Covering the draft from a 24/7, 365 approach was a lot of fun this year. We went through our Summer Scouting Series, identifying some Top 5 players at each position, and we tried to get a jump on some of the guys who we thought would be primed for big seasons and a bright NFL outlook as a result.
As the season went on, myself, Jon Ledyard, Kyle Crabb and Joe Marino would update our position rankings almost on a monthly basis. One time when were updating it I remember Kyle was talking in our slack group message and pointed out that I didn't have Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson on my edge rankings.
Since then I have tried to pay attention to Nelson while watching him live and then previewing him for the Senior Bowl this past January, but until now I really hadn't had the time to dig into his film at a truly analytical level.
Nelson has been a consistent contributor for Iowa since his redshirt freshman season. At 6-foot-7, 275 pounds, Nelson can give offensive linemen fits with his arm length and overall size. He finished his first season with six sacks and eight tackles for loss, finished his second season with 7.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss, and saved the best for last in his final season with 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss.
When I looked at the stats, I said to myself, "man, I probably should have given this guy a look sooner." But after an underwhelming performance in Mobile at the Senior Bowl, where I really expected him to stand out more, I figured it was finally time to put his tape under the microscope.
This is what I found.
Play No. 1: Can't Teach Length
What popped off right away with Nelson, to me, was the same thing that popped off the screen when I saw his measurables. This dude is a true 6-foot-7, and not in the tall way like Mike Glennon is where three extra inches are just in his neck.
Because of that true size, Nelson has the frame to separate himself from offensive tackles by extending his arms, and then slipping into where quarterbacks are dropping back and settling into inside the pocket, as shown above.
There are a handful of reps I saw where Nelson then combined those out-stretched arms with good push with his legs to create a bull rush that was hard to corral and stop for offensive tackles. This will be a theme that we'll see again in this report, but when Nelson can get his hands on offensive tackles in the right positions, he can really make things uncomfortable for them with his length and overall size.
Play No. 2: Limited Flexibility
As is often the case with taller defensive linemen, and taller players in general, you may like the size, but you often don't like how much taller players have to sacrifice flexibility and natural lateral movement.
Nelson just does not have much of a speed rush element to his game at all. Even when he beats right tackles around the corner relatively easy, Nelson does not have the flexibility in his hips or his ankles to stop on a dime and bend into the pocket.
Unless a quarterback is doing something like a nine-step drop, Nelson just isn't going to be able to corner enough to get to him consistently using speed. So, though the length is nice, just realize you definitely aren't pairing that with rare flexibility with Nelson.
Play No. 3: Hands Guy
This is the attribute in which I can boast the most for Nelson.
When he can get his hands on you and in the right positions, Nelson can really disengage blocks and get around offensive tackles. As shown above, one of Nelson's most effective moves is a push-pull. That's where Nelson gets both hands up and into the inner chest of the offensive lineman, pushing him off balance with a good punch at the point of contact, then ripping him to the side getting right by them and into the backfield.
When Nelson can get his hands on you in such a way, it has shown to be an effective strategy for him throughout most of his 2018 tape. That also includes making moves towards the inside of the line of scrimmage, as shown above.
And even beyond just the push-pull, when Nelson's hands can remain free he can put a variety of different moves on offensive tackles and even swipe his hands off them to disengage blocks. When the offensive linemen allow him to be free with his hands and position them at will, Nelson can make them pay.
Play No. 4: Size ≠ Strength
Just because Nelson is big does not mean that he is strong, and that is my biggest gripe in his game.
If Nelson does not win with his hands, he often just cannot get off blocks, whether that be with speed, strength or counters, quick enough to make a difference.
It wasn't just in the passing game, either. Against Mississippi State specifically, their right tackle No. 51 was making Nelson look helpless all game. He was pushing Nelson around far more than you want to see from a guy who can't win with speed on the edge.
There just is not enough functional strength in Nelson's game for him to have a reliable outlook in the NFL. If you can't win with speed, you have to be able to anchor, and Nelson does not show enough success in either category. I thought that strength would be much more of a tool for Nelson's style of game as a true 4-3, 3-point stance edge player, but it just isn't.
Play No. 5: Can't Trust 'Em
My overall thought and final conclusion on Nelson can sort of be told in the random clip above: I can't trust him.
Nelson has the ideal length to be a problem as an edge player, but he doesn't have the athletic ability, both with speed or strength, to be a consistent difference maker. Carl Nassib was a similar build at 6-foot-7, 277 pounds when he was rolling through the NFL draft in 2015. Nassib got drafted in the third round, but Nassib was better than Nelson in every way.
It's hard for me to envision Nelson having consistent success in the NFL when his game is not only so vanilla but also sub-par. Guys like that just do not last long in the NFL. Nelson will definitely be proving me wrong if he is an exception from what I concluded with his college tape.