Physical 'freak' Robert Nkemdiche wants to realize unfulfilled potential

The Cardinals drafted Robert Nkemdiche in the first round in 2016, but he's shown little more than flashes of his talent on the field. And he knows it. AP Photo/Matt York

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals have seen flashes of what defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche can do. Now they want to see consistency.

Nkemdiche feels the same way. The former first-round pick is in his third NFL season, and he recognizes a need to play up to expectations, be they the team's or his own.

"I have high expectations for myself and I just always want to live up to those expectations," Nkemdiche said. "The NFL is a game of doing all the small things right and staying disciplined, and being consistent and taking care of business when you're away from the field."

Nkemdiche has not lived up to expectations of a first-round pick so far. He has played in 17 career games without a start and has 15 career tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and no sacks.

But there's no denying his potential and he is still only 23 years old. A renewed focus, new defensive scheme and new coaching staff might push Nkemdiche to reach that potential.

He looks like he's enjoying himself at training camp and has gotten plenty of work with the first-team defense.

"He's trying to do it our way," head coach Steve Wilks said. "Change sometimes is hard for everyone, and I think he's embraced that. His energy on the football field is phenomenal. He's trying to pay attention to the details."

Wilks said coaches are working with Nkemdiche on not jumping offside -- he was penalized three times for that in 2017 -- and that Nkemdiche is "locked in."

Teammates have seen what Nkemdiche can be, with his size (6-4, 296 pounds) and athleticism at a position commonly associated with big space-eaters.

"Rob's a freak. He's always been a freak. I'm excited to see him progress as we keep rolling," offensive lineman D.J. Humphries said.

Back in 2013, Nkemdiche was ranked ESPN's No. 1 overall recruit out of high school. He went to Ole Miss and was named a second-team All-American twice, but he slipped in the draft as questions about off-field situations arose.

The Cardinals used the 29th overall pick of the 2016 draft on him, and they have waited for Nkemdiche to put it all together on the field. Nkemdiche cited injuries and personal growth, as well as figuring out how to be a more polished player, as reasons why he hasn't been good enough.

He is trying not to think much about whatever pressure is on him.

"It's not an issue because with time I know I can always embrace that [pressure] and make it the best situation possible," Nkemdiche said. "Took two years and watched guys around me ... to kind of acclimate myself and find ways I can grow as a player."

The pressure Nkemdiche feels to elevate his performance comes from a feeling that he owes it to those who have believed in him.

"It's just me wanting to be good. Me wanting to give back to these guys, being the player that I can be," he said. "Do it on Sunday. When it's game time, just show up and play ball. It's a very simple concept. Just go out there and be a dog, be a disruptive force."