CINCINNATI – Remember those days back in school when teachers would assign work over the summer break? Despite how sure we all were that it was just a form of adult torture as they attempted to ruin our summers with reading and review, turns out they actually wanted us to be as ready as possible for that next school year.
Welcome to the start of the Bengals’ organized team activities. Tuesday morning, which did its best imitation of a July training camp day with its mid-80s temperature and warm breeze of humidity coming off the Ohio River, was the first day back to on-field school for the team. The Bengals return all 11 starters on offense and nine starters on defense as well as a multitude of backup players who saw significant time last season.
As quarterback Andy Dalton put it: “There’s not a whole lot of teaching and getting used to new guys in there. We’ve got a nice core group here. Now it’s just perfecting the little things.”
One of those two defensive spots without a returning starter is the safety spot next to Reggie Nelson. On the depth chart it’s the strong safety position that Chris Crocker has occupied for the past few seasons but in reality the Bengals don’t see a big difference in the traditional free safety and strong safety. The spots are interchangeable in the scheme of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and whoever is playing had better be able to cover as well as play the run.
Nelson has quietly become one of the better safeties in the NFL since arriving via trade from Jacksonville at the start of the 2010 season. He’s had nine interceptions, broken up 24 passes and forced six fumbles in the past three seasons as well as been one of the leading tacklers on the team.
It was Nelson’s interception of a Ben Roethlisberger pass late in the game at Pittsburgh last Dec. 23 that led to the winning field goal in a 13-10 victory that clinched a second straight playoff berth.
“He is a ball hawk who will come out and hit you,” said wide receiver A.J. Green, who sees his share of safeties with all of the double-team and exotic defensive looks he attracts. “He has got a nose for the ball. He can hit, he can come down and fill in the gap. He can get interceptions. He can do a lot of things.”
What the Bengals are looking for is someone to grab the starting role next to Nelson. They’ve got a bevy of candidates, starting with third-round pick Shawn Williams out of Georgia and fourth-year player Taylor Mays.
“Whoever is in there we expect you to match the level of the other guys in the huddle,” said defensive backs coach Mark Carrier. “It’s there to take but we’ve got to see the full slate, see the full package and see how it fits with our team. They all know whoever the guy is, or is not the guy, we’ve all got to get better.”
Williams started 30 of 54 games during his career at Georgia and impressed the Bengals’ coaches and scouts with his headiness on the field to go along with the versatile talent they seek.
Mays is a player they’ve been waiting on the past couple of seasons since acquiring him at the end of the 2011 preseason in a trade with San Francisco. A former second-round draft choice out of Southern California, he started three times last season but never found that groove that kept him consistently in the lineup. Mays is one of those players who spent time going back over his season performance, watching the film and taking to heart the critiquing he got from coaches.
“The season was up-and-down but one thing Zim said to me was that you have to be a pro at all times regardless of what is happening,” said Mays. “I didn’t necessarily agree with everything last year but Zim is a hell of a coach and I believe in him as a coach. I believe in myself as a player so I’ve got to keep on pushing. I feel like Zim wants me to be a really good player and that says a lot coming from him because he doesn’t really say things just to say them.
“I want to be a good player for myself and for this team.”
Mays spent the offseason in California working to improve his flexibility and techniques like backpedaling. He said he’s dropped some weight from the 230 pounds he was listed at last season. He wants to be able to move around the field better.
“He’s always had the athleticism but how does that translate over to the football field? I think that’s what he’s beginning to understand,” said Carrier. “He’s starting to understand how to play with his ability, with what he does well and what he doesn’t do well. He’s understanding that just because you’re an athlete that doesn’t make you a player. You have to understand the nuances, the mindset, the recognition. He’s growing up where his mind is starting to expand and understand that there are a lot of things that I can do but I have to start learning them, and seeing them beforehand and reacting to them.”