ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The Oakland Raiders needed a veteran presence in the back of their secondary this spring in the wake of Charles Woodson's retirement. And while free safety Reggie Nelson was out there, blowing in the wind of free agency, he was not really seen as an option.
Not with his ties to the Cincinnati Bengals, for whom he had just played in his first career Pro Bowl after his eight interceptions tied for the league lead. And not with his relationship with new Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who was Nelson’s position coach in Cincinnati.
All of which is what made Raiders defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson's trip to USC’s pro day to check out Su'a Cravens all the more fortuitous. Robertson ran into Joseph at the workout and the topic turned to Nelson, whom Robertson saw as “a Bengal, through and through.”
Besides, if he was going to leave Cincinnati, surely he’d join Joseph in Miami, no?
That’s when Robertson found Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. at the USC workout, and the two made a call to Oakland's front office to let brass know of Nelson’s availability.
A two-year contract worth as much as $12 million later, and Nelson was the 32-year-old heir apparent to Woodson ... in more ways than one.
“I knew of him, respected the player, but now that I’m here with him every single day, I love the person even more,” Robertson said of Nelson during camp. “When you think about losing a guy like Woodson, and then you get a guy with [Nelson’s] type of experience in the football game, his ability to go out and make plays -- he’s done it year in and year out -- and then on top of that, he’s a team player?
“He gets these guys. He’s an outstanding communicator and he does things right. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Nelson's influence has already been felt, even if he missed the entire offseason program and was slowed somewhat in the preseason as he rehabbed a knee injury.
While Nelson is entering his 10th season, it is his first in Oakland, yet his new teammates voted him one of four captains, along with quarterback Derek Carr, center Rodney Hudson and All-Pro defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack.
“We hit it off pretty good,” Nelson said this week with an understated smile. “It’s a great group of guys around here. You know, I’m not a guy of too many words so I’ll just lead by example and continue to keep my head down and work.
“I mean, it was a shocker when I found out I was a captain ... to be voted amongst your peers, that’s a great thing. How they look at you.”
Thus far, it’s been in awe. Even on the other side of the ball.
“If you had to replace Charles Woodson, he’s the guy you’d want to do it with," Carr said. “He’s someone who’s a leader on and off the field. He has no problem getting into anybody’s face on the field, while at the same time, two seconds later, those same guys will listen to him and joke with him. That’s a fine line that’s hard to get and he has it.
“We all know his talents. I joked with him just like I did with C-Wood. I said, ‘Hey man, back in the day, I was a big fan of yours back in college.’”
“He’s a great player,” Carr said. “But not only that, he’s a great person [and now] he’s a teammate of mine and not chasing me around like he did Week 1 last year.”
Indeed, Nelson, who was a first-round pick of Raiders coach Jack Del Rio when he was with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2007, picked off Carr’s backup, Matt McGloin, in last season’s opener after Carr left with a hand injury.
Del Rio talked about Nelson as a “calming influence” in the secondary.
“Communication is the No. 1 key,” Nelson said. “When I got here, that was my thing: communicate with me. I’m new to the defense, so tell me if it’s the wrong check or not. The guys have been doing that and I got it down pat, and that’s the main thing that I emphasize when I’m back there with anybody, Karl [Joseph] or Nate [Allen] or Keith [McGill].
“Just communicate with me and we’ll be all right. As long as we’re on the same page, nobody can stop us.”
Just don’t tell Nelson he’s filling some shoes left by Woodson.
“I just try to be Reggie, man,” he said. “You can’t replace a guy like Charles.”
But the Raiders can lean on Nelson in Sunday’s season opener at New Orleans, just as they leaned on Woodson. Besides, Nelson already has an interception of Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
“As far as starting fast, you’re in control of that,” Nelson said. “You’ve got to come out and hit people in the mouth and continue to do it. You can’t just do it one down; you’ve got to continue to do it [or] they’re just going to keep on coming back. When they come back, you’ve got to do it again.”