Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was preparing for another round of NFL owners meetings when Nelson, who trains in Phoenix in the offseason, proposed breakfast with his new coach at the Arizona Biltmore. Over fruit and omelets, Nelson wanted Tomlin to understand exactly what he was getting with his latest investment.
“I wanted to introduce myself formally, look a man in the eyes and give him a sense of satisfaction of the type of player I am, the type of person I am, more so off the field,” said Nelson, who is participating in the Steelers’ offseason workouts this week after four years with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Nelson has seen too much in his football career not to be clear with his intentions.
Signing a three-year, $25.5 million deal with Pittsburgh — the richest in franchise history for the first week of unrestricted free agency — was the culmination of a career paved with challenges at nearly every stop.
A teenage Nelson proved himself in an ultra-competitive Georgia prep football scene, grabbing seven interceptions as a senior for Northside High in Warner Robins, just south of Macon.
Issues with grades dashed hopes of a scholarship with a Football Bowl Subdivision school. The football dream had to keep moving, and staying home didn’t exactly symbolize a fresh start. He took a chance on College of the Sequoias, a junior college located in the farmland of California, outside of Fresno.
“I was never the guy who was in the box. I always thought my purpose was always greater,” Nelson said.
The next few years tested his resolve. Nelson said he didn’t have a scholarship and relied on financial aid and food stamps to pay bills. Equipment was minimal, so Nelson had to hit up the local sporting goods store for the basics.
He shared a two-bedroom apartment with six other teammates. He slept on a couch at night and ate off the Burger King value menu during the day.
Not knowing what to expect each week proved stressful, and that stress overcame a few teammates who packed up and left. But Nelson played his way into a scholarship with Oregon State.
“It’s my own journey. I don’t regret it,” Nelson said. “These are the steps of life you had to go through. I wasn’t going to be denied.”
In four years with Kansas City, which took Nelson in the third round of the 2015 draft, Nelson evolved from backup to three-year starter. In his contract year, Nelson grabbed four interceptions and was rated above average by Pro Football Focus, the 33rd overall corner.
But with Kansas City ranking 31st in total defense with 6,488 yards allowed last season, cornerbacks were an easy target for fans. Nelson felt supported inside his locker room but not always outside of it.
“I kind of felt like I was shaded,” Nelson said about his time there. “I just felt like it was a slap in the face. A lot of people didn’t really know what was going on there. A lot of players took the heat.”
What was going on, Nelson said, was that corners were asked to play heavy man coverages, often in difficult spots. In 2018, the Chiefs ranked third in the NFL with 55.1 percent man coverage, behind the Denver Broncos (58.5 percent) and the New England Patriots (60.4 percent), according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The Steelers were fifth at 51.5 percent, but they traditionally have relied on zone coverages and often employ zone-man combinations, such as a “fire zone” defense. How an offense lines up can determine that coverage.
The Chiefs fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton after a season in which they reached the AFC title game but watched the Patriots march down the field in overtime for a 37-31 win. The Chiefs are rebuilding their defense with several new pieces.
Nelson accepts the challenge of one-on-one play but adds that some Chiefs players had grown weary of a predictable scheme that can handicap defensive backs.
“You’re a target to other teams, referees, fans. It’s just not a good thing,” Nelson said. “You have to switch it up. It’s the National Football League. These offenses are smart. If you switch it up like these other offenses are doing, you can make plays.”
Nelson basically knew a while back he wouldn’t re-sign with the Chiefs. But he told himself long ago he would play his way into an eight-figure deal.
In a “great vibes” meeting with Tomlin, the head coach told Nelson the Steelers would work hard and want to win now.
• Will Belichick coach into his 70s?
• Luck enjoys first healthy offseason since ’15
• Steven Nelson: From food stamps to making $25M with Steelers
• Inside Cam Jordan’s offseason adventures
• NFL draft: Mock drafts, prospects and more
That’s all Nelson wanted to hear. Signing with Pittsburgh, which he believes will maximize his potential in a versatile scheme, is “confirmation I am on the right path,” he said.
“[My background] has given me the edge to go out there and perform,” Nelson said. “I’ve already been in those situations, under pressure. I think it works out well.”
The Steelers’ cornerback issues have been well-documented. The team drafted five corners in the first five rounds from 2015 to 2017, and none of them is slated to start in 2019. The Steelers found a staple in Joe Haden, who signed a three-year, $27 million deal in August 2017 after Cleveland released him.
Nelson, slated as the starting outside corner opposite Haden, is eager to work with and learn from Haden.
As for that perpetual cornerback need come draft season, Nelson aims to change that.
“No longer a need when I’m on the field,” Nelson said. “I don’t say that out of arrogance but because I’m going to work for it.”