Cowboys Draft Prospects: Jonathan Nelson and Collin Zych

Today, our series of draft profiles features a low-round twofer: a pair of safety types who aren't likely to hear their names called until the third day of the draft, if at all. The players in question both visited Valley Ranch on the recent "Dallas Day" for regional prospects: Jonathan Nelson is a Big 12 product from Oklahoma; Harvard's Collin Zych (pronounced "zitch") is a local boy who attended Plano East. We'll start with Nelson, who earned all-conference honorable mention last season for the Sooners. Perhaps Nelson's two most memorable contests came against Texas A&M, where he registered 11 tackles, and Cincinnati, when he made a game-turning play, chasing down Bearcats WR DJ Woods from behind after a 69-yard reception, and forcing a fumble at the OU nine-yard line that was recovered by Quinton Carter in the Sooner end zone.

Nelson is a high-character guy. He made the All-Big 12 Academic second team and appears to be a good man away from the game: he has done a lot of charity work, especially working with troubled or at-risk kids. A video of that work can be found here.The question is: does he have enough character to overcome some physical limitations and soft spots in his game? Before we speculate about this, lets see what some of our favorite Internet scouting geniuses have to say about Nelson:

The Sporting News (Russ Lande) 25th-rated safety; overall unknown (not in top 99)

Strengths: Is a tough, aggressive safety who doesn’t hesitate to come up and hit big ballcarriers. Reads the run well and moves upfield very quickly in run support. Will fight through blocks to make tackles. When he stays under control, he can make strong tackles with good technique. Shows excellent hustle chasing down ballcarriers across the field or downfield. Does a good job of reading the quarterback and closes quickly and aggressively on passes in front of him. Doesn’t hesitate to blow up receivers after the ball arrives.

Weaknesses: For a strong safety prospect, he lacks size and can be overpowered even when he uses good tackling technique. It doesn’t happen often, but it will be a bigger issue against heavier, stronger backs in the NFL. With his desire to make hard hits, he often leaves his feet to launch himself at ballcarriers. That, in turn, leads to too many missed tackles. Though he is quick to close on passes in front of him, he doesn't show the speed or closing burst to get out to the sideline to help with over-the-top coverage. Quarterbacks can fit passes over cornerbacks well before he gets there.

Bottom line: Nelson is coming off a good first season as a full-time starter, moving himself from a non-prospect to a late-round prospect. Though he is more than tough enough and willing to make hard hits and tackles in run support, his lack of size and inconsistent tackling technique will likely lead to problems in the NFL. Though he is effective at coming up and tackling receivers after the catch, he doesn’t show the ball skills to break up passes consistently. Nelson might not be worth drafting because he doesn’t have starting potential. But he would be an excellent free-agent pickup because he has the skills to be a backup safety and solid special teams player.

Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki) 5th-rated FS; overall unknown (not in top 150)

Positives: Quick feet and good balance. Explosive athlete with excellent leaping ability. Moves like a cornerback and can play over the top. Good range. Able to shadow slot receivers. Pops out of breaks and drives on throws. God short-area burst. Flashes hands to intercept. Hustler—see forced fumble vs. Cincinnati. Versatile—has played corner and safety and has special-teams experience. Solid character. Intriguing production and upside. Showed well at the East-West Shrine Game. Has a 40-inch vertical jump.

Negatives: Average size and has short arms. Needs to get stronger—absorbs too much contact and was decleated by Cincinnati RB Isaiah Pead. Not a striker—sideswipe, grab-and-drag tackler who waits for the cavalry. Has a passive temperament. Lacks elite closing speed. Can clean up footwork. Still learning to trust his eyes—arrives a step late. Still developing positional instincts and understanding of route combinations. Durability could be an issue.

Summary: Finesse, developmental free safety with a cornerback’s build and movement skills. Was slowed by injuries as an underclassman before emerging with a strong, productive senior season. Should factor on special teams and has talent to emerge with continued work in the weight room.

Neither the National Football Post nor ESPN have a report on Nelson, which is both surprising and instructive, given that they feature two of the largest prospect databases. So, for him to be left off of their lists says a lot about what they perceive his draftability to be. Nor has Nelson received much media attention of any kind. Still, compared to Harvard's Collin Zych, Nelson is a veritable scouting sensation. I couldn't find a listing for Zych--or for any Harvard player--in any of the prospect databases I typically frequent.

And that's too bad, because he's a really interesting and impressive kid. He was the Crimson's team captain last season, after which he was named first team All-Ivy League (for the second consecutive year) as well as to the Academic All-Ivy League, which is no mean feat. Zych finished the season tied for the team lead with 79 total tackles, and led in both passes defended (12) and interceptions (3). He wrapped up a stellar career with 224 total tackles, 10.5 for a loss, six interceptions and 27 PBUs. After the 2010 campaign, he was honored by his teammates with the Robert F. Kennedy Award for desire and determination.

Zych is clearly game. But what of his game? Check out this video of him in action (if you look closely you'll see some plays against the guy who lead off this series, Lehigh OG Will Rackley; he's number 74). All this happened after Zych almost fell through the recruiting cracks and never matriculated at Harvard. The story of how a kid from Plano ended up in Cambridge, MA is an interesting one. Check out this NY Times article to get all the details. And Zych's invitation to Dallas Day was no mere formality. The fact that he also had a visit scheduled with the Jaguars suggests that he's more than just a low-risk local interview; NFL teams consider him more than a great story--they see him as a legitimate prospect.

So, where will either Zych or Nelson be drafted? I have a hard time imagining either of them will come off the board until the last couple of rounds. That's where incomplete players are picked up, guys with both good qualities and significant limitations to their games. Case in point: Nelson is explosive and athletic but undersized and a bit passive for a safety; Zych is intelligent and determined but, at 5-11, 195, a bit undersized and physically limited.

Because of this, I'm going to slot Nelson in the seventh round and Zych an an intriguing UDFA pickup. But remember, Bill Bates was a UDFA with similar characteristics, and he managed to fashion a pretty fair NFL career. I wouldn't mind seeing whether Zych can follow suit.

Next up: Texas CB/ FS Aaron WIlliams




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