Ten sacks in nine games is elite production for a first-round defensive lineman. For a safety-linebacker hybrid? It is unheard of. SMU linebacker Patrick Nelson is a fifth-year senior with jaw-dropping statistical production. However, he’s not just a tackling machine. Nelson plays all along the SMU defense. Whether it’s single-high safety, nickel cornerback, or WILL linebacker, Nelson plays it. So the major question now is whether his versatility is a blessing or a curse.
Switch-ability is at an all-time premium in today’s game. Getting players in space and spreading the defense is the status quo for this era of offense, which means you must have players who can defend both the run and pass, while not falling victim to misdirection and play fakes. SMU linebacker Nelson fills both boxes. He’s an instinctual player with positional versatility, but that’s not all he has to offer. Just what kind of player will Nelson be, where will he find his fit in the NFL, and what grade do I currently give him looking towards the 2020 NFL Draft? Let’s dive in.
As I mentioned earlier, Patrick Nelson has experience all over the field. He’s logged major snaps at free safety, outside linebacker, and nickel cornerback, while also finding time at edge rusher and inside linebacker. His experience at multiple positions will serve him well in the NFL. However, where he plays will be interesting. He’s not athletic enough to play nickel cornerback or single-high safety in the NFL. It’s just the way it is. However, with defenses playing in dime and quarter packages more than ever, his fit as a box safety and coverage linebacker is perfect, similar to a very poor man’s Derwin James (James would’ve been a DPOY candidate if he was healthy).
Nelson will never play nickel cornerback in the NFL. He simply doesn’t have the athletic ability to do so. The same goes for single-high safety. However, playing these positions in college won’t hurt his ability in the NFL. His experience running in man coverage will be an elite tool when he’s asked to line up on tight ends. He also has excellent instincts in zone coverage and will be an elite defender against screen plays and mobile QBs.
Playing linebacker at SMU, Patrick Nelson is quite possibly the most productive pass rusher I’ve ever seen that didn’t play along the defensive line. Having 12.0 career sacks while playing primarily at safety is unheard of pass-rushing production. He’s an elite weapon when used as a blitzer and his ability to impact the game as a rusher isn’t a common trait in safeties.
While positional versatility might be a plus, Nelson lacks the natural size to translate instantly to the NFL. He’s got the body size of a defensive back at 6-foot-1, 216, but plays more like a linebacker. While the NFL is full of undersized players excelling in their roles, there are size thresholds for a reason. Nelson will have to recognize how to win with his size disadvantage.
Similar to the drawbacks with his size, Nelson also lacks elite athletic ability. He has the size of a safety but is as athletic as a linebacker. Typically, you look for linebacker-size players with the athletic ability of a defensive back. If Nelson is going to succeed, he’ll have to play with instincts and trust his eyes to lead him to the spot he needs to be, instead of relying on closing speed like other draft prospects.
SMU Linebacker Patrick Nelson Overview
Patrick Nelson is not the prototypical hybrid defender. He plays multiple positions that have minimal similarities. And yet, he’s been highly productive, and a star on the SMU defense. His size and athletic ability are solid but present a blend that doesn’t lead one to believe he’ll be a star. He’s a versatile chess piece, but how he succeeds in the NFL will be up to how well he can rely on his instincts and processing, while also finding a defensive coordinator that can best utilize his abilities. He may never be a Pro Bowl player, but he could be a player every team would love to have. I currently grade SMU linebacker Patrick Nelson as an early Day 3 prospect, with future starter potential.