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Cardinals WR J.J. Nelson makes leap by thinking less on field

TEMPE, Ariz. -- There’s a moment for every rookie when it all starts to make sense.

It came late last season for Arizona Cardinals wide receiver J.J. Nelson. That’s when he stopped thinking -- and when someone with 4.28 speed like Nelson stops thinking, that’s when he becomes dangerous. He didn’t have to go over his footwork anymore before making a move or slow down the play in his head.

He just ran. And he ran fast.

In coaching circles, it’s commonly said NFL players develop the most between their rookie and sophomore seasons. Nelson has been no different.

“I notice myself not thinking no more,” Nelson said. “I know what I’m doing right now. Just playing my role. Just going out and making plays.”

Last year, coach Bruce Arians saw John Brown take the next step in his development. This year he’s seeing it out of Nelson. Together, Brown and Nelson present a formidable mix of speed and quickness that have become the ideal complement to the size and brawn of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.

“They play so much faster,” Arians said. “They’re more comfortable in what they’re doing. If a speed guy is thinking, he’s not fast. You don’t want them thinking at all. Right now, those guys are playing really, really fast and those young DBs are thinking, and they’re not playing real fast.”

Nelson spent the offseason building on his rookie campaign, which was hampered by a shoulder injury suffered in Week 2 in Chicago. He had 11 catches for 299 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games, including a 142-yard, one-touchdown performance in Week 11 against Cincinnati.

Between his hometown of Midfield, Alabama, and Tempe, Arizona, Nelson spent his off months focused on his explosiveness, his release, his strength and his routes. When Nelson reported for organized team activities, Arians saw a more confident receiver.

Nelson said Arians put him in position last season to not think during the plays. The more catches Nelson made, the more confident he got.

“Every day he’s making a big play or two,” Arians said. “He’s catching the ball extremely well.”

But Arians also saw specific trait in Nelson that caught his attention.

“He has a very unique skill in tracking the ball that the great ones have when the ball’s coming over your opposite shoulder and you catch it effortlessly when other guys can’t make that catch,” Arians said. “When you have a little fast guy that can do that, you got a special one.”

Entering minicamp Tuesday, Nelson is a refined version of the receiver he was a year ago, when “nine times out of 10” he was on the field in four-receiver sets.

Armed with more confidence, the ability to run routes without thinking and an improved skill set, Nelson feels he can be counted on more in 2016.

“I feel like now if we got ace or kings, like if Mike or Smoke [John Brown] is tired or something like that, I feel like I can come in,” Nelson said, “and there won’t be a drop-off.”