking for someone to block at the second level, but there was nobody there. Bart Scott came from the opposite side and was almost able to blow the play up, but Nelson just saw him in time and got enough of him to spring the runner. Later on, despite the fact that the play only went for a two yard gain, he had a very impressive block on Shaun Ellis on the edge. Ellis couldn’t get off the block and was unable to drive Nelson off his spot as he did a good job of standing his ground and sustaining the block until after the whistle.
Week Fourteen – Kansas City
Nelson caught two passes for 19 yards, but also fumbled once.
Nelson had a nice downfield catch on a square-in route, showing soft hands as he got his hands to a high ball and then pulled down a juggling catch. His other catch in the flat, saw the ball stripped away from his grasp for a turnover.
As a run blocker, he did a good job of turning and driving a DE out of the play and forcing his man to the inside to create a small seam behind him. Both plays gained just four yards.
Week Fifteen – New England
Nelson was targeted five times and made a career high four catches, but for just 17 yards. He did recover a muffed punt on special teams, though.
On one of his catches, he was tackled for a loss and on another, he was hit for a short gain and fumbled the ball out of bounds. As a run-blocker, he did a good job of forcing Tully Banta-Cain to the inside, so that the runner could get to the edge for six yards, then made a second level block on another run for eight. However, he was beaten to the inside on a run that was stuffed for a one yard gain.
Week Sixteen - Atlanta
Nelson was not targeted in this game, but performed well as a blocker.
As a run blocker, Nelson did a decent job on DE Chauncey Davis, driving him five yards off the line on one play and turning him out of the play on a short yardage conversion. He also had a good block to drive a safety out of the play on a screen pass for an eight yard gain.
Week Seven - Baltimore
After missing the first six weeks due to injury/suspension, Nelson returned to the lineup and caught two passes for 16 yards on three targets. However, he also lost a fumble.
Nelson was targeted in the endzone late in the first quarter and seemed to have a size mismatch, but the pass was off-target and out of his reach. He did make a great first down catch where he made contact with his man downfield and then broke off his route to the outside. He used his size well on that one. His other catch was less promising as Ray Lewis was able to stop him for a short gain and then ripped the ball away from him as he fought for extra yardage. This was a crucial turnover in overtime that ended up costing the Bills the game.
As a run blocker, there were three runs for 32 yards where Nelson was involved in a key block. On the first, his man shed his block, but luckily Eric Wood was right behind him to block the guy anyway and the play went for 11. Early in the second quarter, he was matched up with Haloti Ngata, who shot the gap and beat him to the inside. However, Nelson used Ngata’s momentum to ride him out of the play and the runner cut back to where they had come from to gain 13. I don’t think that was by design, but if it was, Nelson did a great job. It’s more likely he got badly beaten, but made a good recovery and the back made a good read. Another run to the outside picked up eight as Nelson drove his man back and slowed him up enough to allow the runner to turn the corner.
Week Eight – Kansas City
Nelson was in for just six snaps and was not targeted. He did have a special teams tackle.
Week Nine - Chicago
Nelson was only in for one snap.
Week Ten - Detroit
Nelson was not targeted and was only in the game for 11 snaps.
In this game, Nelson did have one good block, meeting safety Louis Delmas on the edge and springing a huge run with a solid kickout block that he made look easy because of the size difference (six inches, 40 pounds).
Week Eleven - Cincinnati
Nelson was in for nine snaps, catching one pass for nine yards. He left the game with migraine issues and was ultimately placed on injured reserve.
It’s not difficult to see why the Bills cut Shawn Nelson. When you’re a rebuilding team, you don’t want to rely on someone who has proven to be unreliable. However, Nelson showed flashes of being an emerging talent over those first two seasons, so if the Jets can nurture that, they may have found themselves a productive player.
Without knowing what kind of shape he’s in, it’s difficult to know how indicative of what we can expect from him this footage will prove, but Nelson showed that he can get downfield, catch the ball and run after the catch. He also showed that he has good strength and an ability to drive people, including defensive linemen, off their spots and to sustain blocks. Perhaps most importantly of all, he didn’t seem to make many dumb mistakes as a blocker and it was rare that he was cleanly beaten.
If this provides a realistic assessment of what Nelson is likely to be able to provide the Jets, then I would say he has more to offer as a pass catcher and blocker than Matt Mulligan does, based on current form. His consistency as a pass blocker has been much more reliable – although he only stayed in to block seven times in 2010. As a run blocker, his strength is impressive and he appears better at finding a man in space and at sustaining blocks than Mulligan. Drops and fumbles are always concerning, but less important if he's been brought in primarily as a blocker.
Even if he has worked his way back into shape, the question is how much effect will that extra 30 pounds have on his speed – he ran a 4.56 at the combine – and will it improve his blocking? If Nelson is ready to re-dedicate himself as his former teammate Aaron Maybin seems to have, then perhaps he is ready to turn his career around. If not, the Jets haven’t lost anything by trying – and, who knows, maybe they’ll pick up some useful information along the way.
Check back tomorrow for a midseason "Expendables" update!