Small, speedy Nelson emerging as Cardinals’ big-play threat

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) J.J. Nelson got so sick of people telling him he was too small to play football that he gave it up in middle school. Fortunately, a few years later, he was convinced to come back.

Now he’s the spindly legged big-play threat of the Arizona Cardinals.

Those legs may be as thin as drinking straws, but they can fly.

And with deep threat John Brown sidelined by a lingering injury, Nelson has emerged as the No. 2 option to Larry Fitzgerald in the Arizona Cardinals’ offense.

”As long as J.J. stays healthy, he’s been pretty consistent now for a year and a half,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. ”For him, it’s been hand injuries; hitting the ground and breaking a thumb, or that shoulder. But, we’ve just got to keep him upright, and he’ll make big plays every week.”

With his five catches for 120 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown grab in last Sunday’s overtime win at Indianapolis, Nelson has nine touchdowns (eight receiving, one rushing) in his last 11 games. Before that, he had two TDs in his first 17 games.

So the speedster from Alabama is coming on strong.

Nelson , who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs maybe 160 pounds soaking wet, was the fastest player at the 2015 NFL combine with a 40-yard time of 4.28 seconds. But those concerns about his size allowed him to slide to the fifth round. Furthermore, scouts wondered about his level of competition at UAB, which dropped football temporarily the year after Nelson left.

It was a sad rookie season when the subject of alma maters came up.

”It was pretty much kind of like a motivation,” Nelson said. ”A lot of these guys come in on Friday and Saturday and talk about their week. I just sit wishing I had a team. Now UAB is back. We’re 2-1. We start conference play this week.”

Quarterback Carson Palmer said Nelson has developed into more than just a fast guy.

”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. I said it the other day, he’s one of those guys that when the lights come on, he makes plays.”

Nelson doesn’t like to talk much, although he does tell the story of giving up on football in middle school to take a shot at basketball. He could dunk in the ninth grade and still carries a video of it in his phone. Of course, he can still dunk it.

He decided he was too small to be a big-time point guard, so the coach lured him back to football and he knew he’d found his home.

Nelson was NFC offensive player of the week for his performance against Indy, but isn’t comfortable with all the attention.

”It’s been a little crazy. I don’t really have too much to say,” he said. ”The cameras in my face, I don’t like it but do it because I have to do it. I’m not much of a talker. I always just sit back and chill.”

Nelson is unfailingly friendly, though, even if he is quiet. And as the big plays keep mounting, there will be more attention.

Over the past two seasons, Nelson’s 19.3 yards per catch led the NFL, ahead of the likes of DeSean Jackson and Rob Gronkowski.

Good company for a guy that is supposed to be too small for the game.

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