Cardinals defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche talks with linebacker Markus Golden during Sunday's loss to the Saints, in which Nkemdiche played 25 snaps.
Robert Nkemdiche's eyes got wide when he heard coach Bruce Arians had complimented him this week.
The defensive tackle and Cardinals' first-round draft pick hadn't heard, and in a season like he has had, keeping a lower profile made sense. Nkemdiche has been active in only four games, with three total tackles – nowhere near the hope when he first arrived in Tempe in May.
He was credited with only one assisted tackle on his season-high 25 snaps against the Saints Sunday, but Arians said Nkemdiche looked "explosive" and has stayed off the mental error list in practice for a couple of weeks.
"He's learned what professional football is all about," Arians said.
It's taken some time. Arians has talked about Nkemdiche's study habits and focus, but not specific beyond that. There was an overreaching theme, however – Nkemdiche was not ready for the NFL.
So he's barely been active, after defensive line coach Brentson Buckner said when Nkemdiche was first drafted that the Cardinals hoped to use him 30 snaps a game as part of the defensive line rotation. Instead, he's this year's version of D.J. Humphries.
Humphries, the team's 2015 No. 1 pick, wasn't active for any game his rookie season. Arians said he had to mature, much like he has said about Nkemdiche. Humphries returned to be a starter in his second year, although he is sidelined right now with a concussion. Yet drawing an exact parallel doesn't work.
Humphries admittedly was angry he was never active, although he said he used that to push himself this season. Nkemdiche said he wasn't mad with how his rookie season has gone.
"Patience is a virtue," Nkemdiche said. "I'm not a guy angry because I'm not playing. I take it for what it is. Just keep finding ways to be on the field and find ways to make this team better, because that is the ultimate goal, to help this team win. That's all I want to do."
The Cardinals knew Calais Campbell's contract was expiring after this season, and one of the reasons Nkemdiche was drafted was to help the transition if Campbell were to leave as a free agent. This season together, Campbell said he's worked with Nkemdiche as
much as he could.
"When a guy comes in, I figure it's my job to tutor them and help them," Campbell said. "But a lot of it they have to figure out on their own. You have to go through your experiences. Experience is the best teacher.
"In Robert's case, he's got great coaching, great leadership around him, guys he can learn from. It's a matter of time before he develops into a great player. You see it in him – I see it in him personally. I think he's going to be a great player in this league."
Arians said a lot of Nkemdiche's learning curve was simply about a guy who was highly recruited coming out of high school and then the star in college, places where "you don't necessarily have to be a pro or work hard because you're more talented than everybody."
"When you get here," Arians said, "you're just another guy."
In a deep defensive line room, the Cardinals didn't have to use Nkemdiche if he was just another guy.
Campbell wasn't a first-round pick, but as a second-rounder in 2008 he didn't play a ton, instead filling in behind free-agent-to-be Antonio Smith. He doesn't see Nkemdiche's lack of play as a big deal, noting that every rookie can see on video how much he has to do better.
"I keep finding things I need to improve," Nkemdiche said. "Always things I can get better at, and be a student of the game."
Nkemdiche may not be angry about not playing much, but that doesn't mean he isn't anxious to get started on the 2017 season and show that he's not the same guy that earned so many inactive Sundays.
"Of course," Nkemdiche said. "That's all day. It's motivating me a lot."