Cornerback Steven Nelson only logged five defensive snaps in the Kansas City Chiefs’ 30-0 wild-card win over the Houston Texans in January, but in retrospect, it’s still fair to look back at it as a breakthrough, of sorts.
That’s because Nelson, a 2015 third-round pick out of Oregon State who barely saw the field as a rookie during the regular season, was suddenly called into action in the second quarter when the Texans, who trailed 13-0, were driving and starter Marcus Peters’ shoe came off.
The Texans, looking to exploit that fact, quickly looked Nelson’s way as quarterback Brian Hoyer fired a pass to star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was lined up across from him. But Nelson read the play perfectly and stuck with Hopkins step-for-step as the pass sailed incomplete and out of the end zone.
Again, it was just one play. But for the Northside product who had been itching to play in a more meaningful capacity all season, it was the start of a personal campaign to prove he’s ready to contribute defensively.
“It means a lot — just getting out there and getting to make a play for my team is a big deal,” said Nelson, who was also a special teams contributor. “It just goes to show, you know, that I’m just still working, trying to be ready when my name is called.”
The one thing about Steve — Steve’s always going to compete. I think that’s something that he’s learned from a very young age. He’s always been a smaller guy (and) those guys have that extra fight to them.
Kansas City receiver Jeremy Maclin
Nelson, who logged only 4.9 percent of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps — 53 plays — last season, received plenty of chances to show just that during the past month or so, when the Chiefs held 13 offseason practices during organized team activities.
And according to head coach Andy Reid, Nelson — who opened OTAs with the first team at nickel corner and maintained that position throughout — certainly put his best foot forward in his quest to earn playing time that has become available after the offseason departure of starting corner Sean Smith.
“I’d probably tell you Nelson came out of this as the first nickel (corner) right now,” Reid said. “He took snaps at the (outside) corner, too.”
Reid said Nelson, who recorded eight tackles and no other statistics last season, has continued to build on his breakup against Hopkins, the Texans’ star receiver.
“He really started picking up towards the end of last year,” Reid said. “I thought he kind of took off the last quarter of the season. We were excited to see if he’d continue to grow at that inside position.”
Chiefs general manager John Dorsey agrees.
“I think everybody learns at different paces,” Dorsey said. “I’ve seen steady improvement from him as we’ve gone along this season. I expect big things from (him) here in year two.”
The 5-foot-10, 194-pound Nelson — who looks quicker and is noticeably more confident on the field — already has started that process, obviously.
During one OTA practice, he broke up a short route near the sideline and never broke stride after the play, as he punctuated it with a Michael Jordan-esque fist pump while jogging down the sideline.
It was one of many plays he has made during an offseason in which he has come a long way in terms earning the respect of his coaches and teammates.
“The one thing about Steve — Steve’s always going to compete,” star receiver Jeremy Maclin said. “I think that’s something that he’s learned from a very young age. He’s always been a smaller guy (and) those guys have that extra fight to them.
“And also for him, he got a chance to see our plays last year when he was helping us out on the scout team. He understands route concepts very well, he’s a very intelligent player. Steve will continue to get better, I’m excited about it.”