Bengals turn to athletic youth after Crocker release

Chris Crocker Chris Crocker thanked the Bengals on Friday for giving his career "a second wind," and now the 10-year safety is taking a deep breath before going back on the market and hoping another team gives him the chance the Bengals gave him in the middle of the 2008 season.

After meeting with Bengals president Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis this week, they informed him the team was releasing him but left open what Crocker called "a small window" to return later in the season.

"I'm not bitter. They told me they have high regard for me as a person and a player and I have to say that Cincinnati has to be one of the best stretches of my career," Crocker said. "The Brown (family) gave my career a second wind … I feel like a lot of good happened when I was in Cincinnati.

"They wanted to sit down and tell me exactly what they were thinking and I appreciate that."

Lewis has talked up his three young safeties this offseason and now he'll find out if third-year players Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles and 2011 fifth-round draft pick Robert Sands can start opposite Reggie Nelson.

Mays is a 2010 second-round pick that came highly regarded out of USC and appears poised to turn his career around after last season's 60 encouraging snaps before ending the year with a pulled hamstring.

Miles has played just 12 snaps from scrimmage, but has 20 special teams tackles in 22 NFL games and was the Bengals Pro Bowl special teams nominee this past season. The 6-4, 209-pound Sands didn't get on the field as a rookie but he flashed his range with 10 tackles in the preseason.

Crocker, cut by the Dolphins in mid-October 2008, was picked up by a winless Bengals club a week later and reunited with first-year defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. He immediately made an impact as the Bengals went on to win four of their last eight games and after securing a four-year, $10 million deal in the offseason Crocker was one of the captains of a defense that helped the Bengals to a playoff berth in two of the last three seasons.

"I'm devastated. Ever since he came here he's been one of my best friends and a big piece of what we do," said cornerback Leon Hall. "I'm sure he'll do well in whatever he chooses to do."

Crocker, who turned 32 last month, drew high praise from players and coaches as one of the club's core sages and while he patrolled the middle of the field the defense finished 12th, fourth, 15th and seventh.

After playing more than 1,000 snaps this past season, Crocker had arthroscopic surgery to clean out a knee that has bothered him since he originally hurt his MCL in the Nov. 21, 2010 game against the Bills and missed the rest of the year.

Crocker came back to start all 17 games, but he admitted a few weeks ago that his knee now felt better than it had at any point since the injury. It was a tough end of the season for him as the Bengals gave up an average of 140 yards per game on the ground in the last six games that included Texans running back Arian Foster's long TD run through the secondary in the Wild Card game.

Crocker said Friday he got the sense the club is concerned about his durability, but he thinks he can still play and he'll be listening to teams.

"I made a lot of great friends here," Crocker said. "It was nice to be able to make a contribution in a place on the field and the locker room as a leader."

Hall, coming off a torn Achilles, knows the challenge facing the secondary. Like Lewis, he has been impressed by the youth at safety.

"We're as athletic as anyone at safety," Hall said. "All those guys can run. The big thing that Crock gave us was being able to get people lined up because he knew the defense inside and out. We're going to need the young guys to step it up mentally. We're all going to have to do that because Crock was so good at making the adjustments."

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