As of Tuesday, Mychal Kendricks was still with the Eagles. There’s even a chance that he’s on the roster in September. But for the second straight offseason the 27-year-old linebacker is on the trade market, and this time around the Eagles went out and signed his possible replacement.
Corey Nelson inked a one-year, $1.6 million contract last week, and while that doesn’t guarantee him the weak-side linebacker spot, he certainly will get an opportunity should Kendricks leave.
Nelson, 25, played primarily on special teams during his four seasons with the Broncos. He flashed the ability to start during various stints on defense, but with first team linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis returning, he chose the Eagles over staying in Denver.
“I wanted to break the mold of me being a second-string linebacker,” Nelson said Thursday. “I didn’t want to have that title. I kind of wanted to go out on a limb and show people that I can be a starter in this league. The Eagles gave me the opportunity to compete, to work hard, to try and earn that right.”
The Eagles’ weak-side linebacker, with Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham slated to return to middle and strong-side, respectively, isn’t an every-down player. In that role, Kendricks came off the field about 70 percent of the time when the Eagles went with their sub packages. But it would be a more substantial job for Nelson, who played about only 14 percent of the time last year before he suffered a season-ending torn biceps in the fifth game.
The 6-foot, 235-pound Nelson will have to adjust to a different scheme. He’ll be transitioning from a 3-4 inside linebacker to a 4-3 outside one – unless he’s needed to back up the oft-injured Hicks. He said he studied Jim Schwartz’s defense before signing with the Eagles, but that he didn’t know much about his new defensive coordinator.
“I know he has a kick-ass defense,” Nelson said.
Will Nelson kick tail in that defense? Time will tell. Here’s a look back, however, at how he performed in Denver’s defense:
DEFENDING THE RUN
Nelson played 43 snaps on defense in 2017 and only 14 came on run downs. But in a small sample of plays he displayed a nose for the football. On this play, his recognition gave him a step on the right tackle, who tried to cut him off at the second level. Nelson (No. 52) flowed laterally and showed range as he pursued the ball carrier.
In terms of skill set, there isn’t much difference between inside 3-4 linebackers and outside 4-3 linebackers. But Nelson will have to adjust to playing more on the outside in base personnel and he will have to fend off more blockers against the run.
Nelson: Denver’s more of a controlled two-gap scheme. But [with the Eagles] it’s kind of let the d-line fly and let the linebackers fit off and let the safeties fit where needed.
Nelson played significantly more in 2016 with Marshall out for several games. He was an every-down linebacker in the Broncos’ final four games. Nelson (No. 52) didn’t always pop off the screen, but his athleticism was evident and he has the capability to fight off offensive linemen as he did here.
Run tackling was occasionally an issue in 2016, although his tackling efficiency in 2016 was 20th out of 64 qualifying inside linebackers, per Pro Football Focus. On this play against the Chargers, Nelson (No. 52) did well to disengage from the fullback, but he couldn’t wrap up tailback Melvin Gordon (No. 28).
Melvin shook free from him later in the game, but Nelson was also preoccupied with the tight end.
COVERING RUNNING BACKS
Nelson tore his pectoral muscle during his senior season at Oklahoma. The team captain missed the final three months of the season and briefly thought about pursuing a broadcast career. He wasn’t invited to the NFL combine, but he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds at his Pro Day and was selected in the seventh round of the 2014 draft.
He looks faster on film. On this play from last season, Nelson skirted a seal block and ran down speedy Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (No. 30) from behind.
He said that the Eagles defensive line, led by Fletcher Cox, should only allow him to make more plays in space.
Nelson: When you got big guys like Cox and those guys in front of you it’s perfect for a guy like me that can just fly around with my type of speed and make plays.
On passing downs, Nelson’s primarily responsibility in man defense was to cover running backs out of the backfield or in empty formations. On this stop from 2016, he maintained his balance, despite a block attempt, and tackled well in the open field.
Nelson had trouble on this Devonta Freeman (No. 24) wheel route from 2016. He over-pursued and when the Falcons running back cut back he grabbed him and was flagged for pass interference.
Nelson’s struggles against Gordon two years ago included covering him out of the backfield. He bit the cheese here and fell to the ground as he tried to recover.
As Nelson said Thursday, he did a bit of everything in 2016. Sometimes that meant he had to cover tight ends, and occasionally it meant that he rush the passer. He blitzed only 45 times in 2016, but he tallied four pressures and had this hit on Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (No. 11) that forced an interception.
Nelson was a contributor on the Broncos’ special teams from the start.
Nelson: I did everything. They moved me around because I knew multiple positions.
On punts, he either rushed and dropped to block or he protected and was the last line of defense. On this Isaiah MeKenzie punt return from last season, a Nelson nudge at the last moment helped spring his Broncos teammate for a 29-yard return.
Even if Kendricks were to stay or if Nelson was to simply provide depth behind one of the other reserve linebackers on the roster, he should have a prominent role on special teams this coming season.