Explosiveness is key for every defensive lineman, but it happens to be the defining characteristic of Robert Nkemdiche's game.
Nkemdiche's college film reveals a remarkably rare ability to burst off the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball, which is why the Ole Miss product was selected 29th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Nkemdiche's explosiveness has been on the minds of everyone in the Cardinals' organization since his draft selection, but in recent weeks, it's been for a different reason.
Until Monday, Nkemdiche had yet to appear in training camp because of a high ankle sprain, which is the type of injury that has the potential to linger and hamper a player's overall explosiveness.
On Monday, Nkemdiche finally returned to the practice field in a limited capacity after missing three weeks of training camp, and sounded relieved and excited to put the pads on again.
"It felt good today, it felt good being back out there with my teammates and just feeling the energy again of being in pads and it feels good to be back in a football mode."
Arizona's first round draft pick stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 296 pounds, and was widely considered one of the most talented overall players available in this year's draft. A defensive end at Ole Miss, Nkemdiche also played offensive reps as a fullback and tested out with a 4.87 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine this spring.
Nkemdiche's quick-twitch movements have the potential to make him an elite NFL lineman, and at Monday's practice, Nkemdiche looked close to moving at 100 percent.
CardinalsSource studied Nkemdiche closely during the individual drills he participated in, and Nkemdiche had little difficulty working with angled rushes and side-to-side movements. In fact, Nkemdiche's footwork was noticeably better than some of the other Caridnals' defensive linemen, and his potential jumps out from the moment he uncoils from his stance.
Nkemdiche said it was difficult to watch three weeks of practice pass by on the sidelines, especially because this is his first opportunity to experience an NFL training camp.
"Just being out and watching your teammates grind through training camp and you want to be out there helping them," Nkemdiche said. "There's a couple of D-linemen that went down and I want to be out there helping them, seeing all the guys taking all the reps, they work so hard and you want to be there and join them."
Nkemdiche looked at or close to 100 percent in terms of his ability to move freely and put pressure on his ankle, but CardinalsSource is hoping to evaluate Nkemdiche in live situations against offensive linemen to determine if Nkemdiche's injury is still impacting his ability to disengage from offensive linemen when Nkemdiche needs to have lane integrity.
"I didn't feel like I was behind at all, it was just the ankle and getting back used to those sharp movements, those explosive movements, so I'm just taking it day by day," Nkemdiche said.
On Monday, Nkemdiche was using his hands more violently than other Cardinals' defensive linemen in individual drills, and demonstrated an excellent ability to shed blocks and cut up field in such drills. While there's not nearly as much perspective to be gained from these situations because defensive linemen are facing little resistance and thus putting less pressure on their legs, we're confident Nkemdiche can contribute this season if his ankle does in fact return to 100 percent.
The Cardinals had Tuesday off, but on Wednesday the team will begin preparing to face the Houston Texans in their third preseason contest. Though Nkemdiche has yet to participate in team drills, head coach Bruce Arians said the Cardinals hoped to have him in the lineup Wednesday, and Nkemdiche didn't rule out the possibility of taking game reps on Sunday.
"Of course, it's just really like I said, I just want to take it step-by-step and keep going through protocol of you know, the time that I'm supposed to be out there and do what I'm supposed to do," Nkemdiche said.