The Cincinnati Bengals have a knack for mining quality linebackers from the ranks of the undrafted, with Dan Skuta, Vinny Rey, Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur all taking that long road to the 53-man roster since 2009.
That history combined with the fact that the Bengals are thin on experience at the position – 11 players with an average of 1.85 years of service time – provides this year’s group of CFAs and tryout players with an opportunity to do more than just catch the eyes of the coaches during rookie camp.
“Regardless of the numbers, we’ve always kind of found some guys in that area,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “Guys come in to these kind of camps and show what they can do and we continue to work with them. A guy coming into this camp can have a legitimate chance of making it.”
The two college free agent linebackers are Penn State’s Brandon Bell and Illinois’ Hardy Nickerson, whose father Hardy played for Marvin Lewis in Pittsburgh in his first season as an NFL coach.
“I told young Hardy that I wouldn’t be here likely without his father,” Lewis said. “His father tested me as a coach, to be right. He was an outstanding player — smart. And his son shows those same attributes here, after just being around him for a day and a half.”
By signing free-agent contracts, Nickerson and Bell should have a chance to stick with the team through OTAs, mini camp and into training camp. But Houston’s Steven Taylor and Texas A&M’s Claude George are trying to make more an immediate impact as tryout participants this weekend.
Their odds are long, but the Bengals signed four tryout players after the 2016 rookie camp and three in 2015. And both Lewis and Guenther singled out the linebackers as one of the most impressive groups in camp.
“We’re not overloading them with a bunch of plays,” Guenther said. “Just get them in there, get them lined up, see what their instincts are. Since I’ve been here, this is one of the best groups overall on our side of the ball, as far as guys not making any mistakes.”
Trotwood High School graduate Chunky Clements received an invitation to the Combine but didn’t hear his name called during the draft or get an offer to sign as a college free agent due to foot injury he is still rehabbing.
Two of his Illinois teammates, Nickerson and center Joe Spencer, are participating in Bengals rookie camp and said they’ve stayed in touch with Clements and expect him to be cleared in time for training camp with some team.
“That’s my guy,” Nickerson said of Clements, a defensive tackle. “When I got to Illinois he really embraced me as a teammate from Day 1. I’ve got nothing but love for him. He’s been showing me videos of him getting back healthy, and I’m sure somebody’s going to grab him before too long.”
Spencer, a Mason High School graduate, said he and Clements bonded at Illinois because of the close proximity of their hometowns and the fact they went head to head every day in practice.
“I got a lot better by going against him every day,” Spencer said. “He’s a high-energy, high-motor guy and I’m excited to see what he can do at the next level.”
Former Bengals kicker Shayne Graham has been tagging along with special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons this weekend as he prepares for his new job as special teams quality control coordinator at Central Michigan.
“He wants to get into coaching, and he’s kind of spending a weekend here observing with Darrin,” Lewis said. “It’s good experience for him. Shayne’s a very bright young man, obviously. He’s been involved in those meetings, and now it’s all the other nine or 10 guys that you’re responsible for too when you’re a special teams coach.”
Graham kicked for the Bengals from 2003-2009, making 177 of 204 field goals (86.8 percent) and 248 of 251 extra points (98.8 percent). He played for 10 teams in his 15 year career, but never spent more than two seasons anywhere but Cincinnati, which led to him retiring as a Bengal during a ceremonial press conference in February.