When the Chiefs lost Sean Smith to free agency in March, they not only lost a very good NFL cornerback — they also lost one of their most excitable and energetic players.
And while it is not yet clear who will replace Smith, the leader in the clubhouse might be Steven Nelson, a second-year pro who has put together a nice training camp and has shown glimpses of the same excitability that Smith played with for the Chiefs.
For example, Nelson finished a recent practice — on Aug. 6 — with three pass breakups. After each, he punctuated the moment with a different, brief celebration.
“That kid, he’s an energy giver,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He’s battling like crazy.”
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It has become a common sight in St. Joseph. Nelson, a 5-foot-11, 194-pounder, has routinely demonstrated the competitiveness that caused the Chiefs to invest a third-round pick in him last year.
“Steve is probably one of the most competitive in our (defensive backs) room,” safety Ron Parker said. “I love that energy, I love that fire. I think it shows who you are.”
Reid said in late June that Phillip Gaines, a third-round pick in 2014, would enter training camp as the favorite to start opposite Marcus Peters. It’s been Nelson, however, who has flanked Peters in the base defense before moving inside when Gaines — who is recovering from a knee injury — or Marcus Cooper enters in the nickel.
“He never gives up on a play, and he’s got a short memory, which are two good qualities,” Reid said of Nelson. “He might get beat, but when the ball is in the air he captures that time and strips the play. A lot of guys will slow down on it and peak — they can’t recover at that point. You see him at times and think you’ve got him beat, and then realize he’s recovered and stripped the ball out.”
That happened a few times in the aforementioned practice. On one play, he appeared to be beat for a high-point touchdown in the back of the end zone by Chris Conley, who is 4 inches taller than him. But Nelson punched the ball out as Conley started to land, preventing the touchdown. He marked the play with a triumphant wave with his arms that signaled incomplete, a favorite celebration of Smith’s.
“I recognized the route, I knew he was going to do a post corner,” Nelson said. “Him being a little taller than me, I just finished the play. Just played through his hands, it was incomplete.”
Later in the same practice, Nelson broke up a jump ball in the back of the end zone intended for Rod Streater, who has 3 inches on him. Nelson celebrated with an amusing Dikembe Mutombo-esque finger wag.
“I feel disrespected when a guy throws the ball at me, especially in the end zone,” Nelson said.
Nelson also broke up another pass on the day, which he punctuated with his trademark fist pump.
“That was just on some second-nature stuff,” Nelson said. “The fist pump, man, I’ve been doing that ever since college. That’s me saying to myself, okay, my technique paid off. Got it.”
It’s hard to blame Nelson for enjoying the good moments. A year ago, he recorded only eight tackles and essentially redshirted as a rookie as he learned to play nickel, a new position for him.
“I’m a lot better than last year,” Nelson said. “More confident — I know the defense. But I’m still working to get better. That never stops.”
Nelson said Al Harris, who coaches the Chiefs’ secondary along with Emmitt Thomas, is making sure of that.
“He thinks I’m doing a great job, but he just stays on me,” Nelson said of Harris. “He’s always critiquing me in the meeting room, just telling me I’ve got to get better each and every day. It’s never an easy moment.”
Nelson is drawing motivation from that, as well as his long-awaited opportunity to finally show what he can do.
“It gives me a lot of energy, it gives me a lot of hope,” Nelson said. “Because last year, I kind of knew my role was to be the second guy up, and this year, I have the opportunity to play a major role.”