Back in late April, the Buffalo Bills weren't any different than they are right now at wide receiver. They were young. Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish aside, the team was stockpiling young talent at the position, inheriting former second-round pick James Hardy, classmate Steve Johnson, and adding fourth-round pick Marcus Easley to the mix.
David Nelson? He was a nice prospect as an undrafted free agent out of Florida, but let's not kid ourselves; he was very close to being an afterthought. Kind fans suggested he had a shot at the practice squad. | MRW Talks To Nelson
Nelson, however, has been perhaps the biggest rags-to-riches surprise for the Bills this preseason. Aided by injuries to both Hardy and Easley, Nelson's consistency has quickly earned him the No. 4 receiver spot behind Evans, Johnson and Parrish. He's seen a great deal of work with the first-team offense, and has arguably been the most dependable receiver on the team through two preseason games.
For a guy that set a career high in receptions with just 25 as a senior at Florida, that's a phenomenally quick ascent up an NFL depth chart.
Nelson, too, has been injured. Twice, in fact, during training camp. He was back within days both times, with his most impressive recovery coming on what looked like a fairly serious ankle injury after rolling it during practice. (The other was a hamstring injury, also tricky to deal with.) As a result of his quick healing ability, he's missed only a few practices and one preseason game, and his absence hasn't knocked him down the depth chart.
His play might have something to do with that. Nelson is one of three Bills skill players, all rookies - joining first-round pick C.J. Spiller and fellow undrafted free agent Joique Bell - to score multiple touchdowns this preseason. Both of his touchdown receptions have come off the right arm of Ryan Fitzpatrick; he's tied for the team lead in receptions with Parrish (7), third in yards (82, trailing Evans and Parrish), and leads all receivers with two scores.
It's unclear how much upside the 6'5", 217-pound Nelson possesses. His clear advantage is his size, where his height and long arms make him a matchup nightmare out of the slot. For a player his size, he's an unusually smooth athlete with good agility, though he doesn't seem to possess elite deep speed. He's got big, soft hands and plucks the ball easily out of the air, and can make people miss once the ball is in his hands.
Buffalo's starting offense is clicking well enough at this point that it would be unwise to try to force Nelson further up the depth chart, and as he's still learning his craft, he's most valuable as a situational player anyway. If he continues to produce - and we've yet to encounter any reason why he shouldn't - he'll see the field in four-receiver sets as a rookie, and could have a major impact there. For a player that caught 46 passes in his college career, Nelson's quick impact has been very impressive to behold.