When you finish 4-12 it’s hard to boast about a whole lot going right for the Buffalo Bills. Since few critics expected them to be in playoff contention, they pretty much lived up to expectations in 2010. Still, that doesn’t mean the campaign didn’t generate its fair share of bright spots.
General manager Buddy Nix plucked an uneventful rookie class in his first year of running the organization’s draft. But while Nix’s first-year crop won’t be confused with the 1983 class that produced Jim Kelly and Darryl Talley anytime soon, Nix did crack a couple of solid post-draft base hits.
One of them was David Nelson.
Thirty two teams passed on Nelson time and time again, seven rounds worth to be exact. Nelson had big-time experience on the college stage, playing for the University of Florida and winning a pair national championships in 2006 and 2008 with Tim Tebow at quarterback. He never caught a lot of passes as a Gator, his career-best being just 25 in 2009. But Nelson always seemed to make big plays. Of his 12 receptions during Florida’s BCS championship run in ’08, five went for touchdowns.
Nix was looking for more proven winners at the college on his roster and when the draft was over, one of the first calls he made was to Nelson’s agent. In a matter of hours following the draft Nelson was signed to Buffalo and given the opportunity to compete for a roster spot at a position that lost both Terrell Owens and Josh Reed to free agency in the offseason.
Nelson completely took advantage. He caught everything, literally everything thrown his way in mini-camps and at the start of training camp. His chances of making the club were enhanced in July when fourth-round rookie Marcus Easley hurt his knee and was eventually placed on Injured Reserve.
He made an impact immediately in the Bills first preseason game, catching a team-best five balls for 47 yards and a touchdown against Washington.
Things then nearly came to a scratching halt for Nelson before they had a chance to really get started. He injured his Achilles in practice on August and head coach Chan Gailey thought it would sideline him for a matter of weeks, but Nelson was back just days later, knowing he had a job to fight for.
After missing one game with the injury, Nelson struck again against Cincinnati, hauling in a 20-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick.
When all was said and done and final roster cuts were made, the organization concluded Nelson did enough and kept him over more highly touted veterans, former second-round picks James Hardy and Chad Jackson.
Nelson, ahead of fellow undrafted rookies Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt in the pecking order, made his NFL debut in the Bills opening loss to Miami and contributed three catches for 22 yards. He was shut out for two games before having his first solid outing; a four catch, 75-yard effort against the New York Jets.
After Roscoe Parrish broke his wrist in the Toronto game against Chicago, an opening for more playing time arose for Nelson. Again he took advantage beginning a couple of weeks later after catching six passes for 58 yards against Pittsburgh. He then went on a run of having a touchdown reception in three consecutive games; a Bills rookie record as he scored against Minnesota, Cleveland and Miami.
Unfortunately his season ended prematurely with a rib injury but it doesn’t take away from his outstanding rookie effort. Nelson finished the season with 31 catches for 353 yards and three touchdowns. The three touchdown receptions were the most by a Bills rookie receiver since Lee Evans got into the end zone nine times in 2004.
His toughness never came into question as Nelson did everything possible to come back from the injury to play in the finale against the New York Jets. Gailey decided it wasn’t worth potentially damaging Nelson further and held him out.
Nelson wasn’t happy at the time.
“I hate missing games and I hate being out,” Nelson said. “For me, I’ve never been injured and I don’t like sitting out part of it. I’m going to do whatever I can to get out there.”
Nelson is excited about his future in Buffalo and for his part, doesn’t necessarily think the Bills need to replace Fitzpatrick at quarterback for the team to start winning more games.
“In college, I had a guy that could throw the ball pretty hard too, but (Fitzpatrick) he does a good job of putting touch on it as well as putting it [in there] as hard as he can,” Nelson said. “He can put it in a spot.”
Nelson may never become an elite starting receiver in the league, but he demonstrated the ability to be a much-needed solid possession guy and his teammates love his penchant for finding ways to get open.
“He’s a technician,” Bills leading receiver Stevie Johnson said. “He runs great routes, he knows how to work a man, he knows how to get open and he catches the ball very well. He’s very coachable. All of our guys are coachable. David’s a pretty good receiver.”
Quite possibly, he’ll be good for several years to come.
(David Nelson photo by Michael Thomas)
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