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Undrafted but not unloved

Posted Jun 20, 2013

There's a shot that all but two of the Bengals Opening Day linebackers are going to be undrafted.


Jayson DiManche

There's a shot that all but two of the Bengals Opening Day linebackers are going to be undrafted. Throw in one or two more on a practice squad that has provided a rookie springboard to the roster and why wouldn't Jayson DiManche have signed with the Bengals right after the draft?  

"I knew I'd get an opportunity," DiManche says, "whether I was undrafted or drafted or what."

The run of productive undrafted backers that began with Dan Skuta in 2009 during defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's second season with the club not only highlights his coaching powers, Zimmer's eye for development with former position coach Jeff FitzGerald and current linebackers coach Paul Guenther, and the depth of scouting by player personnel, it also reflects an area of expertise in the head coach's office.

As former Pitt Panthers and Steelers linebackers coach Marvin Lewis loves to tell his guys, "It doesn't matter how you get here."

Just ask one of the finds coming off a Rookie of the Year-type season in WILL backer Vontaze Burfict. For signing with the Bengals in the hour after the 2012 draft, he got a $1,000 check and directions to the hotel for minicamp.

DiManche hauled down $14,000 more than that as the NFL's second highest-paid college free agent this year, an important number in a training-camp numbers competition knee deep in all kinds of backup backers.

The Draft Pick who figures to make it?

Fourth-rounder Sean Porter of Texas A&M.

The four-year veteran who has become a special teams staple?

Vincent Rey.

The sophomore working on his third team who provides thump and brains in the middle?

J.K. Schaffer.

The recycled veteran looking for a new role on another NFL team a la Brandon Johnson?

Aaron Maybin.

The former collegiate pass rush whiz at defensive end trying to make The Conversion?

The GPS crew of DiManche from Southern Illinois, Arkansas State's Brandon Joiner and Jordan Campbell of New Mexico Highlands.

If you're counting, that's seven guys for two spots. That's assuming the Bengals are going to keep six because you'd think they have to keep nine defensive linemen with the drafting of second-rounder Margus Hunt. That's also projecting the top four is pretty intact with the starting trio of the undrafted Burfict and James Harrison and second-rounder Rey Maualuga along with Emmanuel Lamur, teaming with Burfict to give the Bengals two starting undrafted nickel backers.

"When I met with them that last day," Guenther says of last week's morning meeting with his backers, "I told them that everything is based on understanding what your role is in helping us win. Whether that's 75 snaps as a starter or 15 as a hired gun on special teams. If you make us better, you'll stay. Everybody has different goals."

Guenther wasn't shy in pointing them out as he went around the room one final time before training camp.

Burfict is trying to take the next step to the Pro Bowl. Harrison's legacy would grow exponentially if he helps the Bengals win it all to go along with his two rings in Pittsburgh. With Lamur looking like the first SAM backer off the bench in addition to backing up WILL and starting in nickel, Guenther challenged him to "expand your role."

DiManche is going to have to be one of those special teams monsters. It's how Grand Valley's Skuta and Kansas State's Lamur came off the practice squad in midseason to contribute heavily as rookies in the playoff runs of 2009 and 2012, respectively, and how Duke's Rey made his debut late in the 2010 season.

The 6-1 DiManche literally burst on the scene late in the draft process. Listed as a sub-220 pound defensive end, he didn't get a combine invite but blew up any number of his workouts, starting with the one for the man that eventually became his agent.

"It was worth the trip," Joe Linta says of his treacherous Iditarod journey through the snows to Carbondale, Ill. "He had the numbers of a fourth-round pick. The position drills, the pass-run reaction, the 39 (inches) vertical and the almost 11 (feet) broad jump were obviously impressive. And the way he flipped his hips and exploded off the edge, you just had to get teams to watch him."

And the 15 grand probably isn't going to hurt his bid, a number that didn't surprise him. But as Burfict showed, the bonus isn't going to matter as much as the preseason tape.

"It shows they have confidence in me," DiManche says. "I knew if I didn't get drafted I was going to be one of the higher free agents.

"I wouldn't say (I'm) a longshot just because of what I did in camp and how I've improved since minicamp, through OTAs. I've been able to make adjustments. Last week (at the mandatory minicamp) I was moving my feet a little better and getting more comfortable with the playbook. I learned I can definitely keep up with the guys here. The biggest adjustment for me wasn't physically. It was just in the playbook. In college I was on the line of scrimmage most of the time. Here, backed up five yards off the line, it's a little bit different. But once I got used to it I showed my true speed a little more and my athleticism and I think as that continues I'll be able to show it a lot more."

Like a true Saluki, he's come a long way. DiManche says he's finally eating right and putting on the weight, 240 at last check. He began his pro career last month switching positions and being in the wrong place all rookie minicamp, but ended the OTAs last week subbing in as the first SAM backer when Harrison missed a practice with an illness. 

Lewis despises depth charts almost as much as he disdains turnovers and questions about injuries, so don’t get too excited. There were times that Joiner worked in there, too.

But it was interesting to note that when Harrison returned for the final two days, DiManche ran with a second team of Rey in the middle and Lamur at WILL.

"It's a little too early for that," Guenther says. "Too early to tell. He didn't do pass drops in college, he was a rush guy. You can see his improvement as time went on throughout the OTAs and he started understanding the detail of the drops and run fits.

"I felt comfortable putting him in there. You like to see how these young guys react in the huddle with the veterans. I thought he did well with it. I told him when he left that he really made some strides but that when he comes back, he'll be facing live bullets and he can't forget the stuff he's learned in the spring. It's early for this stuff, but he's definitely in the mix for the (backup) SAM."

It may be a tractor pull, but Guenther is glad he's got DiManche in the derby after winning a tug-of-war with Jaguars linebackers coach Mark Duffner in the hours after the draft. Last year he didn't when the Bengals lost Schaffer to Jacksonville. Cincinnati ended up getting Schaffer six months later in midseason after the Jags and Bucs cut him, and the lottery irony is that off his visit to Cincinnati, DiManche hooked up with Schaffer to talk about his next move.

Schaffer didn't talk so much about Jacksonville. Both have enormous respect for Duffner, the popular ex-Bengals defensive coordinator, so it was more a discussion about Cincinnati.

"J.K. has been a great teammate once I got here and what he told me just gave me a little more to think about," DiManche says. "If you can play, you'll get an opportunity. (Duffner) was really good to deal with. Jacksonville didn't get into it until about the end, but he said the minute he got the film in his office he was very interested and called a lot."

It also didn't hurt that Guenther is a Philly guy and DiManche is a Jersey (Hamilton) guy.

"He had a lot to do with it," DiManche says. "He's a Northeast guy, a cool coach, real down-to-to earth, and knowing a guy like that, I thought it would make the transition from college to the pros easier."

But, as Linta says, "Teams talk a lot with their checkbook and the Bengals said a lot about what they think of him."

Now DiManche is hoping he can follow in a long line of backers and win that other numbers game on cutdown day.

 

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