The last time I saw David Nelson, it was in the visitors’ locker room of the Georgia Dome in 2009.
The far corner of the locker room.
The only thing you could hear was the sound of Gator players slowly taking off their equipment. All other media, and the hundreds that comprised it, were already gone. They had pooled at the podium not far away to lob the easy questions to Alabama coach Nick Saban, who had led the program to its first SEC championship in 10 years with a 32-13 win over Florida.
I was the only reporter left among a handful of distraught Gators who were probably trying to stay invisible until every last one of us was gone, but something compelled me to make the long walk across the room to sit down with Nelson.
I knew there weren’t any easy questions for him, and his answers were barely audible. But they didn’t need to be. Nelson, who lifted his head rarely and took deep breaths often, showed loud and clear the pain he felt. Ironically, that short time with the genuinely wounded senior left me confident that he’d make a career for himself in the NFL. Moreso than his performance in that game (four catches, 53 yards and a touchdown) or the big plays he made a season before on the way to an SEC title in the same building against Alabama, then for a national title against Oklahoma.
When I heard that the Cleveland Browns signed Nelson to a one-year contract on Monday, my first thought was the fact that he’s reuniting with his former teammate at Florida, cornerback Joe Haden, who was quick to greet Nelson via Twitter with a “welcome!!” However, I couldn’t help but think that he’s also joining former Alabama running back Trent Richardson, who contributed 80 yards on 11 carries in that crushing 2009 loss.
Four months after that game, Nelson went undrafted before being signed by the Buffalo Bills. In his three years there, the sure-handed Nelson had 94 receptions for 1,042 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 11.1 yards per catch.
He had a promising rookie year when he recorded 31 catches for 353 yards and three touchdowns, one in each of his last three games, including a game-winning score over none other than the Browns. He enjoyed his best season in 2011 when he became a favorite target of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. That year, Nelson reeled in 61 passes for 658 yards and five touchdowns.
However, Nelson is coming off a torn ACL that he suffered in the Bills’ 48-28 season-opening loss to the Jets last season. Nelson, operated on by world-renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews, has said that he should be fully ready for the Browns’ voluntary minicamp from April 16-18.
Nelson is the fourth receiver that Cleveland — coming off a 5-11 campaign — has added in the past calendar year as the Browns look to improve their passing game, which ranked 19th in the league last season under quarterback Brandon Weeden. A healthy Nelson should do that, considering second-year slot receivers Josh Cooper and Travis Benjamin combined for only 26 grabs, 404 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Regardless of what he could potentially bring to the Browns, Nelson’s signing doesn’t qualify as a blockbuster move. Nelson isn’t a star.
But he’s not invisible either.