Thanking his parents for what the Bengals training staff calls "unbelievable genes," cornerback Chidobe Awuzie plans to go from this offseason's rehab to this season's Pro Bowl while also taking on a bigger leadership role.
Coming off of the Halloween ACL tear, Awuzie is confident he'll regain the skills that allowed Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo to make him his traveling No. 1 cornerback.
"That's my plan. I feel like the past two years I've been a Pro Bowl player. Honestly, Pro Bowl caliber, whatever you want to call it," said Awuzie Wednesday, his first day of running on the anti-gravity treadmill. "But the eyes weren't on me and that's cool.
"I think my physical capability won't drop off. I feel confident I can come back 100 percent. And even better."
Leaving the locker room carrying the book "The Art of Becoming Oneself," Awuzie is also looking at expanding his already wide berth in the locker room in the wake of the departures of safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell. Bates and Bell were towering cultural figures and Awuzie knows what's needed and is even prepared to take the lead in those player-only secondary meetings Bell masterminded.
"It feels like the end of world for a couple of days. They're your brothers, but we are here," said Awuzie, his locker next to Bates' empty stall hammering the message home. "I wanted to be able to play the last snaps with my guys. That's disheartening. The reality of it is hitting me now. It makes you a little more serious that it's important for me to get as healthy as quickly as I can.
"We came in and Vonn and Jessie set a great stage for us with a platform where we can be the best players we can be. Now that those guys are gone, it's only right we can take up that torch. The goal every year is to always contribute more, put more on your plate, challenge yourself."
The NFL rang in its new economic year Wednesday on the first day free agents could sign with their new teams and the Bengals continued to adjust to a salary cap world where three of their core players, quarterback Joe Burrow, wide receiver Tee Higgins and linebacker Logan Wilson, are eligible for extensions.
Joining Bell and Bates on other teams are running back Samaje Perine and tight end Hayden Hurst. All but Bates arrived via free agency and all but Perine signed around this time. So did Awuzie and slot cornerback Mike Hilton, the vets Anarumo knows will pick up that torch, as well as safety and special teams captain Michael Thomas.
"I think there are roles that need to be filled and it has to be me and Mike," Awuzie said. "We plan to definitely be more vocal, more wordy about certain things not sliding by and we've got Michael Thomas back who can do all that and a bag of chips."
Awuzie still won't put a timeline on his return. He knows knees are tricky and serious and he wants "to stay humble." The goal, he says, is always Opening Day. He may be able to start cutting as soon as the middle of April, five months after his Nov. 16 surgery. And he says he feels good, popping beads of sweat pushing a weighted sled and going through what he says is about his 100th straight day of leg training.
"Usually you strengthen your legs one or two times a week. I'm doing it five, six times a week," Awuzie said. "If I continue that even when I'm able to start cutting and do all that stuff, I'm going to be a better athlete. I'm confident in that, that's what I'm hoping for."
There's no question that the DBs-only meetings on Tuesdays and then later in game week are going to continue. The only question is who is going to replace Bell as the pointer.
"Those (meetings) are kind of built into the culture, so that will definitely stay," Awuzie said. "The way those work, it's a collaborative thing. Vonn would run the pointer and go through the cut-ups. People were shouting all the time, things that they saw. It will continue to be that way. Very collaborative. Now we just have to find someone one to click the button on the pointer."
It sounds like there could be a few of them pointing the way.