CBs Gaines, Nelson among those vying to start for Chiefs
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) The reality of injuries sustained in the NFL can be harsh.
When a player like Phillip Gaines suffers a serious injury, there's never a guarantee a spot will still be available upon his return. The Chiefs' third-round draft pick out of Rice in 2014 worked into a starting role by the end of his rookie year and reassumed that position last year.
A torn ACL suffered in Week 3 during a loss to the Packers ended Gaines' season and clouded his future.
Gaines left offseason activities as the presumed second starter at cornerback opposite 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters. Gaines and Steve Nelson have split time on the right side with the first team so far in training camp, and Gaines clearly fits into the Chiefs' plans.
''It just feels good to be able to have the opportunity to play, and I'm going to try and make the most of it,'' Gaines said.
The Chiefs listed Nelson, a third-round pick out of Oregon State in 2015, as the second starter in the first depth chart released earlier this week.
Gaines continues to slowly work back from the knee injury, and Kansas City coach Andy Reid limited his participation in Wednesday's practice, the last one in pads ahead of the preseason opener against Seattle on Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium. Reid said he would attempt to play everyone on the roster, and the early portion could provide a first look at how the Chiefs deploy the cornerbacks alongside Peters, who grabbed eight interceptions and returned two for touchdowns in his first season.
The Chiefs' cornerbacks corps took a hit in the offseason when Sean Smith left in free agency for the Oakland Raiders, leaving a starting spot open, with Gaines, Nelson, Marcus Cooper and a trio of rookies looking to earn playing time. None of those seven players has more than three years of experience.
''Real talented group. We've just got to come along,'' Peters said. ''That's what camp is for. As camp goes on, everyone gets a lot more comfortable and the speed of the game slows down and you start making your plays. I love the talent. Everyone's out here competing.''
Gaines started his career in Kansas City with a prominent role on special teams. He started five games in 2014 before a concussion and illness ended his season after 13 games.
With Smith suspended the first three games of 2015, Gaines earned a starting spot. But his season ended in the game before Smith returned. He has 26 tackles and no interceptions in his first 16 NFL matches.
Nelson didn't play much early in 2015, but Gaines' injury and other struggles in the secondary helped him get on the field in 12 games. His biggest moment came in a playoff win against the Houston Texans when he briefly subbed for Peters and broke up a pass intended for star wideout DeAndre Hopkins.
Coaches have shown a preference to use Gaines in the slot, making him a potential fit as a nickel defender rather than the No. 1 cornerback on the right side.
Despite having only eight tackles to his credit, Nelson could quickly move into that starting role, and coaches and teammates like his fiery attitude and emotional style. Nelson has admitted disappointment with not playing more as a rookie, but Reid has confidence he is ready to assume a much larger role.
''He's an energy giver, that kid,'' Reid said. ''He's learning all the fundamentals and technique and battling like crazy. He never gives up on a play. He's got a short memory.''
Cooper currently has the No. 2 spot on the depth chart behind Peters. Cooper showed flashes in 2013 with three interceptions, but struggled in 2014 and made just two tackles in 10 games last year.
The rookie draft picks sit behind the top four attempting to make their case for a spot in the rotation.
KeiVarae Russell (third round, Notre Dame), Eric Murray (fourth round, Minnesota) and D.J. White (sixth round, Georgia Tech) were all taken to add depth at a seemingly thin spot. Currently, Murray and sixth-year veteran defensive back Jamell Fleming, who has played some cornerback the past two years with Kansas City, are listed at safety on the depth chart.
Peters, Gaines and Nelson look like the only guaranteed contributors at cornerback, but the depth could be important - a lesson the Chiefs learned last year while rotating through a multitude of looks.
''Nothing's set in stone until the game's here, and from game to game it can change, too,'' Gaines said. ''I got hurt last year. At the blink of an eye someone else had to come in. You always have to be mentally prepared to take every rep even if you're not on the field so when you are put in, we just keep it moving.''
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