The nearest thing to baseball's Triple A in the NFL is where the promising young Bengals defensive backs have lived the past few seasons. On the practice squad. During pregame. In all phases of special teams.
Well, the call to the big leagues comes this spring for the trio of Bengals safeties, as well as cornerback Brandon Ghee. They form an athletically gifted quartet of players secondary coach Kevin Coyle says has the potential to supply big-time contributions as soon as 2012. He says leading special teams tackler Jeromy Miles, 2010 second-rounder Taylor Mays, and 2011 fifth-rounder Robert Sands come into the workouts challenging to start at safety.
It won't stop the Bengals from coveting a cornerback at No. 17 or No. 21 in the first round of the draft. But instead of grabbing a safety in the second or third round (how about a running back or a guard?) they may already have some high-impact ones down on the farm.
Their scouting combine for safety may not be next month in Indianapolis but May at Paul Brown Stadium. The only trip the Bengals may have to make to see a safety Pro Day may be to drive the length of Mehring Way.
Now if there's one they can't absolutely pass up in rounds two or three, sure. But…
"I think we'll have the most intense competition at the safety spot that we've probably had," Coyle said Wednesday. "Along with the guys we hopefully bring back, this group will have the most competition that we've ever had in terms of players being on the cusp of challenging to be starting players. These guys are at the point now where they legitimately have the opportunity to go out there and prove themselves."
The Bengals would no doubt like to re-sign one of their starting safeties headed to free agency, Reggie Nelson, but they are encouraged by what they've seen from the kids.
The 6-2, 210-pound Miles had 15 tackles on special teams as part of the NFL's No. 1 kick coverage. The 6-3, 230-pound Mays also had an impact on special teams as well as flashing in limited snaps from scrimmage late in the year before a hamstring injury took him out of the last two games. The 6-4, 209-pound Sands played in just one game, but he treated it like he played in all 16.
Even though he dressed out only once, Sands went out to every pregame and "for 30 minutes caught the ball as hard as anyone I've ever been around and he can catch it. He's got phenomenal hands," Coyle said.
Coyle loves the work ethic of all three. Sands is usually one of the first guys on the practice field. Miles is conscientious and reliable enough to be one of the team's most dependable players. Mays, a gym rat, showed up during the bye week to work with Coyle on formation recognition with chairs aligned in the gym.
"I think I'm a lot better player than I was last year," said Mays, traded from the 49ers late this past preseason. "I need to be consistent with my technique. That's the stuff in the offseason I can think about and work on. (Defensive coordinator Mike) Zimmer and Coach Coyle have been tough on me playing with my technique. (Before) I just found the ball and ran to it. They've been harping on me about it.
"To have the physical talent, it doesn't really mean anything if you don't apply it to football. Technique is the best way to apply it."
And he's got plenty of tools. Coyle remembers interviewing Mays at the 2010 scouting combine and Mays telling the Bengals that he would be the fastest DB there.
"You mean fastest safety, right?" they asked him and Mays shook his head and said, "Fastest DB."
"And he was right. He runs like a deer," Coyle said. "Robert is 6-4 plus. Taylor is 6-3 plus. Jeromy is 6-2. These are big guys who can all run. Once they have it down mentally, they're going to play at a very fast, high speed, high level. Absolutely (they can have a big impact).
"They've got to be very technique sound and conscious because it's not easy for a big man to change direction in space. They've got to be conscious of playing low, bending their knees, and being able to anticipate the game to make plays. I think they're capable. I've seen them do it numerous times on the practice field."
Getting the call to the bigs doesn't happen at training camp. It happens in May on the field during the voluntary workouts. So it wouldn't be all that surprising if the safeties got some first-team reps.
And probably Ghee, too, with Leon Hall (Achilles) not expected back until late July, Adam Jones and Kelly Jennings potential free agents, and 32-year-old Nate Clements earning the right not to pound it in the spring.
It may not have been the dog house, but Ghee has come back in from the cold. The Bengals picked him in the third round in 2010 because of his physical gifts and not because of his college tape so much. Indeed, if they get a first-round corner this trip he'll be hard-pressed to have more tools than 6-0, 193-pound Ghee.
But a hit to the head curtailed Ghee's rookie preseason and a hamstring problem ended his regular season after he appeared in only six games. Then this past preseason he was bit in the hamstring again all the while not particularly impressing the coaches when he was healthy. He was not only cut after the preseason but he cleared waivers (which had to tell him something since he was a young third-round corner), so the Bengals put him on the practice squad.
At that point Ghee began to impress and the coaches felt confident enough to promote him Nov. 14, the day after Hall ripped his Achilles and he kept impressing in practice. Ghee played hardly at all from scrimmage and saw special teams action in the last eight games.
"I had my concerns early on," Coyle said. "I still think he has a lot to prove to everybody, but I was favorably impressed by his demeanor, his practice habits, and how his competitiveness increased through the season. He's got a lot of skill, size, speed and recoverability. It's taken him awhile to figure it out and I think he's really starting to figure it out."
At cornerback, it's as much about mindset, competitiveness and psychological strength as much as the weight room and stopwatch, and Coyle can see the intangibles sprouting in Ghee. The way he has worked against lightening-quick waterbug wide receiver Andrew Hawkins in the slot is one of the things that has changed Coyle's thinking and now he thinks Ghee can play the slot as well as the outside spots.
"It really helped him going against some really good guys in practice like A.J. (Green) and Jerome (Simpson)," Coyle said. "I think he can play inside and outside. We'll find out in a hurry. They're just not battling for playing time, but they're battling to be starting players."
The call to Triple A is coming. Now the only question is if they show up in The Show.