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Steven Nelson is the shutdown corner the Steelers, and the NFL, need

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The Steelers broke their ‘free agent bank’ last offseason when they signed the fourth-year cornerback on a $25.5M deal.

NFL: DEC 15 Bills at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On March 14, 2019, the Steelers signed unrestricted free agent cornerback Steven Nelson from the Kansas City Chiefs for a three-year $25.5M deal, following the most productive season of Nelson’s four year career. The acquisition of Nelson, clearly targeted at bolstering the secondary with players like Artie Burns on the outs, was questioned by some of Steelers Nation when his signing was announced.

What do fans now think of his signing, after his productive and effective 2019 for the Steelers? Now, it’s a lauded acquisition that’s proven Kevin Colbert will be hard to replace when he does eventually leave the Steelers (even if you think he’s not so great at drafting cornerbacks). Pro Football Focus (PFF) rated Nelson the Steelers’ most underrated player from 2019 and the NFL’s sixth best corner.

This offseason, Nelson described his partnership with fellow corner, Joe Haden, as being “...like Batman and Robin”, implying he’s the ‘Robin’ to Haden’s ‘Batman’. No offense to all the Robin fans out there, or Joe Haden fans, but Nelson is fast becoming the Batman in the the city of Pittsburgh (the city where Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night Rises was shot, with Heinz Field torn up in the process). In fact, Nelson is poised to become the most effective ‘shutdown corner’ in the NFL in 2020, not productive, but definitely effective.

What do you define as effectiveness then? Great question. Effectiveness, unlike productivity, is not always able to be measured with clear numbers and metrics. Instead it’s more subjective where factors like having fellow elite teammates on the defense comes into play and whether quarterbacks choose to target him or preference the receiver he’s covering. Certainly, statistical output has to be considered and Steelers Nation would like to see Nelson increase his interception rate which means it’s important to benchmark and determine his production against other leading NFL corners.

According to Over The Cap, Nelson has the 21st largest contract in the league among corners, and will be the 23rd highest paid corner in the league this season with $7.08M cap hit (Haden is 14th with $9.625M cap hit), and ‘currently’ a $14.42M cap hit in 2021 (I recently wrote that restructuring and renewing Nelson’s contract should be a priority). As the saying ‘you get what you pay for’ goes, let’s begin look at Nelson’s effectiveness and performance in 2019, at a cap hit of just $4M:

  • 15 Games, 1 INT, 8 Pass Defenses, 1 Fumble Recovery, 61 Tackles (6 missed)
  • 1011 (94%) Defensive Snaps, Times Targeted by the QB: 74, Completions allowed: 37 (50%)
  • 491 total yards allowed: 13.3 yds per completion, 393 yds in the air & 98 yds after the catch
  • 0 TDs allowed, Passer Rating Rating allowed: 65.8

(Numbers available here at Pro Football Reference)

This production was incredible considering the Steelers’ offense only averaged 2.28 minutes on the field (28th worst in the NFL) for 5.17 (last in the NFL) plays per drive. The defense faced only 514 passing attempts, the 4th lowest in the league, with a 52.6% pass attempt and 47.4% rushing attempt split (1030 total attempts, minus 54 sacks). The latter of which is no coincidence when considering the presence of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden in the backfield, T.J. Watt / Cameron Heyward / Bud Dupree’s pass rushing prowess and Devin Bush’s rookie starts at middle-linebacker. This led to teams being prepared to test the team’s run defense, the Steelers facing the run 6th most in the NFL.

However, last season was no above average statistical anomaly for Nelson, who in 2018 with the Kansas City Chiefs recorded the following numbers:

  • 16 games, 4 INTs, 15 Pass Defenses, 0 Fumble Recoveries, 68 Tackles (16 missed)
  • 1164 (99%) Defensive Snaps, Times Targeted by the QB: 115, Completions allowed: 59 (51%)
  • 766 total yards allowed: 13.0 yds per completion, 574 yds in the air & 192 yds after the catch
  • 5TDs allowed, Passer Rating Rating allowed: 72.6

These numbers demonstrate Nelson’s ability to secure interceptions and his missed tackle rate has improved. More so, they demonstrate that even when targeted more by opposing quarterbacks, in Nelson’s case 64% in 2018 with the Chiefs (the most targeted team via the pass at 632 attempts), Nelson maintained an almost identical ‘yards per completion’ and ‘completions allowed’ rate, only a 64% increase in yards allowed (uncanny with this same increase in targets) and allowed a miserly passer rating of just 72.6.

Therefore, Steelers fans should feel confident that Nelson is consistent in his production. He is ready to takeover from Joe Haden and is poised to continue his effective production, regardless of whether he is targeted more or less by opposing quarterbacks (many judge production by splash plays such as interceptions, there’s not much room to fall from 1 INT in 2019). This effectiveness will be crucial in a year where the Steelers will face good quarterbacks such as Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz — although the lack of names listed here demonstrates the potential for Nelson and the secondary to be even more miserly.

How about Nelson’s 2019 production though compared to other leading NFL corners? To demonstrate his development into a leading shutdown corner and validating PFF’s grade for Nelson as the sixth best corner in the NFL, let’s look at the 2019 production of similarly experienced and ‘household name’ corners, who have played less than 5 seasons (yes this leaves out Stephon Gilmore, Defensive Player of the Year):

Byron Jones ($17,600,000 2020 cap hit):

  • 15 Games, 0 INT, 6 Pass Defenses, 46 Tackles (1 Missed), 0 Tackles for a Loss
  • 0 Sacks, 1 Forced Fumble, 0 Fumble Recoveries
  • 917 (85%) Defensive Snaps, Times Targeted by the QB: 64, Completions allowed: 34 (53.1%)
  • 395 total yards allowed: 11.6 yds per completion, 260 yds in the air & 135 yds after the catch
  • 3 TDs allowed, Passer Rating Rating allowed: 87.7

Jalen Ramsey ($13,703,000 2020 cap hit):

  • 12 Games, 1 INT, 5 Pass Defenses, 50 Tackles (Missed), 1 Tackles for a Loss
  • 0 Sacks, 2 Forced Fumbles, 0 Fumble Recoveries
  • 781 Defensive Snaps, Times Targeted by the QB: 68, Completions allowed: 45 (66.2%)
  • 549 total yards allowed: 12.2 yds per completion, 448 yds in the air & 101 yds after the catch
  • 0 TDs allowed, Passer Rating Rating allowed: 89.6

Marshon Lattimore ($4,887,189 2020 cap hit):

  • 14 Games, 1 INT, 14 Pass Defenses, 57 Tackles (5 Missed), 1 Tackles for a Loss
  • 0 Sacks, 0 Forced Fumbles, 0 Fumble Recoveries
  • 819 (77%) Defensive Snaps, Times Targeted by the QB: 88, Completions allowed: 44 (50%)
  • 612 total yards allowed: 13.9 yds per completion, 432 yds in the air & 180 yds after the catch
  • 3 TDs allowed, Passer Rating Rating allowed: 79.4

Marcus Peters: ($15,000,000 2020 cap hit):

  • 16 Games, 1 INT, 5 Pass Defenses, 50 Tackles (8 Missed), 1 Tackle for a Loss
  • 0 Sacks, 0 Forced Fumbles, 1 Fumble Recovery
  • 987 Defensive Snaps, Times Targeted by the QB: 90, Completions allowed: 50 (55.6%)
  • 597 total yards allowed: 11.9 yds per completion, 346 yds in the air & 251 yds after the catch
  • 5 TDs allowed, Passer Rating Rating allowed: 71.4

(Numbers above according to Pro Football Reference)

So how does Nelson rate against these fellow corners? He has the lowest passer rating allowed, the most tackles, is tied for letting in no TDs, tied for the lowest completion rate allowed, has the lowest YAC allowed and played the most defensive snaps. This leadership among similar NFL corners shows he’s not only a highly effective ‘shutdown corner’ but good value at his $7.08M cap hit this season. If he can improve this production in 2020, then Nelson will certainly validate his higher cap hit in 2021 (even as a reward for prior play).

As the Steeler’s 54 sacks last season and strong pass rushing from T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree and Stephon Tuitt implies, teams facing the Steelers will be probably favor the run again in 2020. However, with the return of Ben Roethlisberger and the likely increase in the points scored per game, opposing teams could be chasing points down the stretch in games and relying on the pass to run down the Steelers’ lead.

Worst-case scenario? The NFL season is shutdown due to COVID-19 and even then Nelson is a shutdown corner for the Steelers.