KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith spotted wide receiver Rod Streater open near the left sideline during 11-on-11 drills on the first day of organized team activities (OTAs).
Smith threw a dart and the play initially looked like a sure completion, but cornerback Steven Nelson, who was a few steps away at the right cornerback position, wouldn’t allow it.
Nelson broke on the pass and rapidly closed the distance from the side, timing his arrival perfectly before extending his left arm in front of Streater to bat the ball aside.
The play served notice that Nelson is a force to reckon with when considering the Chiefs need to solidify the right cornerback and the nickel position, and the second-year pro embraces the opportunity.
“I think I’m ready to contribute this year,” Nelson said.
The 5-11, 195-pound Nelson rotated between right cornerback and nickel cornerback with the first-team defense throughout the first week of OTAs.
How he lined up during the workouts proved a stark contrast from his rookie campaign.
“It’s a big difference coming from the second and third team to now first team,” Nelson said. “I don’t let myself get too high, I feel like I’m ready for this opportunity because I put in the work for it. This is my time to step up.”
Nelson’s growth from the past season has been a process, of course.
He was inactive the first four games of the 2015 season and played on just 53 total defensive snaps on the season as he learned how to play nickel cornerback.
Nelson contributed mostly on special teams, totaling 125 snaps, and his seven tackles on special teams tied for the third-most tackles with defensive back Jamell Fleming.
The 22-year-old Nelson used the offseason to build on what he learned during his rookie season. He also focused on conditioning and building strength, both of which have produced early positive results.
“The past couple of months have been very great for me, just in better condition than last year,” he said. “Mentally, I feel like I know everything in the defense.”
Nelson’s awareness on the field and preparation to compete left Fleming impressed through the first week of OTAs.
“He wants to be a starter, he wants to be out there on the field,” Fleming said. “He’s getting used to how it works out – how corner works, nickel – he’s out there just grinding. I can see that.”
Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who has seen a lot of Nelson across the line of scrimmage agreed.
“He understands about concepts very well,” Maclin said. “He’s a very intelligent player, so Steve will continue to get better. I’m excited about him.”
Enthusiasm over Nelson’s potential for the upcoming season isn’t limited to teammates.
Coach Andy Reid praised the second-year pro on the first day of OTAs, while secondary coach/cornerbacks coach Al Harris said Nelson is hungry and it shows on the field, where the cornerback has consistently made plays.
“From Day One, Steve’s one of my favorite guys,” Harris said. “Right now, you guys are seeing how he was in college, just aggressive, aggressive.”
Harris points out Nelson took a while to get a feel on how to play nickel cornerback and cornerback at the NFL level.
The position coach adds Nelson endured not having the immediate success he enjoyed in college, but then it started coming together for Nelson at the midpoint of the 2015 season.
“Halfway through the season, you saw the light turn on and he works his butt off,” Harris said. “He’s doing a really good job.”
Meanwhile, the Chiefs must identify a starter at the right cornerback opposite of Marcus Peters when considering the departure of Sean Smith, who signed a free-agent contract with the Oakland Raiders.
Phillip Gaines, Marcus Cooper and Nelson are in the competition, but the nickel position remains in the air and Kansas City used three draft picks rookie cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell, Eric Murray and D.J. White.
Nelson, who was a third-round pick in 2015, said he didn’t have a reaction when he saw the trio added through the draft.
Instead, he preferred to concentrate on himself.
“It doesn’t really affect me because I know what I’m going to do,” Nelson said. “I’m going to come out here and bust my tail each and every day and I know the work I put into my craft, so it didn’t really affect me.”
The Chiefs are likely to rotate personnel at the cornerback positions before the start of regular season to find the right fits.
Nelson hopes his commitment to improving and performances in the coming months are enough to prove the Chiefs don’t need to look far.
“Show the coaches and my teammates that I can line up against anybody,” he said, “Just play well in the defense and do my responsibilities.”