Nelson has the ideal size (6’3”, 217 pounds) you look for at the position, with the route-running ability, speed and catch radius that allow him to produce from multiple alignments on the field in the Green Bay Packers offense.
Today, let’s break down some tape on Nelson and discuss why Aaron Rodgers’ No. 1 target continues to emerge as a top-five player in the NFL.
Route Running/Catch Radius
Nelson (47 receptions, 712 yards, six touchdowns) can accelerate quickly off the release, and he shows very little wasted movement when he gets into the initial stem to establish position at the top of the route.
This creates opportunities for Nelson to attack the edge of defensive backs in a press alignment (forcing them to open the gate) while pushing defenders down the field (eat up the cushion) when he is matched up versus off-man.
The veteran is smooth in his routes with the body control and athleticism to run through the break while creating separation/leverage back to the football.
Think of some basic concepts, such as the curl/comeback, dig, slant, out cut or the 9 (fade), where Nelson can take control of the route through the stem and establish leverage at the point of attack.
On Sunday, Nelson beat the jam versus the Panthers Cover 2, pushed up the field and attacked the deep hole in the zone defense.
This is a Cover 2-beater from Green Bay with No. 2 running the inside vertical to hold the safety on his landmark (top of the numbers) as Nelson stacks on top of the cornerback sinking underneath.
As you can see, safety Roman Harper takes a flat angle on the break. That allows Nelson to make the catch and cut this ball back to produce a touchdown. But it started with the wide receiver defeating the jam and winning on the release versus a rolled-up cornerback.
In the intermediate passing game, Nelson can create enough leverage at the top of the stem to give Rodgers the opportunity to throw the deep comeback or curl.
Check out Nelson running the comeback versus the Jets with a “plus split” (outside of the numbers) versus a “bail” technique (open, sink at the snap).
Here, the wide receiver sells the fade by pressing the cornerback down the field (with speed). That forces the defender to open and run (creating separation) as Nelson chops down and snaps back to the football.
It's a basic route, but this is pro-level stuff, in my opinion, when the receiver uses the route stem to get open. And it’s one of my favorites on the tape from Nelson.
Plus, we can’t forget about the back-shoulder throw with Rodgers—away from the defender’s leverage.
This is where we see the top-tier catch radius of Nelson as he adjusts to the football to make a play outside of his frame.
Take a look at this catch from Nelson versus the Jets on the back-shoulder throw.
With the cornerback stacking on top of the release (take away the fade), Rodgers targets the back shoulder of Nelson as the wide receiver makes a ridiculous grab away from his body.
It's tough to defend and tough to prep for from a defensive perspective when playing to the upfield shoulder (coached technique).
With Nelson, just turn on the tape and watch him run routes—even the basic ones, such as a hitch, stick concept or the speed out.
The acceleration through the stem is there, but it’s also the attention to detail, or the professional approach to his game, that puts him in a position to finish.
Multiple Breaking Routes
The Packers wide receiver is fluid running multiple breaking concepts because of the route-running technique we talked about above. Think of the “dino” post, the “sting” and a variety of double moves that cater to Nelson’s athletic ability and movement skills.
This is where Nelson showcases his “long speed” and the ability in the open field to pull away from defenders or cut down angles in the secondary.
Let’s start with the “sting” route versus Vikings safety Harrison Smith, playing over the top in the deep half.
In the “sting” route, Nelson stems to the 7 (corner) and then breaks back to the post with the Packers using max protection off play action. This gives Nelson time to sell the outside stem while forcing Smith to open his hips (instead of staying square in the deep half).
Once Smith opens to play the 7 cut, Nelson breaks back to the post with Rodgers throwing from a clean pocket to target the “sting” route for six points.
That is a heck of a route to cover at the safety position with the smooth stem from Nelson to sell the 7 cut deep down the field.
On the double move, Nelson can sell the out and up or the “sluggo” (slant/go) because of his ability to set up defensive backs at the break point. This is where the wide receiver will sink the hips (or show the out cut) and then accelerate to get down the field.
Back to the matchup versus the Jets, Nelson executed the deep out and out versus Milliner to take advantage of the defensive back’s poor eye discipline at the break point.
With Tank/22 personnel on the field for the Packers, Nelson pushes this route up to 10-12 yards (deep for a double move) and sells the out cut with Milliner sticking his eyes in the backfield.
That creates an opportunity down the field for Nelson to eliminate the angle from safety Calvin Pryor and cut back to produce an 80-yard touchdown.
With both of these multiple breaking concepts, we are talking about the route-running ability of Nelson again. That continues to jump off the tape regardless of where he is targeted on the field.
To finish up on Nelson, I wanted to take a quick look at his ability to work the middle of the field from an inside-the-numbers alignment.
Nelson will align as the No. 2 (slot) in a 2x2 formation or as the No. 3 (count outside-in from the sideline) in a 3x1 that creates inside matchups versus both zone and man defenses.
From those alignments, Nelson can run the inside seam, the intermediate dig route, the 7 (corner), etc., while finding zone windows to sit down on underneath concepts.
Here’s an example of Nelson running the inside seam versus the Bears 3 “Buzz” defense (strong safety drops down as the middle hook defender).
This gives Rodgers a quick read in the middle of the field once Nelson clears the second-level defenders, with the wide receiver securing the catch on contact. Get the ball out and take advantage of the speed up the seam.
That’s just one look at the seam route, but you will see much more on the tape with Nelson producing inside based on game plan and personnel in the Packers offense.
When I started this piece, I mentioned Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green as some of the top names in the NFL at the wide receiver position.
But after watching the tape on Nelson, and looking at his production, I have no problem saying he is a top-five talent at the position given his route-running ability, speed on the release and the catch radius to win at the top of the stem.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.