Overcoming foot injury no small feat for Lions' Lawson

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Nevin Lawson admitted overcoming his gruesome foot injury last year was a tough experience. After dreaming of playing in the NFL, the 2014 fourth-round pick suffered his first serious football injury in his first game as the Lions' top nickel cornerback.

Yet, while he went through the trying times and watched his teammates compete last season, cornerbacks coach Tony Oden said Lawson was "awesome" about approaching his recovery.

"If anyone can come back from that injury, it would've been him," Oden said. "No one works harder than Nevin Lawson — no one. I would put him up against anyone in the classroom (or) in that weight room. He is an intense, hard-working, competitive guy."

And less than a year after dislocating his foot, describing it last November as "basically a knot in the middle of the foot," Lawson appears ready to contribute to the Lions in his second season.

Lawson received his most extensive work as the team's top nickel cornerback in Saturday's practice, and although veteran Josh Wilson is the favorite to earn the job, Lawson could be the top backup to start the season.

Lawson earned the No. 2 nickel job out of training camp last year, too, as the slot backup to Bill Bentley. When Bentley suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 last year, Lawson became the top choice.

In the third quarter of that Week 2 game, Lawson suffered the left foot injury while blocking on a punt return. Trainers carted Lawson off the field, and he underwent surgery in a Charlotte, North Carolina, area hospital immediately.

Lawson was using crutches for the next couple months and said overcoming the mental aspect of the injury would be more difficult than the physical pain. However, after the stressful ordeal, coach Jim Caldwell said Lawson is the same guy now as he was a year ago.

"He's not (different) because he was scrappy last year, he was tough, he'd get after you (and) the tenacity is still there," Caldwell said. "All of those things and he's still got them, and he's still playing with the confidence that he needs to play that spot. So, he's coming along."

Defensive backs often say the nickel spot is the hardest one to man in the NFL. Even though most of the snaps come against slot receivers, No. 1 receivers regularly start plays in the slot. The nickel cornerback also has to understand where the other four defensive backs are on each play, and the complexity of the position is a main reason Wilson, who's going into his ninth season, will likely win the job.

But, even though Lawson is 5-foot-10, the Lions are training him to play on the outside, too. He played outside at Utah State, and most of his 29 snaps in Thursday's exhibition against the New York Jets were on the outside. Lawson had two tackles in the game, but led all defensive players in snaps, a sign the coaches are as eager to see him as he is to prove himself.

"He's handled it very well," fellow cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "He knows that he has a little making up to do, and I think he approached it as such."

After watching him in meetings last year and this offseason, Mathis said he saw Lawson "respecting the process" of the injury. Though Lawson wanted to return, he didn't rush anything, but the rookie also experienced the feeling of missing out on the game.

"That puts a little chip on your shoulder," Mathis said, "knowing that I have time to make up and trying to make up that time in a small window of camp … is kind of hard.

"He's been doing a great job. He knows the playbook, so it's just all about getting live action now."