ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – Steven Nelson stands alone on the sideline without a coach in sight long after his teammates have departed the practice field following the Sunday morning training camp workout.
The Chiefs rookie cornerback out of Oregon State spends time repeatedly running in and out of a rope ladder with short, choppy steps to improve his footwork before heading to the side to hit the tackling dummy where he works hands, pushing up and against the stationary object.
Nelson then walks to the middle of field where he crouches in a stance. He begins backpedaling at a fast pace, stopping on a dime, and then darts to his left or right to simulate coverage. He repeats this process over and over until he is satisfied.
The workout is intense and Nelson, the second of the Chiefs’ two third-round picks in May’s NFL Draft, finishes drenched in sweat.
But the 5-11, 194-pound Nelson, who started his post-practice routine Saturday, had a simple explanation as to why stays on the field after the rest of the team has hit the showers.
“I had to take a look at myself,” Nelson said. “I had some things I had to work on. I think preparation prevents piss-poor performance.”
That is a solid attitude for any professional athlete, but it especially applies to a rookie in the middle of adjusting from outside cornerback to the nickel cornerback position.
“I never played nickel in college,” Nelson said, “but my ability and skill set to play inside, it’s up to par. It’s just me recognizing different things because nickel and corner are two different things. That’s the hardest part.”
Nelson said the individual drills he runs through after practice are designed to help him make the transition, mentally and physically.
The latter certainly applies when considering the nickel cornerback often battles through blockers or natural picks while covering a wide receiver out of the slot.
“You have to get physical,” Nelson said. “I’m working my game all around. I hate getting beat. Coaches and teammates just tell me to keep my head up, it’s the first I’m doing that (playing nickel cornerback). But the type of person I am – competitive, man – I just got to be on top, so I’m out here doing the hard work.”
He has the physical tools to play the position, having posted a 4.49 40-yard dash and a respectable 19 bench press repetitions of 225 pounds at February’s NFL Scouting Combine.
But given he will operate in tight space where possessing fluid lateral movement is at a premium, Nelson has that covered with a 6.88 time in the 3-Cone drill, which ranked as 10th-best among defensive back at the Combine.
“He’s got great hips,” safety Ron Parker said. “He moves well at the line of scrimmage and he has that dog in him, he’s got that fight in him. As a group, that’s what you like to see coming from a young rookie. He’s out there working hard every day, so he’s just out there getting better.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton agreed.
“He’s got a lot of the qualities you look for in a nickel,” Sutton said Sunday. “He’s got good strength in there, good quickness. I think he’s going to be a good blitzer as well in there. He’s really a competitive guy, I love his competitiveness.”
There is a learning curve for Nelson, however, and Sutton understands there will be growing pains.
“I just think you have to learn that position, that’s kind of like being a slot receiver,” Sutton said. “It’s a unique position based on where you’re aligned and how you have to cover different routes, so there’s a lot of knowledge that you need to gain and experiences you need to really play that thing efficiently. He played it a lot better today. I thought he had a really good day out there.”
The Chiefs chose to not re-sign cornerback Chris Owens, who manned the nickel cornerback position in 2014, and the spot is open for the taking.
But Nelson hasn’t seen action with the first-team defense like fellow rookie cornerback Marcus Peters has. And the Chiefs’ nickel package throughout training camp has Peters at left cornerback, Phillip Gaines at nickel and Sean Smith at right cornerback.
Nelson experiences a majority of his practice repetitions with the second-team unit through eight training camp practices, but a willing helping hand is never too far from reach.
“Sean has taken me under his wing, alerting me to certain situations, splits on the field and making sure I’m up on my toes,” Nelson said. “Ron helps me a lot, all those guys, whenever I need help. If I see one of them, I won’t be afraid to ask because I don’t want to be wrong.”
Nelson said he watches a lot of film with coaches and fellow defensive backs, and hasn’t had a problem picking up the scheme.
For Nelson, it becomes a matter of applying what he has learned to the football field.
“It’s just getting out there and getting the reps,” he said. “Like I said, the nickel is way different than corner. It’s one of those things where you have to be patient and it will come over time.”
In the meantime, observers hanging around after the players have headed up the hill at the conclusion of practice aren’t likely to miss Nelson on the field.
Nelson said he doesn’t know if the coaching staff is aware he stays behind to put in extra work, but he doesn’t do it with hopes of impressing others.
The 21-year-old Nelson works alone with a goal to improve his craft.
“I’m just being me,” he said. “I’m sure some of them probably took notice or whatever. I hate getting beat. That’s not the type of person I am. I want to be playing at a high level, so I got to make sure I’m getting the work in.”