Steve Nelson is only two practices into his tenure with the Eagles, but he’s already got the bruises to show for his efforts.
The veteran cornerback said he watched film of defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s scheme from afar during the offseason, and the swollen knuckles he sported Thursday from punching at the ball so often during practice would suggest he’s quickly picked up on Gannon’s prioritization of forcing turnovers.
Nelson, 28, signed a one-year deal with the Eagles on Sunday reportedly worth up to $4 million. Arriving just in time for training camp, the former Pittsburgh Steelers corner with 68 career starts under his belt has taken reps with the first-team defense and is trying to make up for lost time.
“It’s been a grind, man, I’ll say that,” Nelson said. “It’s Day 2, but it feels already like two weeks, just coming in and trying to get adjusted and learning on the fly, man. I knew it would be like that, [signing] this late in the process.”
Adding Nelson gives the Eagles two proven cornerbacks. Darius Slay played well last year, but the cornerback spot opposite the 30-year-old haunted the team during the 4-11-1 season. Avonte Maddox was expected to stay on the outside even though he struggled last year. But at 5-foot-9 he’s better suited for the slot cornerback role he’s returned to now that Nelson is in the fold.
Nelson had one particularly bad rep during Thursday’s practice, giving up a deep touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith during a seven-on-seven drill. But he has otherwise had a quiet first couple days on the job.
“It’s good to get a vet in that knows a lot of ball,” Gannon said. “We just got to see what he’s comfortable with within our scheme and get him to play to his strengths. It was a good addition for us.”
Nelson was a starting outside cornerback on one the best pass defenses in the NFL last season, but the cap-strapped Steelers released him in March to clear up space. Because he was released after the first wave of free agency, when teams are more willing to spend freely, Nelson may have missed out on a better deal than the one he received with the Eagles.
“I would just say it was about the timing of my release,” Nelson said. “Free agency ... just doesn’t work out the way you want it to at certain times. I feel like people recognize me as a player. I feel like it was just the timing.”
During a Wednesday news conference, general manager Howie Roseman said the Eagles have been interested in Nelson since he was released, but it took Nelson some time to decide where he wanted to sign.
“Steve came on our radar right when he was let go from the Steelers,” Roseman said. “I think as you got closer to camp ... he really kind of figured out where he wanted to be, why he wanted to be there.”
So what made him choose the Eagles? Nelson said he watched Colts film to see how Gannon called things as Indianapolis’ defensive backs coach last season. He said that film study was part of the reason he chose to sign with the Eagles, along with his familiarity with former Steelers teammate Javon Hargrave and a mutual admiration between him and Slay. He also said the social media interactions he had with Eagles fans, believe it or not, played into his wanting to join the team.
“I knew he was in Indianapolis, so what I was doing is watching a little bit of Colts film and just seeing how that would be implemented here,” Nelson said. “Just looking over the surface, seeing how certain things were run. Obviously I didn’t know the play calls or the terminology, but I was just watching a lot of Colts film.”
Gannon has experience as an assistant for Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and Vikings’ head coach Mike Zimmer. It’s still difficult to pinpoint exactly what to expect from the first-time defensive coordinator. He’s emphasized the importance of being flexible with his scheme to accommodate his players’ strengths.
The Colts were a zone-heavy team during Gannon’s time there, but he’s expressed a willingness to employ man coverage more often if the matchups favor his secondary. Slay has often matched up against other team’s No. 1 receivers during his career, and his arrival last season led to the Eagles using far more man coverage than in years past.
“I would think with that, the man coverage, [Slay’s] going to play some man-to-man,” Gannon said. “We’re just going to figure out how much of it we can play, if it suits us to win the game that week. So, you’ll see us hopefully be a little bit adaptable week to week with what we’re doing to try to defend opposing offenses.”