TEMPE, Ariz. – When you're 5-10, weigh 160 pounds and play in the NFL, you'd better be fast.
And J.J. Nelson is very fast.
The quiet rookie from Birmingham, Ala., put his speed and skill on full display last Sunday night in the Arizona Cardinals' 34-31 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
He had four catches for 142 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown on a play where Carson Palmer dropped the ball into his hands perfectly as he raced down the sideline. The 142 yards receiving were the most by a rookie this season.
And Nelson was inactive the previous week. Such is life on the deep, talented group of Arizona receivers.
"He's still growing," coach Bruce Arians said, referring to his growth as a player because Nelson isn't getting any taller. "He's one of those guys that can just get better and better the more comfortable he gets and the more Carson (Palmer) gets comfortable with him."
Nelson wasn't just a one-play wonder. He was the recipient of Palmer's first pass, for 19 yards — the other two went to Larry Fitzgerald — in Arizona's quick no-huddle drive for the winning field goal.
Nine members of his family came from Alabama for the game, not knowing if he'd even be in uniform since he wasn't the previous week. He gave them quite a show.
He said he grew up in difficult circumstances and took to sports right away, especially track. He has run the 100 meters in 10.4 seconds and the 200 in "21-something."
That kind of speed did not go unnoticed to his high school football coach, who also drove the bus that took Nelson to meets, and was the athletic director.
"He didn't ask me if I wanted to go out for football," Nelson said. "He told me I was going to play football."
He continued his career at Alabama-Birmingham, excelling on a struggling program.
Nelson had the fastest 40-yard run at the NFL combine of 4.2 seconds.
But probably because he was so small and didn't come out of a major college, he was still available when Arizona selected him with the second of their two fifth-round picks. He was the 159th player selected.
He was overwhelmed at first.
"He came in with a lot on his plate and a lot to learn from a school where it's not big-time division," Palmer said. "He hadn't played in a ton of big games, and in a pretty limited system compared to what we run here."
As training camp went on, Nelson was beginning to believe he belonged.
"I knew that I could play the game of football when I was growing up," he said, "but up at this level, when I got to training camp going against guys like Pat Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, J.P. [Jerraud Powers] —you know we've got the best talent in the NFL — and if I could compete with those guys, I could be in the NFL."
Nelson provides something Arians covets, and that's speed. He joins his friend, second-year receiver John Brown, as two exceedingly fast targets. They gained the nickname "Smoke" (Brown) and "Fire" (Nelson). There's still a debate over which would win a race.
With Brown not at full strength due to a hamstring injury, and Michael Floyd out with a hamstring problem, Nelson's role increased last week and he made the most of it. And he might add punt returner duties to his list this week because of injuries.