The Pittsburgh Steelers brought in former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson for the purpose of being able to make a difference in a playmaking capacity in the secondary. Not just in terms of creating interceptions—which is vital of course—but also in just disrupting passes, yet another facet in which the teams’ secondary has been lacking.
Nelson had a career year in 2018, posting four interceptions (the first four of his professional career) on top of another 15 passes defensed. He was among the league leaders with respect to getting his hands on the football in some form or fashion.
He attributed this to the natural growth of a player who consistently puts in the hard work, and of gaining experience. He was asked about just that during OTAs last season, and his response to whether or not that was why he believed he put up those numbers was in the affirmative.
Aside from simply gaining more experience, he said that it was about “just working, just working every day, trying to prove yourself each and every day and never getting complacent. Just always trying to get better week in and week out”.
If you’re going to go through outside free agency and throw a bunch of money at a player and make him one of the richest players in the unit, on the team, whatever it may be, you better damn well make sure that he can also set the tone in practice. For all of the criticism he received from the fans, Mike Mitchell certainly did that. Joe Haden did as well.
With Haden and Nelson, they should hopefully provide the example for the rest of the young secondary to follow in terms of what sort of work is required to succeed at the NFL level. You never want your top two players at a position to be players you signed in outside free agency, but it ends up working out that way, you want them to be a positive influencer on the culture, and to adopt the team’s system and way of going about things as well.
Those intangible qualities are a crucial and underrated aspect of working in free agency. If you pay an outsider big money, that has to be justified in some way to the guys who are already in the locker room, even if that is not something that goes spoken.
Players push for their teammates to get their paydays because they know what they’ve done. They’ve gone through things together and they see the work that they put in to get themselves in a position to get paid. That’s less true when a guy is coming from another team.