The Josh Shaw expansion project received a valuable boost this week with the addition of former Bengals safety Chris Crocker as part of the Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship.
Shaw, a cornerback who was the team’s fourth-round pick last year out of USC, is in his third week of learning to play safety.
Crocker came into the league as a third-round cornerback, but he switched to safety in his second season and rode the transformation to an 11-year career, the last five of which were spent with the Bengals before he retired after the 2013 season.
“The coaches always pull up a lot of old film, and often it’s of Crocker,” Shaw said. “He was playing everywhere. Shawn (Williams) and George (Iloka) played with him, and they’ve been telling me the main thing about him was how much of a professional he was and how smart he was on the field.”
Shaw played in 15 games last year, mostly on special teams, although he made one start as the nickel cornerback in Week 14 against Pittsburgh after Darqueze Dennard was lost for the season due to a shoulder injury and Adam Jones was out with a foot sprain.
At 6-foot-1 and 201 pounds, Shaw has safety size with corner skills, which is something that intrigued new defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle.
“We’re always looking for safeties that have both physicality to play the position but also the coverage skills,” Coyle said. “He has size and coverage skill that put him in that either/or role. When we look at our depth on our roster, we felt it would be in our best interest, and in his best interest, to get him in a situation where he might be able to get on the field sooner at the safety position and continue to build our depth.
“We’ve got some young corners that are still up and coming, and we felt that the safety position would be an area where he could play,” Coyle continued. “He’s still playing nickel, he’s still doing a lot of different jobs for us, and that’s a good thing.”
But not, as Crocker can attest, an easy thing.
“I think it is tough,” he said. “As a young guy, you’re so worried about just learning the system and learning what you have do, whether you’re a corner or whether you’re a safety. You have to really get that down before you can think about playing another spot. This system isn’t easy. This isn’t a system that you can just come in Day 1 and … know what you’re doing. We’re doing multiple things, so you really have to learn your position and don’t think about the other position.”
Shaw admitted it’s been a challenge, but it’s one he’s embraced. And one he’s experienced before.
“I played safety, corner and nickel in college, so it’s what I’m used to,” he said. “I haven’t done it in a while, so it’s just kind of getting my feet back wet as far as the safety aspect. But it’s definitely coming along. I think from Day 1 to practice 7 or whatever today was, it’s come a long way.
“There’s mistakes here and there, just like everybody, but I’m definitely enjoying it,” he added. “Safety is just different from being out there on the island. At safety you kind of have to take more control. You have to be able to recognize and diagnose things quicker. It’s fun. It’s another challenge. I’m always open to that.”
Crocker said when he came into the league in 2003, there were no hybrid defensive backs. Players were either a cornerback or a safety.
But the game has evolved to the point where it’s not just possible to have a guy who can do both, it’s mandatory.
“I do think it’s paramount that you have two or three guys back there who can play multiple positions because the more you can do, it helps the coaches,” Crocker said. “Going into game day, if you know you have a DB that can play two or three spots, you don’t have to carry another DB.
“And the more you can do, the longer you can play,” he added. “His ceiling is very high. Just look at him. But we’ll have to see. It’s still early.”
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