No matter how hermetically sealed the Bengals roster appears, fraught with young players from back-to-back playoff runs, figure on one or two of those undrafted free agents making the Opening Day roster.
It's all in the numbers. In the last five seasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, an average of 49 college free agents (CFAs) have seen the opener. That works out to 1.5 per club and the Bengals are right there with six (or 1.2) since 2008.
And last season, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard, a total of 412 current or former college free agents made Opening Day rosters, representing 24 percent of the league. The Bengals, with 11, had 21 percent of that Sept. 10 roster in Baltimore composed of CFAs.
Forget the numbers. Just look at a guy like Andrew Hawkins.
He was supposed to be undersized at 5-7, 180 pounds, and underdeveloped at the University of Toledo. But it hasn't stopped him from becoming one of Cincinnati's more effective un-weapons. A slot wide receiver that lines up anywhere and pulls double duty as a gunner on punt coverage while doing other odds and ends for special teams coach Darrin Simmons, Hawkins has been worth double his weight in versatility.
"That's why I'm here. If I didn't have so many roles I might not be on the team," Hawkins said Monday before working out with the other receivers at Paul Brown Stadium. "Everyone has their role and what they're supposed to do. That's just who I am and who I've always been and I think that's one of the things that helped keep me around here from the start."
Wise words for the dozen CFAs that converge on PBS Thursday night for the start of the rookie minicamp that takes the field Friday morning. After a morning and afternoon practice both Friday and Saturday, the session ends with a Sunday morning workout before the rookies take the field with the veterans in the first combined OTAs from May 20-23.
(All spring workouts are closed to the public.)
Hawkins is the PowerPoint reason head coaches like Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis constantly tells his locker room it only matters what you do when you get to the NFL. That's because there is no MapQuest to NFL Network, no GPS to profootballreference.com.
Hawkins endured unemployment, a two-year apprenticeship in Canada, a release by the Rams, and a two-week stint on the Bengals practice squad before sticking for good on the active roster in the third game of the 2011 season. And even then it took a season-ending ACL injury in Denver to Jordan Shipley.
"Sometimes it is the luck of the draw. There are guys who the Bengals and other teams will let go who are guys that can play 10 years in the NFL," Hawkins said. "That's the reality of it. They may go play in the CFL or they may never play again. I just know that from experience and seeing guys who can play in the NFL. There are some who are a phone call from never playing again. If you come in and work hard, you give yourself the best opportunity."
Take another guy? How about new Bengals SAM backer James Harrison, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year who got cut as many times as he went to a Pro Bowl.
Somewhere between Hawkins and Harrison is the norm and CFAs are becoming more and more the norm. According to Elias, in '08 a total of 33 CFAs made Opening Day rosters while 60 made it last season.
And although there are, by far, more CFAs than first-rounders, second-rounders-, or third-rounders, the Post-Standard's chart shows that players taken in the top three rounds made up only 40 percent of the 2012 Opening Day rosters.
The Bengals, led by Opening Day CFA starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis at running back, were smack in the middle of the pack with 11 current or former CFAs at the beginning of the season. Teams averaged 13 CFAs, led by the Packers, Rams and Saints with 19. The Chargers, 49ers, Giants and Texans had the fewest with nine.
But that was at the beginning of the season. Even more CFAs end up on rosters at the end of the year because they make up the majority of the eight-man practice squads. One for the Bengals, Kansas State linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, made his first NFL start in the playoffs.
Tennessee-Chattanooga cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris played in that game in Houston when cornerback Jason Allen and safety Chris Crocker couldn't go because of injuries.
As Hawkins loves to say, "You never know." Lewis-Harris wasn't even here at last year's rookie minicamp. He wasn't signed until the Bengals DBs started going down like flies in the spring and he was brought in a day before training camp started and then got promoted from the practice squad for the last two games.
Naturally, Hawkins is going to empathize with the CFAs when everyone shows up May 20 and he'll be reaching out.
"I'll talk to anybody. I'll talk to anybody that's willing to listen. That's how I am. Because I was the type of player that liked to have people talk to me and give me pointers and give me advice," Hawkins said. "It's tough for young guys because you don't know who to trust. That's the reality of it. But eventually everything works itself out and guys realize I have their best interest at heart.
"I know (what) it entails. It's a long process, it's stressful. There's so much that goes into it but a lot of it is out of your hands. In some ways they have to come in and bust their butt. But in a lot of ways it is the luck of the draw."
Also, just as naturally, the 5-10, 170-pound Onterio McCalebb, the CFA running back from Auburn who ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, has intrigued Hawkins. Hawkins's brother, Artrell, a 5-10, 190-pound cornerback the Bengals took in the second round of the 1998 draft, is often fond of saying that if Andrew had his size along with that slot receiver speed, he would have been a first-round pick and not undrafted.
McCalebb not only didn't get picked, he has to change from offense to defense when he shows up Thursday at PBS as a cornerback for the first time since high school.
"That's a testament to what kind of athlete he is, the fact that they think they can bring him in and completely switch positions. I know he's a blazer. Any time you're that fast, that's half the battle," Hawkins said. "I'm interested to see how that goes."
Of course he is. There have been times the Bengals have brainstormed about putting Hawkins back there if needed.
"I'm sure I've a got a little emergency corner in me," he said with a smile.
When he reaches out to McCalebb and the other CFAs if they're interested, the speech is going to be the same.
"You bust your (butt) and you give yourself the best chance. That's it. It's not much more complex than that. You are what you are. If you bust your butt, that's half the battle," he said.
"I think guys will be coming in and going 110 miles an hour, which is a good thing. They have to earn the trust of coaches and teammates and in the grand scheme of things that is the most important thing, your teammate looking at you and saying that he is doing what he has to do. I was thankful that the older guys embraced me when I came in and saw that I was working hard and most of the rookies from my class are the same way. I think that's what these guys are going to come in and do. They sound like good guys and they have that chip on their shoulder and work ethic, which is good for us."
Not only does Hawkins talk to anybody, he talks to his brother on air. Artrell Hawkins, a 10-year NFL veteran of the previous decade, is a nationally syndicated Fox Sports radio host who also hosts the podcast "Glasshouse" on HawkandFish.com. He'll have Andrew on a link posted Tuesday morning and they'll no doubt talk about many things.
Not only his CFA journey, but the impact of the first-round draft pick, Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, on the offense. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is looking at using more two tight-end sets, but he's also not going to deep-six the three-receiver set. That is how he gets Hawkins's playmaking on the field, as well as other possibilities.
Last season Hawkins broke open the Browns win with a 50-yard touchdown catch that ripped through a seam in the Cleveland defense with his speed in the open field, and he helped set the tone for the Giants win when he ran in an 11-yard flip out of the backfield for a touchdown. Although he doesn't figure to be on the field in two tight-end sets, Hawkins knows it will help.
"You can never have too much of one thing, which is why you get more weapons. Honestly, mixing it up, two tight ends, the better we are at that, the better we are at three receivers," Hawkins said. "Anytime you have too much of one thing and don't have a mix, it's easy for teams to game plan you and figure out what you're doing. With the more options it will open everything up. Even if it's not as much, there will be a lot more big hitters."
The Bengals wouldn't mind cutting back on Hawkins's hits. With 575 snaps from scrimmage, only Pro Bowler A.J. Green played more at the receiver spot for the Bengals, according to Pro Football Focus. Throw in another estimated 150 plays on special teams, and that's a lot of pounding for a small guy.
Hawkins, of course, wants nothing to do with cutting back.
"Not even a little bit," said Hawkins, asked if he felt worn down by the end of the season. "I actually felt the best all season at the end of the season. You get used to it. I felt the best at the end of last year than I ever have in all my years of playing football."
Sounds like a true CFA at heart. Here's a guy that has caught 74 balls in his career, four for touchdowns and 29 on third down. Last year, his 18 catches on third down were second on the team to tight end Jermaine Gresham's 21. Plus, he was a huge factor in punter Kevin Huber leading the NFL with punts inside the 5.
"It's May. Anything could happen. I could get let go. It's the NFL. You never know," Hawkins said. "You just can't count any eggs before they hatch. All I do is come in here, work my butt off and the rest will take care of itself. That's all you can do."
Spoken like a true CFA.