‘He has the right mentality’: Elks’ DC ‘excited’ for NFL bust Robert Nkemdiche to revive career in CFL

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche might carry the stigma of a first-round NFL draft bust, but the Edmonton Elks believe he could be part of the solution to their defensive line woes.

The 29-year-old signed with the team in January, bringing with him the usual headlines and questions about how committed he will be to adapting to the CFL game. That’s not something that Elks’ defensive coordinator Jason Shivers is worried about with the season fast approaching.

“I think he’s been working at it. We’ve had some conversations and he has the right mentality. He wants to win, he wants to get after the football, he wants to get after the person across for him,” he told Morley Scott of 630 CHED this week. “At the end of the day, those are the same things that you need in the NFL, you need that in the CFL, you need that in football no matter if it’s Pop Warner or college. I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited for him.”

A former five-star recruit who transformed into an All-American defensive tackle at Ole Miss, Nkemdiche was one of the highest-rated prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft. He fell to the Arizona Cardinals with the 29th overall pick in large part due to off-the-field concerns, with a prominent drug possession arrest the previous December in which he leapt out of a fourth-story window serving as a catalyst for debate.

There were also questions about the prospect’s effort level and his eclectic personality left doubts as to his dedication to the game. Those concerns manifested in a lacklustre NFL career in which he played just 38 career games, recording 59 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three pass knockdowns, and two forced fumbles.

For Edmonton, the biggest worry isn’t the beleaguered cast-off’s work ethic, but whether the six-foot-three, 296-pound interior force will have the stamina to keep up in Canada.

“I think the biggest thing for a guy like him coming up from the NFL is conditioning and that’s the thing I’ve been talking to him about,” Shivers said.

“The pace of the game and how fast (it is), for the bigger guys, if they have to stay on the field if the offence gets a drive going and it’s four plays in a row, we’ve got to get them out of there. We’re going to heavily rotate, we want our guys to stay fresh, but sometimes the tempo doesn’t allow for them to get out of the game. We need them to have that six-play mentality and give us everything they’ve got.”

Nkemdiche battled knee injuries in his NFL career and was released by Arizona in 2019 after showing up out of shape to training camp. Stints with the Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, and San Francisco 49ers were highlighted only by an undisclosed two-week suspension and he hasn’t cracked a roster since August of 2022.

With nearly $8.3 million in NFL earnings already in his pocket, the native of Loganville, Ga. tried to revive his career with the USFL’s Michigan Panthers in 2023 but never made it out of training camp. He later played with the Jacksonville Sharks of the National Arena League, before backing out of a reported deal with the UFL’s D.C. Defenders to head to Edmonton.

Though his pedigree is unmatched, Nkemdiche’s resume is cold comfort to Elks fans who know all too well how rarely former NFL busts pan out north of the border. The team appears to have some gaping holes along the defensive line following the departures of Jake Ceresna and A.C. Leonard, who tied for the team lead with 12 sacks a piece last year, and no proven way to plug them.

With just five returning sacks from last year in their current front four, a roll of the dice on one big name won’t be enough to fill the void. However, Shivers believes those concerns are overblown, with Nkemdiche offering just one part of the potential solution.

“I think that Coach Jones has really dug in, Geroy has dug in and done a good job as far as bringing in some new talent in the pipeline,” he said. “Some former NFL guys, we got some younger guys that are just out of college, so we get to mix and match. And then we also have some guys that were role players last year that we’re looking forward to stepping up, like Elliott Brown.”

“I think that Coach has really stacked up the cupboards and it’s gonna be an interesting training camp as far as the D-line is concerned.”

The Elks will open their 2024 regular season by hosting the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, June 8.