With an opportunity to add experience and competition to a cornerback picture that the team is always looking to develop, the Eagles have agreed to terms on a one-year contract with Steven Nelson, a veteran entering his seventh NFL season who has started 46 games the last three years. To make room on the 90-player roster, the Eagles released defensive tackle Willie Henry.
Nelson is expected to compete for playing time opposite Darius Slay, the standout and fearless cover man entering his second season with the Eagles. Avonte Maddox has the ability to play both outside and in the nickel position as he enters his fourth year in the league. After those two, the Eagles have a lot of younger players ready to push for playing time. With Nelson on board, the Eagles add a player who has been durable and consistent since becoming a third-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2015 out of Oregon State.
Following his four seasons with the Chiefs, Nelson joined the Steelers as a marquee free agent signing prior to the 2019 campaign, and he started all 30 games he played, with three interceptions, 17 passes defensed, and 109 total tackles. The Eagles had an up-close-and-not-very-pleasant look at Nelson in 2020 as he intercepted two Carson Wentz passes in Pittsburgh's 38-29 win on October 11 at Heinz Field. It was Nelson's first multi-interception game of his career.
Nelson is a smart, competitive cornerback who has the experience the Eagles coveted as a starter in the league. He's a good athlete who has played both on the perimeter and inside. He has shown good instincts in zone coverage and has been consistent in his support against the running game.
In his time in the NFL, Nelson has 68 starts in 82 career regular-season games. The 5-11, 194-pounder has reached the postseason in each of his seasons except the 2019 campaign. A salary-cap casualty when Pittsburgh re-signed wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in March, Nelson gets a fresh start in Philadelphia in Defensive Coordinator Jonathan Gannon's defense. One of the stated goals of Gannon's defense that includes an intriguing mix of holdovers from the 2020 Eagles team and veterans added this offseason – joining Nelson are the likes of pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan, linebacker Eric Wilson, safeties Anthony Harris and Andrew Adams, along with cornerbacks Josiah Scott and Shakial Taylor and defensive back Nate Meadors – the Eagles intend to ratchet up the competition in Training Camp and see which players rise to the top.
Head Coach Nick Sirianni also has some insight into Nelson, having gameplanned against the cornerback when Sirianni was the wide receivers coach with the Chargers and Nelson played in Kansas City.
The Eagles continued their offseason plan to strategically add veteran players to the roster who potentially fill a need, and at the same time, the team kept the contract lengths short and promoted the concept that every roster spot is open and playing time will have to be won in these critical weeks ahead that feature Training Camp at the NovaCare Complex, three preseason games, and joint practices against New England and the New York Jets. The regular season opens on September 12 at Atlanta, so the next month and a half are vital.
Gannon wants his defense to play aggressive, physical, and smart football, emphasizing takeaways and stuffing the running game. Nelson fits that mold with his seven interceptions and 32 passes defensed from 2018-20.
Nelson's arrival doesn't mean that he's a plug-and-play starter in this defense. Gannon plans on giving his defensive players a fresh look as he eyes them in pads for the first time when Training Camp begins. The Eagles have had only a handful of weeks to work with players – no pads, no contact, no lining up against another player – through the spring, so Gannon is bringing an open-minded approach to his summer evaluation.
With the start of Training Camp next week – the players report to the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday and hit the practice field for the first time in camp on Wednesday (our live practice coverage begins at 10 AM followed by Coach Sirianni's press conference around noon) – the addition of Nelson provides a nice boost to the locker room and the defense. The roster, of course, remains a work in progress but bringing Nelson on board addresses a glaring question mark for the defense.