New England Patriots: 30 greatest players in franchise history

(Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /
9 of 30

Embed from Getty Images

Steve Nelson. 22. player. 47. . LB. (1974-87)

  • New England Patriots No. 57 jersey retired
  • 3x Pro Bowl (1980, 1984-85)
  • New England Patriots Hall of Fame
  • Career 1,776 tackles w/Patriots

Though far from an original Patriot, linebacker Steve Nelson became a fan favorite after putting together 14 excellent years in New England uniform. Nelson was a second-round pick out of North Dakota State University by the Patriots in the 1974 NFL Draft. He would spend his entire NFL career in New England.

While the Patriots weren’t a regularly competitive team in their first two decades in the NFL, Nelson was a mainstay at linebacker for New England. He emerged as a starter as a rookie in 1974, starting in nine of the 11 games he played. Nelson would man the middle of the Patriots defense all the way through the 1987 season.

In his third year in the league, Nelson would be part of the 1976 Patriots team that reached the NFL playoffs for the first time since the AFL/NFL merger. New England would make the playoffs five times in his 14-year NFL career with the team, including the 1985 AFC Championship season.

Nelson was one of those linebackers that got better with age. Did it help that he had a future Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett in the latter part of Nelson’s career? Absolutely, but it would be Nelson that entered his prime as a professional in 1980.

He made his first of three career trips to the Pro Bowl in 1980. While New England didn’t reach the AFC playoffs that year, they would return in 1982 for the third time in Nelson’s Patriots career. Nelson’s two best seasons came in his mid-30s in 1984 and 1985.

He made his second and third career trips to the Pro Bowl those seasons. While New England didn’t reach the playoffs in 1984, the Patriots made it to their first-ever Super Bowl in 1985. Too bad quarterback Tony Eason stood no chance against the vaunted 1985 Chicago Bears defense. New England would return to the Super Bowl 11 years later, but Nelson had already hung up the spikes well before then.

Nelson may not have achieved the team accolades of many great Patriots after him, but don’t let that fool you. He was a great Patriot. Nelson made 171 starts in 174 games for the Patriots at inside linebacker. He led the team in tackles on eight separate occasions.

Interestingly enough, Nelson retired with the most Patriots number of all-time in terms of career tackles with 1,776. His No. 57 jersey is retired by the Patriots organization. Nelson was part of the inaugural 1993 induction class into the Patriots Hall of Fame.