If you want to know how far Bengals cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt has come from last year's second round, just turn on the tape. Cornerbacks coach Charles Burks did before the Bengals went out to practice Tuesday and Taylor-Britt recoiled at the clip from early in his first training camp.
He mangled his technique on cover two and the guys were getting on him. Mike Hilton in the lead, maybe. Heck, he was getting on himself.
"It was just horrible," Taylor-Britt says after practice. "We were like, 'Oh my goodness.' It looked totally different now. Now that's what you expect To get better every year because you're working. Learning the game. The NFL, it's a different thing. They go at players, not plays. You have to be ready for that."
The chatty CTB is ready for everything and anything after last year. "It was a very long year," he remembers. "Not the traditional rookie year," Burks calls it. CTB will tell you himself how rocky his start was, even alluding to the non-football struggles. "Spending quality time with my family," he says, feeling more settled after splitting his offseason between his two new hometowns of Atlanta and Cincinnati. Adding to the more grounded feel is a 16-week-old puppy.
"Growth-wise. Just maturity on and off the field," CTB says.
The details of everything from the daily schedule to the individual techniques would sometimes escape him a bit early on as he discovered this wasn't Nebraska and Birmingham, Ala., anymore. And to make it even tougher, that early snap was one of his only ones because he lost most of his camp and all of his preseason to surgery.
Then, as they say, the rest is history. The Halloween night No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie tore his ACL, Taylor-Britt was already making his first NFL start just two weeks after his debut. Then Awuzie went down near halftime and the Bengals didn't lose with CTB starting until the AFC title game and Burks will tell you he felt like CTB was his best cornerback in the playoffs.
Pro Football Focus agrees with him. The web site graded Taylor-Britt as the Bengals best player in coverage during the AFC Divisional win in Buffalo and the conference championship game loss in Kansas City. In the three playoff games, PFF says, he allowed just four catches and 33 yards on 13 targets. Burks didn't blink putting CTB on Bills Pro Bowler Stefon Diggs one-on-one and Diggs is still fuming. Taylor-Britt held Josh Allen's big target to 11 yards on two catches and three targets and now they're talking about Taylor-Britt's growth and Diggs is sitting out the spring.
Hilton, the NFL's best slot cornerback, and safety Mike Thomas, the special teams captain and resident locker room whisperer, are talking about how Taylor-Britt is more engaged in meetings and more vocal on the field. "Now, he's the first guy up in Coach Burks' office watching film," Hilton says.
See the best photos from Wednesday practice at Kettering Health Practice Fields.
"He wasn't this wide-eyed guy that came in wondering what was going on," Thomas says. "He was already a player that knew the game and understood what his role was. 'You get it. So let's clean up the other stuff so you can excel even more and make that jump faster.' And that light has come on. The success he had as a rookie and being able to build off that instead of trying to start over and that shows the leadership inside him. I love the way he's working so far. I think he'll do just fine stepping into his leadership role.
"You make your biggest growth from year one and year two. He realizes now we're leaning on him more even though he's a young guy."
When he made that Halloween start, he had just celebrated his 23rd birthday two weeks before. Now he's got skins dangling off the wall with a dozen stretch-run starts under him, three in the playoffs with an interception that capped off his stoning of Diggs and ignited the celebration in the snow. Next to Awuzie, Hilton, and backup Jalen Davis, he's got the most snaps of any cornerback in the system.
"Things happen. It's how we respond to them. I think that's where the maturity comes in," Burks says. "He responded the right way. Understanding how it affected him, ultimately. He loves football. That's something I really appreciate about Cam. He's very passionate about football. Very passionate about this team. Very passionate about people in general.
"This is a guy that is not only ready to have a solid sophomore season, I think he's a leader. Cam is very demanding of his teammates. You can see it and hear it."
When CTB looks at the tape, this is what he sees differently:
"Patience off the line. Getting out of my breaks as fast as possible. No false steps … Just feeling more comfortable."
Off the field, he seems just as comfortable. He says Zeus, the young North American mastiff, is keeping him as busy as ever. His brother is also here.
"I wanted to get everything in my life situated as one. I feel like I finally have it," Taylor-Britt says. "I love playing the game. I guess you could say it keeps me out of trouble. My brother stays with me now. Just like my Momma. He's here for a reason. It keeps me straight. (Cincinnati is) pretty much home."
Hilton is still chuckling about that mangled snap. But he also saw the clip Burks ran right after that showing CTB doing it the right way.
"Looking at him now, that's a whole different Cam," Hilton says. "The thing about this league is when your number is called, you have to be ready. Or you get left behind and I think he understood that. Since his number has been called, his trajectory has gone nothing but up."
If the biggest jump is between year one and year two, it makes you wonder. Burks says CTB has enough intangible traits to be one of the best in the game. He says we've yet to see Taylor-Britt display his ample ball skills, which he puts on a par with the multiple Pro Bowler he coached in Miami, Xavien Howard.
"He can be one of the top young corners in the game. You can see how athletic he is and he's not afraid to tackle. He's a guy that can really be around a long time," says Hilton, who has been around a long time. "He's growing up. That's a great sign for us as a secondary for one of our main guys to really mature and understand his role has gotten bigger this year."
A year later, Zeus isn't the only big dog in the house.
"Totally different player," Taylor-Britt says.