Cardinals find help in return game by drafting J.J. Nelson

TEMPE, Ariz. – Arizona’s solution to its return woes in 2014 is 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds.

J.J. Nelson is short by football standards and weighs half of some offensive linemen. It’s his legs, however, that matter most, especially when it comes to reviving the Cardinals’ return game, which gained the fewest yards in the league last season.

Nelson was the fastest player at the NFL combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.28 seconds. That will make him the fastest player Cardinals coach Bruce Arians will have coached and Nelson thinks he can go even lower than 4.28.

“He’s faster than [Indianapolis wide receiver] T.Y. [Hilton]; he’s faster than [Cardinals receiver] Smokey [John Brown],” Arians said. “He plays that fast, especially on kickoff and punt returns – dynamic.”

If he can show that speed on returns this offseason, then the Cardinals have their replacement for Ted Ginn, who failed to live up to expectations as Arizona’s primary returner last season.

The Cardinals were last in the NFL in four return categories in 2014, according to ESPN Stats & Information: total kick-return yards (417), yards per kick return (18.9), average distance from the end zone after kick returns (83.5 yards) and percentage of kickoff returns that reached at least the 20-yard line (22.5 percent). Arizona was ranked 31st in average distance from the end zone after kick returns and touchbacks (80 yards) and 30th in average distance from end zone before kick-return attempt (101.5 yards).

Last season, as a senior at UAB, Nelson returned 22 kicks for 843 yards – an average of 38.3 yards per return – and four touchdowns.

During his predraft visit with the Cardinals, Nelson met with assistant special teams coach Anthony Blevins. The two went over tape – both of Nelson and the Cardinals – but Nelson didn’t say if the Cardinals discussed him taking over their return duties.

But he’s open to it.

“I feel like I see myself as a kick returner as well as a receiver because, with my speed, I have the ability to go out and blow the top off of the defense,” Nelson said.

Ginn fared better as a punt returner, averaging 10.65 yards per return. He also returned one punt for a touchdown, in Week 2. Nelson, coincidentally, had the same punt-return stats as Ginn last season: 26 returns for 277 yards and an average of 10.65 yards per punt return.

Arians said he plans to have Nelson bulk up to 175 pounds well before training camp, a weight better suited for Nelson’s body to handle the beating of an NFL season. He’ll need that extra weight because the Cardinals will be leaning on him to improve their field position on returns.

“He makes so many people miss on punt returns and kickoff returns,” Arians said. “As soon as you miss him, no one can catch him. Yes, he is frail, but there have been some great, great punt returners and kickoff returners about 160 pounds that I know of.”