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Bengals Roster Battles: Jalen Davis's Rise From Overlooked To On The Verge

Jalen Davis (35) came up big in Tampa Bay.
Jalen Davis (35) came up big in Tampa Bay.

Cornerback Jalen Davis, who arguably had the best training camp in their most impressive position group of the preseason, has more chips on his shoulder than the great Ken Riley had interceptions on the Bengals corner.

Let's see.

One Division I offer coming out of San Diego's Helix High School.

Despite plenty of assurances on Draft Day, undrafted out of Utah State.

In three seasons as a pro, accrued just one year of service time with three teams.

"I've been overlooked on so many levels of my life," Davis said after practice this week. "It makes me push harder, makes me go harder. I've been overlooked in high school, college, the NFL. I don't know why.

"I know how good I am. I know I'm good enough to make it."

Davis is hoping the lifetime streak is over on Sunday (4 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when the Dolphins, the first NFL team that let him go, comes into Paul Brown Stadium for the preseason finale, otherwise known as the Roster Super Bowl for the good, the bad and the overlooked.

Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, heading into his 19th preseason finale at the back of the Bengals roster and fringe of the waiver wire, calls these roster battles "Hot spots."

Take tight end, where four-year veteran Mason Schreck, practice squad incumbent Mitchell Wilcox and second-year player Thaddeus Moss, a collegiate pass catching force in his first pro roster hunt, are basically battling for the same No. 3 spot.

 "Kind of up in the air. I think it will sort itself out a little in this last game," Simmons said. "It's a great comfort in Mason knowing exactly what to do. There's hardly anyone that works harder than Mitch but Mitch is going through what it takes to be an NFL player (not just a tight end). Same with Thaddeus.

"I don't think Thaddeus probably covered many kickoffs and punts at LSU, but he's been very open to learn all that it takes to play all those spots. I think he understands that if he's going to have to separate himself from the rest of the herd and get a spot on the team, it's not going to be at tight end, but how he can cover, how he can block."

The same thing is going on at wide receiver, where a quartet of veterans in Mike Thomas, Stanley Morgan Jr., Trent Taylor and Trenton Irwin are literally gunning for two or three spots.

Gunner, the first man down field to tackle the punt, is a key guy.

"I've been very pleased with our gunners so far. (Safety) Brandon's (Wilson) done a solid job. Stanley Morgan always does a solid job, too. We've had several guys force fair catches against single (coverage)," Simmons said. "We had several guys that showed up and did that. Jalen Davis was one of those guys. (Cornerback) Winston Rose got a chance a little bit the first week and made a couple of tackles on kickoff. So we've had a variety of guys that have shown up there. (Cornerback) Tony Brown is somebody who played a lot for us last year, too. I feel good where we're at at gunner right now."

If you count it in a certain way, the sixth and final cornerback spot could be coming down to Davis and Brown, two guys that bailed them out last year in November and December when they were decimated in the secondary.

But it is the last weekend in August and they aren't decimated. The cupboard, although a bit chipped, is full. Sunday is last call because final cuts are Tuesday.

Davis, who nearly majored in accounting like his mother, can count. But he's not.

"I'm just going out there and doing my job. That's all," said Davis, a bit bemused when you ask him why he's had such a good camp. "This is how I always am. I think now I'm just getting noticed."

There were those two tips that led to interceptions in Tampa Bay in the preseason opener. There was undercutting the route last Saturday in Washington, forcing FitzMagic to fizzle one out of the end zone.

And the kid they called "Little Train," because he liked to run over the big kids has been the La Mesa Locomotive in practice. On Thursday it seemed like he became the first man to come between the ball and hulking Auden Tate.

There was the 6-5, 230-pound Tate making another fabulous catch on a back shoulder throw that wasn't on his back shoulder. And there was the 5-10, 185-pound Davis, the classic pesky nickel cornerback infesting the slot, still pestering him, still reaching in, still trying and knocking it out of his arms.

"All I'm thinking," Davis said, "is get it out. Get it out!"

There's the kid's journey right there. The reach-in on Tate.

"I told him," said his dad, Verdis Davis, of that dark day of the graduation party that was also supposed to be a draft party, "to keep going. Stay at it. Don't stop."

Jalen had stopped watching the 2018 draft. There were about 100 people at his La Mesa home celebrating his sociology degree and imminent draft selection. But after each call from a team that said they were taking him … Nothing. One team even said they were taking him with the next pick and …

"He just went into his room before the draft was over," Verdis Davis said. "That killed us."

"They said they were going to get me and they didn't get me," Jalen Davis said. "I said, 'All right. Cool. I'll make them wish they got me.'"

Verdis Davis, retired Navy after 20 years, saw this ship sail before and he's got a pretty good reason why.

"He just wasn't very big. He was a thin little guy," Verdis said.

By the time Jalen lined up as the first true freshman to start an opener at Utah State, he figured Jalen faced Tennessee at about 147 pounds. A total of 48 starts later he held school records for pass breakups and defensed.

So those two tips in Tampa weren't exactly flukes. You don't get to the fringe of the pros without hitting some golden bricks along the way. For Davis, it was catching 48 passes and returning four punts for touchdowns while winning the Grossmont-Hills League Defensive Player of the Year and becoming an all-California Interscholastic Federation first-team selection at cornerback.

"I was killing it on both sides of the ball for one off the biggest high schools in San Diego," Jalen Davis said.

Yet only Utah State surfaced out of Division I with an offer. He balked. He didn't have to go there, he told his father. But Verdis prepared a spread sheet with the three schools that offered. Utah State. Cal-Davis. Northern Arizona.

"If you want to get to the league, look at those two other schools," his father told him. "They haven't put a guy in the league for at least 15 years. Utah State does it all the time."

Verdis Davis saw it as his youth coach. He may have been small, but he kept coming back. He coached Jalen from age six until high school. But only to and from the field.

"I coached defense, but I never talked to him," Verdis Davis said. "You know how parents are. Favoritism and all that. I would talk to him from the field to the car and driving back and forth."

He got a shot in three games as a rookie in Miami. Then they changed coaches and he was gone. He resurfaced in Arizona and played in two games. But last year he began the season on the practice squad again and with the Cardinals bringing in veterans ahead of him, Verdis wondered if he needed a new home. Two days after the Cards released him, the Bengals called and he signed once he passed the COVID protocols on Oct 27.

Fewer than three weeks later he was playing a career-high 70 percent of the snaps in Pittsburgh. When Mackensie Alexander got a concussion early, they were down to three cornerbacks and Davis was in the slot. He played well enough to stick around and play in five more games.

"I remembered him from college and we saw him flash on his Miami tape," says Steven Radicevic, the Bengals director of pro scouting. "His size is what he's fighting, but he's showing what we saw on tape. He's fast, instinctive, smart. He's done a nice job this camp."

Steven Jackson, his cornerbacks coach, chuckles at the too-small tag.

"Plays don't know who makes them," Jackson said. "The ball doesn't know if you're six feet and says, "OK, you're big enough to make a play on me.' Good players make plays. He's a good player. He's prepared. He's always ready at a moment's notice. He smart and if he doesn't know, he asks."

Davis had to learn on the run that COVID fall. But for him it was just another obstacle along the way. No, he says with a laugh, Verdis wasn't the classic, strict-by-the-book military dad.

"They're good kids. Straight As. Both of them. Why be strict?" Verdis asked. "The only thing I had to tell them to do was clean their rooms."

Jalen's older sister has two master's in education, but it doesn't look like she can make Sunday's family reunion at PBS. It's the same crowd that was there three years ago at the draft day downer.

"I've got a nice crowd of seven people coming," Jalen Davis said. "Parents. Grandma. Grandpa. My fiancée. Auntie. Some uncles."

They tried like heck to watch the opener, but it was nowhere to be found. Verdis ended up watching the tips on Twitter. They were able to watch the Washington game. Now they'll see every play live.

"It's like he says, he wants to be on the same team two years in a row," Verdis Davis said. "If he's on that roster come Tuesday, that's the best accomplishment. He's a had a good camp, Let's see."

They've been here before, so the caution is there. But so are the chips on the shoulder. How many can he possibly have left?

"I've got tons of them. I've got tons of room. There's a lot of stuff that can drive you," Davis said. "I've got a lot driving me. Just doing it for my family. Making my family proud. Making my fiancée proud."

The thing is, Verdis already is.

"He's doing what he always does," said the old first class petty officer. "Keep pushing, keep pushing."