Safety Jerico Nelson ended his string of zeroes with the Saints by making a tackle in the fourth quarter against Oakland last Friday. Whether or not he is simply playing out the string before getting cut remains to be seen.
Nelson, a local player trying to stick around for the second year on the team he grew up with, did not record a tackle or an assist in the final three games of 2012, when he moved up from the practice squad to the active roster. He had none against Kansas City in New Orleans’ preseason opener this year.
After beating the odds last season as an undrafted rookie from Arkansas, he faces an uphill battle again. The Saints took Kenny Vaccaro in the first round of the draft and signed ninth-year veteran Jim Leonhard as a free agent, adding two more safeties.
With Vaccaro, Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper and Rafael Bush locks to make the final roster, Nelson will have to beat out Leonhard and Isa Abdul-Quddus for a possible fifth spot. Failing that, he is eligible for a second year on the practice squad.
Opportunities at defensive back have been limited. Nelson’s best path to make the final roster is through special teams, where he has played on every unit in the first two preseason games. Failing that, he is eligible for a second year on the practice squad.
“I don’t know that he’s a long shot,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s getting snaps in the kicking game, and for those safeties that may not be in the initial defensive package, if we’re bringing them to a game, they are going to have to be playing on all the kicking game snaps. He’s someone I think can do that.”
Staying in New Orleans is Nelson’s dream. He grew up in Kenner, winning a high school state championship in the Superdome with John Curtis as a ninth grader. Katrina forced his family to relocate, so he finished at nearby Destrehan.
“All my family are Saints fans,” Nelson said. “Just being around the Who Dat nation my whole life, tt would be a great honor to play in front of my hometown. If something was to happen, I’ll worry about that later, but right now I’m trying to make sure I’m a Who Dat.”
The only other homegrown players on the Saints’ roster are cornerback Keenan Lewis, a free agent signee who went to O. Perry Walker, defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker from New Iberia and seldom-used cornerback Korey Lindsey from Scotlandville High.
Nelson calls himself an “up and under guy” on the punt return unit, saying his role is to rush and try to block the punt. He is a wing on the punt- and kickoff-coverage teams.
A blocked punt or a big tackle this Sunday at Houston would help his cause greatly before cuts come early next week.
“That’s the one play during a game that for 15 to 20 seconds is very physical and very fast,” he said. “It’s about speed, knowing your assignment, effort and toughness. I feel like every moment is important. I’m looking at every day coming to practice as if it’s a game so I can prepare myself to show them what I got.”
Nelson (5-feet-10, 216 pounds) is still a work in progress at safety. He was a nickelback and linebacker during a stellar four-year career at Arkansas, playing in the box primarily and blitzing frequently instead of covering down the field. He finished with 269 tackles, 10 ½ sacks and four interceptions.
In New Orleans, he is strictly a cover guy, getting time at strong and free safety.
“My biggest adjustment was having to not be so aggressive,” he said. “The nickel position is sort of like a linebacker, so you could be more aggressive. At safety, you are the last line of defense, so you can’t be nearly as aggressive.”
He wanted to gamble, but thought better of it, on his first play at safety against Oakland when he entered with other reserves early in the fourth quarter. The Saints blitzed, and Raiders quarterback Matt McGloin threw to the backside for receiver Andre Holmes.
Nelson broke on the ball with the intent of undercutting it, but the throw was high, and he ended up making sure he tackled Holmes for a 10-yard gain instead of risking a big mistake.
He was on the field for six snaps and two series, then watched as Leonhard, who subbed for him, sealed the 28-20 win with an interception at midfield.
If Nelson was disappointed at not getting that chance, he hid it well.
“I’m just basically trying to take advantage of the opportunities when I’m out there on the field,” he said. “As long as I keep that focus and keeping working, I’m going to get a lot accomplished.”
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