For a veteran NFL player, a three-day minicamp in June is a far cry from the glory of playing in front of a packed stadium and millions of TV viewers, but you wouldn't know it from watching defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche going through what would generally be considered mundane drills for a defensive lineman.
In OTAs last week and now in this week's minicamp, it's safe to say few players, if any, are having more fun than Nkemdiche is with his new team. Whether it's playfully talking trash with teammates or laughing as he goes through a pass-rush drill, Nkemdiche is enjoying every moment of offseason workouts because after not being on an NFL roster all of last season, he now understands what it's like to not have football in his life.
"I have a newfound respect for the game, because I got to be away from it, so I'm probably overly excited, a lot more excited than these guys who have been out here," Nkemdiche said. "I never want the opportunity to be taken away again. I've been away from the game for some time, so I'm just so happy to have the opportunity to have the ball in my court."
A former first round-pick and before that the No. 1 high school recruit in America, Nkemdiche seemed to be on the fast-track to NFL stardom, but so far his career hasn't gone according to plan. He struggled to get on the field early in his career with the Arizona Cardinals, who selected him with the 29th pick in the 2016 draft, then just when it looked like things were starting to click for him in 2018, he tore his ACL after recording 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss in 10 games. Nkemdiche signed with Miami in 2019, but appeared in only two games, and then went unsigned last season.
"It wasn't fun," he said of being out of football in 2020. "I wasn't a good time, but being back here, this is exciting for me and this is what I love to do, so I'm just happy to have the opportunity to be back here and to be able to play football again. That's what I love doing, so I'm just happy about that."
No player who spent an entire year out of football is a sure bet to make the team and contribute, but the 6-foot-3, 296-pound Nkemdiche, who is still only 26, possesses a unique blend of athletic ability and size that gives him a real shot to bounce back and revive his career. It also helps his chances that the Seahawks don't have a lot of proven depth at defensive tackle beyond Poona Ford and Al Woods. Bryan Mone, a 2019 undrafted free agent, played well last year and should have a place in the rotation, but beyond that trio of Ford, Woods and Mone, defensive tackle is pretty wide open and if Nkemdiche can provide some interior pass rush, he'll have a real shot to stick around into the regular season.
"He's got a really good spirit about him," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's upbeat, active, he's explosive and has really good quickness. He's over 300 pounds and he moves really well. He's going to be a real competitive part of this group. He's a little different than some of the other guys, so we see some flexibility in where we can play him and move him around. I'm hoping for his sake—because he'd been out of football for a bit—I'm hoping for his sake that everything just keeps moving, along because he is applying himself, his mentality is like he has a second chance on his football life, and he knows that, which is really important. He's trying to seize every opportunity and he's been a real—not a surprise as much as just, we're really happy to have him as part of this thing. We think he's going to be a factor."
Nkemdiche knows that after an entire year out of football, he could be running out of chances in the NFL if things don't work out in Seattle, but he doesn't plan on needing another opportunity after the one he has in front of him now.
"Yeah," Nkemdiche said when asked if he views this as a last chance. "It's the only chance I'll need though."