Should the Eagles Stick With Steven Nelson?

NFL: NOV 07 Chargers at Eagles
PHILADELPHIA, PA – NOVEMBER 07: Philadelphia Eagles Cornerback Steven Nelson (3) looks on after the game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles on November 07, 2021 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

Steven Nelson recently celebrated his 29th birthday. It will probably be the last time he blows his candles out in Philadelphia. The veteran cornerback wanted a hefty payday last offseason, and his agent will spend this summer chasing big bags of cash too. That means the Eagles will renew their seemingly endless search for somebody solid to play opposite Darius Slay. But are they looking for something they already have?

Overlooked and undervalued

Most fans can easily tell you who played the most snaps for the Eagles last season. But ask them to name the runner-up, and they’ll struggle. The answer? Steven Nelson. The CB2 played 983 snaps – the most of any defensive player and only ten fewer than the bionic, bearded wonder beast who led the team. But still, Nelson’s contribution tends to slip under the radar.

The former third-round pick made 54 tackles in the 2021 season, just three behind Pro-Bowl-bound Darius Slay. That productivity helped the Eagles reach the post-season – taking Nelson to the playoffs for the sixth time since he entered the NFL seven years ago. Even if his overall ability has a standard ceiling height, his availability and dependability are through the roof. That ought to count for something in Philly.

Short memories for long-term problems

With Slay winning accolades and Avonte Maddox earning a three-year extension, it’s tempting to forget how much of a crisis the Eagles had at cornerback until Steven Nelson arrived. Players who lined up at the position in 2020 included Robey-Coleman, Seymour, Jacquet, Houston, and Williams. It was a roster spot defined by injuries, inconsistency, and inadequacy. Nelson has provided relief for a truly chronic problem.

Perhaps the relative luxury of having a solid CB2 erased memories of the poverty that went before. While outside cornerback is often described as the toughest position to play, it’s also proven the hardest for Howie Roseman to recruit. Picking up a player of Nelson’s pedigree for just $4 million was an incredible deal for the Eagles. If they go shopping for a replacement this summer? Buyer beware…

Turning draft picks into pick-sixes?

Roseman’s struggles with free-agent CBs are nothing compared to the Eagles’ problems when scouting prospects. Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas didn’t work out. The team chickened out of drafting a CB in 2020, despite a glaring need. And in 2021, when an early pick at cornerback felt inevitable, Philadelphia drafted Zech McPhearson in the fourth instead (although DeVonta Smith can line up at CB if needed…).

In any case, evidence suggests picks do not equal productivity. The first two cornerbacks selected in the last couple of years have not set the league on fire. From the Class of 2020, Jeff Okudah (3rd overall pick) has only played 10 games, and CJ Henderson (9th) was traded away for a backup tight end. From 2021, Jaycee Horn (8th overall pick) managed just three games, although Patrick Surtain II (9th) has impressed.

Obviously, those young players still have oceans of time to develop. But even if you split the difference between their respective levels of output, the average is underwhelming. Interestingly, more CBs (38) were drafted than any other position in 2021. That suggests many teams are taking a scattergun approach – hoping that if you throw enough cornerbacks at the roster, one of them will eventually stick.

Thirty candles for #3

Fans were clamoring for a cornerback last offseason. They’re clamoring again right now. With three shiny first-round picks for 2022, the Eagles have a mouth-watering opportunity to add some star quality at CB. Given the team’s track record, however, all that slobbering may be somewhat optimistic. Meanwhile, safeties Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris seem likely to leave. The linebacker group is ripe for an overhaul. And more pass-rushers wouldn’t go amiss either. Steven Nelson is versatile, good in coverage, and willing to engage in contact. Darius Slay recently sang his praises. And the franchise has treated him with respect by making sure he picked up a $375K incentive despite being a healthy scratch for Week 18.

It’s almost certain that Nelson will depart Philadelphia and spend the warmer months searching for a pot of gold at the end of the NFL rainbow. But the Eagles have plenty of cap space and no shortage of areas that need improvement. Bringing back Steven Nelson, perhaps late in the summer, might offer a chance to invest in developing a younger player – and give #3 one more slice of birthday cake in the City of Brotherly Love.

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