The first preseason game each season is always an interesting ride for the 32 teams in the National Football League. It is the first live action that players, and fans, experience in the new football year, and expectations are often at a zenith point for the opening exhibition matchup. Entering last night's contest against the Washington Redskins, many veteran players and top draft picks were under the microscope, yet one of the men who emerged from the pack is an undrafted free agent battling for a roster spot.
David Nelson, who enjoyed a great deal of success in the collegiate ranks, and played on a pair of national championship teams at the University of Florida went undrafted this past spring. His personal numbers, 46 catches for 630 yards and seven touchdowns in four years, were far from gaudy, yet he was a steady contributor to the Gator offense, and had a winning mentality. That's what led the Bills to pursue him after the draft ultimately signing him to a free agent contract on April 30.
Entering training camp, Nelson was a player predicted to battle for one of the final roster spots at wide receiver, as all 10 men who began practice at the position knew going in that they would not all make the final 53-man active lineup.
In the beginning of camp, Nelson showed impressive glimpses on the field, making a number of strong catches on well-run routes, a small sample of the talent he brings to the table. Just as he was gaining momentum, Nelson was noticeably absent from practice due to an injury late last week, seemingly losing valuable time to present his case to the coaching staff heading into the showdown with the Redskins.
In a game where the Bills began the process of putting the pieces together under new head coach Chan Gailey, Nelson blossomed in his first taste of NFL action Friday night, catching a team-high five passes for 47 yards, and the first Buffalo touchdown of the preseason, a playmaker's effort that should only enhance his candidacy to be on the active roster Week 1 against Miami.
"Being undrafted, I have to make plays, that's what is expected of me if I want to make the team," Nelson said. "With our team down, even though it's a preseason game, I go out there every game expecting to win, I was just trying to do what ever I could to help our team get in position to score and try to get our offense going."
The five-yard touchdown grab capped a seven play, 85-yard drive with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm in the third quarter.
"It was a scramble," said Nelson. "I saw him roll out and I saw the back of the end zone wide open so I just stayed in the back of the end zone and tried to stay open for the quarterback, and he did a great job of staying alive on that play."
Nelson had three catches for 20 yards, along with the score, on the four minute drive, and got the Bills offense on the board for the first time in 2010.
With James Hardy and 2010 fourth-round pick Marcus Easley sidelined with injuries, the door was open for Nelson, Donald Jones, and Naaman Roosevelt to all record significant playing time in the preseason opener, and each man did his part to make plays during the game. While it is a competition for one of the final spots on the depth chart, Nelson does not want an injury to take someone out of contention.
"We're all teammates, we're all pulling for each other, and you never want to see somebody go down. At the same time, if somebody goes down, you have to step up and make that many more plays for him," he said. "We had a couple of guys go down, and it just gives you more opportunities to make plays. We wish those guys the best, we would hope they get back, but in the meantime while they're recovering, I'm going to try to do my best and make plays whenever I can."
It may grow increasingly difficult for Nelson to take significant reps at wide receiver, with veterans Lee Evans, Steve Johnson, Roscoe Parrish, and Chad Jackson seeing the majority of time with the first team early in training camp. One place where he can make an immediate impact is on special teams, which Nelson did last night as well.
On the Bills possession following his touchdown catch, Nelson made a crushing block on a punt return by Roosevelt, taking out two men at once to spring the ball carrier for extra yardage down the sideline. Although his number one goal is to account well at the wide receiver position, Nelson's niche could likely be on special teams, and it is a job he would embrace.
"As an undrafted free agent, I'm not expected to play 60 plays a game on offense. Where I am going to make my mark is on special teams, third downs, and special situations," Nelson said. "Any time I'm in the game, I'm just going to try to do whatever I can to help the team, and try to be accountable. Whether it be special teams, offense, defense, wherever I'm on the field, any time I'm on the field, I feel like I need to make a contribution and do whatever I can to help the team."