Down here on the corner as the locker room closes up shop, you can get a pretty good representation of the Bengals' offseason as they try to become the first team to win three straight AFC North titles.
(It's a good place to start. During their 20 games that included three in the playoffs this past season, the Bengals pass defense finished first in passer rating and completion percentage allowed, third in passes defensed and fourth in touchdown passes allowed.)
_Relying on the core leaders: No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, heading into his third month of ACL rehab, is talking about the communication he learned from safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell when he arrived two years ago.
"They showed me what it's like to have a connected group like that," Awuzie said earlier this week.. "I've never really been on a team where the locker room looked like this. The DBs meetings on Tuesday (the offday) about football. Outside the building talk about football. It's really amazing to be around."
(Awuzie, who says he's rehabbing in Cincy had no timetable for his return: "I've never been through it before.")
_Progress: Rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, making nine of his first 10 NFL starts in a ten-game winning streak that ended in the AFC title game, is savoring his first taste of the highest level and the Bengals are confident they picked a future building block in the second round.
"That it's a tough league. Nobody is bad," said Taylor-Britt as he pondered what else he's taking with him besides a bag of items from his locker. "Everybody is in the league for a reason. I've seen that week in and week out. With our games and other games. No matter who is on the field."
_Uncertainty: Veteran starting cornerback Eli Apple, coming off what he calls the two best seasons of his career, wonders if there's another shot with the team that revived his career as one of four defensive starters headed into free agency.
Whatever happens, he's grateful to the team and the town.
"It's a beautiful city. (Cincinnati) is underrated. I'll definitely come back," Apple said of a possible visit. "I want to go anywhere I'm wanted. No team like (this one). Can't catch that feel anywhere else. Maybe you could, but I don't know, I've been a lot of other places. It's rare."
ELI's JOURNEY: The Bengals are Apple's fourth team, a former first-round pick whose last stop lasted for two games in Carolina before he was out of the league for the last two months of 2020. But since he arrived two years ago, he's started 36 games, one in a Super Bowl for a team that won 27 of 40 games.
"It definitely brought back the love for the game feeling, especially leaving New Orleans the way I did," Apple said of a trade from the Giants that went awry. "And then going to the Panthers and not making it there and coming here and not knowing what to expect and then having the two best years ever in my life.
"Just toughness and grit," Apple said of what he has learned here. "It was nothing but football out here. Really re-connected with some of the guys from college. Realizing the strong survive. That's the only way. You have to be strong. You have to be tough. Gritty. That's the only way you get these wins and get these streaks. Consistent effort."
CAPTAIN CHIDO: Awuzie doesn't have a captain's "C," on his shoulder, but make no mistake. He's a valued team leader as Bell and Bates step into free agency.
It will be recalled that the Halloween night he tore his ACL, Taylor-Britt started instead of Apple after Apple had been battling some nicks. They ended up becoming the starters that night in a 10-1 run, but Awuzie thought Apple had been wrongly portrayed in unflattering narratives about his play.
"Eli has been my running mate. Him on one side, me on the other side. I always loved his aggressiveness, his style of play, his attitude. It always gave me juice," said Awuzie with a smile as he thought about Apple vocally taking on all comers. "It kind of took eyes off me. 'OK, Eli's talking, I'm having my thing over here.' I really appreciate Eli.
"At corner, when people are looking at you every play, you're not going to succeed. I don't succeed every play. But sometimes it gets heightened more when those eyes are on you. I believe he's always been a great corner, but it's just a matter of in those moments he started to make plays when everybody was looking at him. He did step up in the locker room as a leader, in the meeting room, but on the field his play has always been at a certain standard I think he's always reached that level."
Awuzie has had no problems becoming a mentor to first-round pick Dax Hill, the Michigan safety who ended up playing more slot corner when he was on the field, which wasn't often. He played 14 percent of the snaps in the regular season and was in on only 20 plays in the postseason. But he always seemed to do something positive, like on one of his six plays in the AFC Divisional when he defended a third-down pass to Bills tight end Dawson Knox that put the lead at 17-10 instead of 17-14.
Awuzie sees a bit of himself in Hill and isn't afraid to play the wise counselor role.
"I would say for Dax, it's a matter of, now that you have all this knowledge, use it and try to take something from each position that you learned," Awuzie said. "When hopefully you do hone in on one position, then you know who is around you, what their assignment is. You know what their alignment is. That can lend you to be a better player."
Awuzie, a second-round pick of the Cowboys, had a similar rookie year in 2017.
"When I first came into the league, it was the same way," Awuzie said. "I was playing dime, nickel, safety, corner. I took those knowledge points to, now I know what the corner is thinking. It allowed me to play a little bit more free. I would advise Dax that way."
SUPER HURT: Apple was desperately hoping to play the Eagles in the Super Bowl, the team he grew up watching. They were in the early game last Sunday and Apple was watching that first quarter and saw his buddy and fellow South Jersey native Haason Reddick make some big rushes at outside backer for Philly.
"I knew they were going to win," Apple. "Oooh. Playing the hometown team in the Super Bowl."
By the way, Apple's not going to disappear in the next few months. He'll continue to have his opinions and make them known.
"I'll leave that chip on my shoulder no matter what," Apple said. "I'll talk my biggest trash. Whether I back it up or don't, it doesn't matter. It's a game to me. It's something I love to do. No matter what anybody on the outside has to say."
One thing on his agenda is travel. Apple plans to do a football camp in Ghana in March.
CTB PLAN: "This is a big offseason for me," Taylor-Britt said.
So he plans to work out in either Dallas or Atlanta working on: "Change of direction, getting out of my breaks, having good feet on the line. Working on different coverages. I want to keep my eyes where they need to be on certain route combinations."