ALAMEDA – Reggie Nelson has been around the block more than anyone on the Raiders defense. His 11th trip around the NFL calendar has begun, following Pro Bowl selections in his last two.
Nelson has a tide chart for the ebbs and flows of an offseason that notes exactly what’s required and when to excel when games actually count.
That doesn’t mean this 33-year old is on autopilot. Nelson is searching for better from his physical traits and mental approach to the game.
“Man, I’ve got homework every night,” Nelson said after Tuesday’s OTA session, sporting his trademark 1000-watt smile. “It’s a young man’s game. They keep drafting safeties, so you have to compete, man. I study every night no matter what it is. There’s always something that I can get better at and that’s what I keep trying to tell the young guys, ‘Don’t think you made it because you’re here. There’s always something that you can get better at and work at.’”
Nelson is the defense’s oldest brother and the secondary’s sage. He welcomes a role as mentor to younger safeties growing as professionals. General manager Reggie McKenzie has invested heavily in the position, using a 2016 first-round pick on Karl Joseph and this year’s second-rounder on Obi Melifonwu. He wants the defensive backs to play better than a year ago, without losing focus on his desire to continue his career renaissance.
Nelson has 13 interceptions and a pair of Pro Bowl selections the past two seasons, proving to be a ballhawk in the back.
“He’s always around the ball,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “He’s a veteran. He knows how to play this game, he’s been playing for a long time. Our team is so young, it’s important for a guy like that to continue to set an example for a lot of the younger players. He has a lot of respect in the room, a lot of respect on the field and he’s been playing for a long time for a reason. He’s a guy whose experience is very important to us.”
A career’s experience is vital a free safety, as is his last season with the Raiders. Nelson’s always around the ball, but increasing comfort with a new system was clear later in the year and allowed him to provide better help to his cornerbacks and linebackers. Getting to know how Sean Smith and David Amerson react to receiver routes helps him be in the right place at the right time.
“It’s just me personally just knowing how that player plays,” Nelson said. “D.A. and Sean are going to play something different. They might play a different route. D.A. might play a route one way and Sean might play a different way. So it’s just knowing how they’re going to react to that route and on that defensive call or what not. So, it’s just us as a group; (Joseph), Obi, Conley, whoever’s out there, just us communicating as a group and coach has been doing a good job of mixing everybody in there and seeing what everybody can do.”
Improved defensive communication is a point of emphasis this offseason, as the Raiders try to avoid big plays that plagued them in 2016. Nelson’s a major part of that effort, both in getting teammates in playmaking position and disguising plays before the snap.
“He’s somebody that understands the game,” said assistant head coach – defense John Pagano, who has been working with defensive backs during the offseason program. “It’s just good to be around a guy like that. Excellent pro. He’s a pro. Comes to work every day with questions. Writes everything down, listens. That’s what it’s all about. He’s a great example for our younger players to be able to watch a guy like that and be able to see how it’s supposed to be done.”
The Raiders have a crop of young safeties and cornerbacks learning from and pushing established veterans, a dynamic Nelson believes will help the unit play better.
“It’s going to do a lot for the group,” Nelson said. “Everybody’s stepping up their game and it is what it is. You’re out here to compete and keep a job. Like I said, the league keeps getting younger and younger each year and you should be concerned. You have to compete if you want to play. Nothing is going to be handed to you.”