KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Rookie cornerback Steven Nelson could have gone into a shell the first four games of the regular season.
The Chiefs’ second of two third-round picks in May’s NFL Draft was a healthy inactive, but sulking over lack of playing time simply isn’t Nelson’s style.
Instead, Nelson embraced the period while transitioning to the nickel cornerback position and the defensive scheme.
The educational process paid off with Nelson seeing live action since Week 5, and he is grateful the first month of the season allowed him an opportunity to grow.
“I think it was very beneficial,” Nelson said. “It allowed me to learn the defense and allowed me to gain my confidence.”
Nelson hasn’t been alone in his journey and he had the unwavering support of teammates, including fellow rookie cornerback Marcus Peters, the Chiefs’ first-round pick.
“We’ve been talking every day, the whole group tells him patience and his time is going to come,” Peters said. “He’s learning to play a tough job, the nickel position. That’s the biggest thing, just waiting and patience and for him just getting a lot more comfortable playing inside the nickel.”
Cornerback Sean Smith, the clear leader of a Chiefs’ young cornerback corps averaging 24.4 years of age, understands what the 21-year-old Nelson went through.
The 28-year-old Smith, who is in his seventh professional season, used himself as an example when he entered the league in 2009 with the Miami Dolphins.
“Steven is in a unique situation,” Smith said. “I was kind of a similar situation where I was also drafted with a fellow cornerback, Vontae Davis – he went first round, I went second – and seeing somebody else getting immediate playing time and success early, and you kind of have to take a different path. I try and talk to him on that level just to make sure his mind is straight.”
The encouragement from Smith, Peters and others in the Chiefs locker room has meant a lot to Nelson.
“A very great support system,” Nelson said with a smile. “All those guys allow me to play at a high level and compete with everybody.”
Despite Nelson playing cornerback, a position that signals a player already possesses a high level of self-assurance, the conversion to the nickel position isn’t simple.
But Smith has been with Nelson the whole way to ease the move.
“He’s playing corner and nickel, which are two different worlds out there,” Smith said. “I just try to make sure he’s not overloaded, and whatever the coaches are saying, I reword it and try to simplify it for him, just tell him to go out there and play. Don’t worry about making mistakes, just be you.”
Still, the 5-11, 194-pound Nelson had a learning curve when considering he played mostly outside during his college career at Oregon State.
The game inside is often more physical, requiring a nickel cornerback to fight through blocks and natural picks to stay with a slot wide receiver.
A nickel cornerback also operates in tight space, which calls for agility and ability to move laterally.
“A lot of it is technique, especially when you’re inside,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “There’s a lot of things that happen inside; it’s different than being the outside corner position. So you have to have some feel, you have to be able to recognize formations, all those things that can age you, becoming more efficient there.”
The Chiefs went through a rotation at nickel cornerback, including safeties Ron Parker and Tyvon Branch, when Phillip Gaines went down with an ACL tear in Week 3.
While the team could have thrown Nelson into the fray, he had to show the coaching staff he was ready.
“One of the things we tried to do with him, especially when we lost Phillip – I think there was a couple times where he wasn’t even up for the game – we were practicing him and trying to get him some reps and trying to build for down the road here,” Sutton said. “With down the road being within this season to try to get him prepped and ready to go.”
That moment arrived against the Chicago Bears, his first live game of the 2015 campaign.
Nelson played 11 snaps on special teams, where he recorded a tackle, and didn’t see time on defense against Chicago.
But his snaps on defense have increased the past two games from 14 in Week 6 against the Minnesota Vikings to a season-high 21 snaps in Week 7 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The playing experience led to Nelson seeing things much easier now, the action and defensive reads flow to him because of the hard work he put in to improve and develop as a contributor.
“The game to me feels just like practice,” Nelson said. “If you work hard at practice, the game will be a lot easier and familiar to you.”
Nelson’s progression has impressed Smith, who pointed out the biggest area of growth he observed in his rookie teammate.
“It’s going to sound kind of crazy, but not caring,” Smith said. “You can’t care so much, meaning if you get beat or do something wrong, you can’t be too hard on yourself or anything like that because we got to line back up. You got to let that play go.
“Once I kind of got into him, you got to just say forget it, you just go out there and play. If it happened, it happened, we’ll correct it on the sidelines. His confidence grew and his talent just kind of overshadows everything when he goes out there and makes plays.”
With three regular-season games under his belt and the potential for more playing time on defense as the season progresses, Nelson won’t be satisfied with the status quo.
This is the player who was often the last one to leave the practice field during training camp while working alone on position drills, after all.
The first four games of the season taught him there is always room to improve and Nelson fully embraces that, too.
“I definitely feel like I’ve gotten better over time from training camp, but I still have a lot to work on,” Nelson said. “I would say I have to get better with my technique. I’m constantly working on that.”