* Mario Alford wants to be active on Sundays.*
When Friday's pre-season opener at Paul Brown Stadium (7:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) gets underway against the Giants, the Bengals hope their depth shows that they're in better shape than many when it comes to talent.
Just to take one for instance, and it's only because it's a local one. Take a long look at Giants head coach Tom Coughlin's depth chart at safety. The New York Post caught cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie musing a few days ago in Cincinnati, "You got to think about it, which one of our safeties right now played in a real game, in an NFL game?' None of 'em for real.''
Meanwhile, the Bengals are staging a robust battle for what could be the last safety spot behind Reggie Nelson, George Iloka and Shawn Williams. It would appear to be a classic high-noon-veteran-rookie duel between veteran Shiloh Keo and sixth-rounder Derron Smith of Fresno State. The winner is active on Sundays.
Landon Collins, the Giants' first-round pick, and Bennett Jackson, the other starting safety, have yet to play in an NFL game. Keo has played in 42 of them. Coughlin recently brought on Jeromy Miles to bring veteran ballast for the youth, even though he played just 131 snaps at safety for the Bengals in his first four NFL seasons.
Advantage, Bengals. But they hope that's not the only position on their roster they can win against New York or anyone else. There'll certainly be plenty to watch Friday for the Bengals besides the safety scrum.
There are the roster's toughest cuts, at defensive line, where projects Margus Hunt and Marcus Hardiston take the first steps in declaring how far they've come. The offensive line needs to get solidified at backup guard-center with all eyes on T.J. Johnson. Can veteran wide receiver Greg Little carry over his good practices into games?
But, let's face it, you're watching the opener because of the rookies that should make the roster and are destined be active on Sundays and eventually get significant snaps.
The brightest spotlight is going to be on the drafted tight ends Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah with the third-round Kroft projecting for the most rookie snaps on the roster as the No. 2 tight end.
Josh Shaw might be projected as the fifth cornerback. But he'll start at gunner on punt cover Friday night with cornerback Darqueze Dennard and that could lead to a lot of snaps. Shaw has already made a play against the Giants, diving to the ground to scoop up an interception of rookie linebacker P.J. Dawson's tipped pass in Wednesday's practice.
Then there is the intriguing case of seventh-rounder Mario Alford, the fleet wide receiver from West Virginia. He's caught everything in training camp despite coming out of a simple college system and now he's trying to show the Bengals he's good enough not to just make the team but to also be good enough to dress for games and return punts for the first time in his life.
The 5-10, 200-pound Smith has his fans at safety, including Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. After finishing his run at Fresno with 40 straight starts, it's never been too big for Smith.
"From day one, he's just a natural. He got it," said Kirkpatrick, a starter who'll barely play Friday. "It comes natural to him. He doesn't have to fight it,it just comes natural to him.
"He just shows me that he's a good athlete, he wants to learn. That's the difference from what I see now and when I came in. I had a chip to where I should be doing this, and those guys come in here understanding hey, let me just learn."
Smith's right-spot-right-time from college has held up so far in training camp and he used it to make the best interception of camp this past Monday in an intrasquad scrimmage when he made a leaping one–handed grab over the middle after he adjusted in mid-snap. Not a great tester when it comes to measurables, the question is if his athleticism can hold up.
But Smith, who had 15 interceptions in college for second on the active list. is looking for no heroics.
"Just do my job," Smith said. "Interceptions are icing on the cake. I have to earn a spot, so I've got to play so my coaches can trust me."
Smith is counting on his experience against the Giants to help on Friday.
"It will get us to a comfort level. We see what kind of sets they like to get in," Smith said. "How the receivers move, how the tight ends move. It just makes it comfortable once we get out there on Friday."
So his motto is pretty simple.
"Do your job first," Smith said. "If a big play comes to you, then that's your opportunity to make it."
Probably not bad advice for every rookie that goes out there.