Steven Nelson has largely been the forgotten man for the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense. The starting cornerback opposite Darius Slay rarely draws the top matchup, preferring to work in the shadows and do the dirty work.
Nelson only has one interception — a huge one that sealed a 21-18 win over the Panthers in Week 5 — with seven pass breakups and 50 total tackles. The 28-year-old ranks a rather pedestrian 72nd overall among qualifying cornerbacks, per Pro Football Focus. His 59.6 grade in pass coverage falls well below Slay (83.9) and teammate Avonte Maddox (76.2).
Throw the numbers out the window, says Slay. He sees a dynamic player in the secondary whose contributions to the Eagles have been invaluable.
“A great deal — older guy, leader, smart dude,” Slay said of what Nelson has meant to the Eagles. “We’ve helped each other get better this year for sure. And, you know, he was a great addition to us. He did a lot for this team, man.”
That’s strong praise from one of the best corners in football. And Slay wasn’t done playing the role of hype man (see: Asante Samuel) for a teammate he believes has played himself into a bank-breaking new contract.
“It’s sad to say but when that time come I hope he earns what he deserves because he’s earning a lot of money right now,” Slay said. “Because he’s been out there playing his best game, tackling well, covering well, been a smart dude so he’s been a great addition to us for sure.”
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Nelson Aimed for Big Pay Raise Prior to 2021
The main reason why Nelson fell into the Eagles’ laps was because no other team wanted to give him the pay bump he thought he deserved. The Pittsburgh Steelers cut him after Nelson asked for a trade out of town. He begged the Steelers not to “hold him hostage” so when no suitors came calling, they decided to grant him his wish and part ways. Pittsburgh saved $8.25 million by releasing him.
“It was about the timing, the time of my release and free agency,” Nelson said of the Steelers cutting him back in July. “It kind of just doesn’t work out the way you want it to certain times, but I feel like people recognized me as a player and it was just the timing.”
The Eagles swooped in and inked Nelson to a one-year deal worth up to $4 million (including incentives). The wink-wink agreement was a chance for him to show everyone else what they missed out on. Nelson always believed he was a top corner in the NFL and expected to be paid like one. Now he’ll likely hit the open market where more lucrative offers could be waiting.
Jonathan Gannon on Slay: ‘Team-First Guy’
Slay already had a sterling reputation for being a true shutdown cornerback. Four Pro Bowls tend to give you street cred. But not everyone knew how great of a teammate he was. Slay has been like another coach in the defensive backs room, mentoring young cornerbacks and receivers alike after practices.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon called him a “team-first guy” and marveled at his “football character.”
“He’s willing to play whatever style we want him to play to be successful for that week,” Gannon said. “It’s been an unbelievable year with him, being around him, as all of our guys. But he really has been a joy to be around. Just from the football character standpoint of one of your premium players being team-first.”