CINCINNATI – Every day there are 90 men trying to make their case they belong on the Bengals’ roster. By Aug. 27, that number will be down to 75. It has to be down to 53 players by 6 p.m. on Aug. 31.
Between now and then the Bengals have three more preseason games and three weeks’ worth of practices to figure out which players stay and which have to go. The same scenario is playing out for the other 31 teams in the NFL.
Guys like Vinnie Rey and Jeromy Miles weren’t supposed to have made it one season in the league, let alone be participating in their fourth training camps with the Bengals. That’s one way to look at things when a player doesn’t get drafted. Even if you are picked by a team, as Ryan Whalen was in the sixth round two years ago by the Bengals, if it’s not a high draft pick there are less guarantees for you having an extended playing career.
“You can never feel comfortable. Everyone is good, everyone is fighting for a roster spot,” said Whalen.
The current two-deep depth chart for the Bengals has 22 players who weren’t selected in the first three rounds of the draft, including 10 players who weren’t drafted at all. Nine of the 12 linebackers on the roster entered the NFL without being drafted.
Coaches like to say that it doesn’t matter how you get to an NFL training camp, just get to one and take advantage of any situation given to you. Guys like Rey, Miles and Whalen are proof that’s not just a cliché.
“I was expecting to get drafted,” said Miles, a safety who played at UMass. “My agent and I both felt these guys would give me the best opportunity to play at safety and then do some other things. I just took advantage of the opportunity. I think that Marvin and these guys do a good job of giving guys opportunity. The big thing is if you seize the opportunity or not.”
Miles and Rey were both part of the Bengals’ final preseason cuts in 2010 but then signed to the practice squad. Miles spent the first 10 weeks of the season on the practice squad before being signed to the active roster and playing in the final six games of the season. Rey was signed to the active roster for the final two regular season games. Neither has missed a game since. Both have been key contributors on special teams and have seen their opportunities to play on defense increase.
“I’ve always felt that as long as you come out here and perform they’ll give you a chance,” said Rey. “The more you’re performing in practice the more of a chance you’ll get in the games.”
Rey didn’t practice on Saturday because of a knee injury he suffered last week while the team was practicing in Atlanta ahead of their preseason opener against the Falcons. He watched from the sideline as the Bengals won 34-10. He cheered for teammates but there was also some angst. While J.K. Schaffer was leading the team with six tackles, while rookie free agent Jayson DiManche recorded a sack and had two tackles for loss, Rey wasn’t able to be out on the field playing.
“When you’re undrafted you always feel your back is against the wall,” said Rey. “There is no comfort level, especially for me. Sometimes I feel paranoid. I’m never safe, and that’s the way I like to feel. I just want to go out there every day and show my worth by playing as hard and as fast as possible.”
Earlier this camp, head coach Marvin Lewis made the comment that he could easily cut the team down to 60 players if he had to at that point. ‘At that point’ is the key prepositional phrase in that last sentence. ‘At that point’ constantly changes during training camp and preseason.
“It’s always a coach’s job to be able to cut them. If I walk in the room and tell the DB (defensive backs) coaches I need five guys, they’ve got to give me five guys,” said Lewis. “We’re prepared to do that every day. That doesn’t say anything less about anybody, it’s just the business we’re in that at any point we have to be prepared to say these are the keepers right now, these are the guys who would make the football team right now, and unfortunately these are players we’d have to let go. That’s not a bad thing.”
Last season the Bengals kept seven wide receivers after training camp. That’s more than usual – sometimes it’s been as few as five, typically they keep six – but Whalen forced them to keep him because of his play in the preseason, not just on offense but more importantly on special teams. The coaches decided he was one of the best 53 players they had, regardless of position. Whalen didn’t play the first six games and was on the inactive list seven times total but he was active for the final eight games and the postseason.
“If you’re not going to be a starter then guys are going to have to play special teams,” said Whalen. “That’s part of it. That’s something you learn to embrace, something you learn to love and you learn how important it is to the team.
“They play the best guys that are out there. They play the guys that deserve to play. That’s all a player can ask for.”