One of the first things Bengals head coach Zac Taylor did in 2021 is move Troy Walters, one of those watch list young assistants in the league, to wide receivers coach and it is hard pressed to find an assistant more deserving for an NFL promotion than the man schooling his players on how to beat the hard press.
After a college career Walters became the Pac-12's all-time leading receiver as the classic over achiever (Walters says think Alex Erickson), he scrounged for 102 catches in 98 games as a backup for four NFL teams. He then embarked on a coaching career that took him to six schools in 11 years that included two stints as a prolific offensive coordinator and a nomination for the Frank Broyles Award honoring the top assistant in the nation.
When he was reunited last season with Taylor, one of the precocious Texas A&M grad assistants he predicted he'd work for one day, Walters eased back into the NFL in the role of overseeing the offense's situational breakdowns while assisting wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell.
"The guy has incredible experience," Taylor says. "He's played the game. He's been a coordinator. He sees the game from that picture. That's important to me."
Taylor doesn't remember Walters declaring he'd be working for one of the young guys during the A&M days he shared a closet with fellow GA Clint Kubiak, the Vikings new offensive coordinator. But he does remember how impressed he was with Walters and that he wanted to work with him again.
"He's been a good coach for a long time. He's done some tremendous things in the coaching profession. He was a coordinator on a team that went undefeated and won the national championship," says Taylor, his nod to the University of Central Florida offense that finished No. 1 in scoring in the nation in 2017.
"He's coached a lot of receivers at a lot of places and it was just a matter of time he was in the NFL. I'm glad he's here. He knows what it looks like. He knows what it's supposed to look like when it's really clicking and going the right way."
If anyone at Paul Brown Stadium knows what the best looks like, it is the 44-year-old Walters. He shared a receivers room with four Hall-of-Famers and caught balls from a pair of Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks in Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner while playing in eight post-season games.
"Everything we do is going to be towards that goal. We're not going to do anything that's not with that goal to be the best in mind," Walters says." Once they know you're there to help and can help, they're all in."
When Walters broke into the NFL 21 years ago as a fifth-rounder out of Stanford for head coach Dennis Green's Vikings with one catch, there was Randy Moss and Cris Carter.
When he finished in Detroit in 2007 with nine catches, there was rookie Calvin Johnson, inducted into Canton this year.
When he had a career-high 36 catches for the 2003 Colts, there was Marvin Harrison, not to mention Hall finalist Reggie Wayne.
When Green called Walters again in 2006, this time to the desert and not the tundra (Green, the former Stanford head man, couldn't resist Walters' intelligence and reliability), future Hall-of-Famer Larry Fitzgerald was there in Arizona.
Walters learned plenty from them and how to help receivers of all shapes and sizes. He watched those big, physical guys like Calvin and Fitz, as well as the silky-smooth quickness of the 6-0 Harrison. But he did note a common denominator. It's common because he saw it all around the calendar. One-on-ones in May. Go routes in New England and Green Bay in January.
"They had the dog in them. They wanted to be the best," Walters says. "A lot of people say that. But their actions, what they did in practice each day, reflected that. They were competitors no matter the situation … They wanted to be the best and they went out every day to show that and it translated on Sundays. That was the mindset of each of those guys."
Walters loves what his current guys are thinking, too, even though there is just one wide receiver under contract, slot receiver Tyler Boyd, with more NFL catches than him. He believes Boyd and sophomore Tee Higgins can be elite. He says Boyd's ability to convert third downs puts him among the league's best inside receivers. He calls Higgins ceiling "high."
Walters says he learned a bunch from Bicknell in his return to the league, absorbing the knowledge of a guy that had coached four 1,000-yard wide receivers on four different teams and with any luck would have had No. 5 if Higgins didn't get hurt in the first series of the finale.
"I love the way they want to get better. The way they come to work attacking each day," Walters says. "They understand there are things in their games they can improve to help make them elite. That's what we're going to work on this year is making sure we take care of some of the little things, the detail, the technique, to get them into the elite receivers of the league."
Higgins had a better and healthier rookie year (67 catches and 908 yards in basically 15 games) than Calvin Johnson (48 catches for 756 yards in 15 games) and Walters thought Higgins had a good feel for his body and the length of the season. Higgins battled a hamstring problem that finally caught up to him and knocked him out of the finale while Johnson contended with a lower back injury much of 2007.
"But he fought through it. He's a competitor. You love to see that in your guys," Walters says of Higgins. "He left some plays out there with some contested deep balls he wishes he had back. We'll continue to work on that, but when you look how he made it to the 16th game and he never hit a rookie wall, it was very impressive."
As much as Walters took from his Hall mates, he learned how to stand in front of a room from a Hall-of-Fame coach. He caught more than 69 passes during his four seasons under Tony Dungy in Indianapolis.
"Handling guys. His demeanor," Walters says. "Never too high. Never too low. Just a constant. You know what you're going to get from him. That's big in my opinion. I never want my players to wonder what Coach Walters they're going to get each day. I want to be consistent."
The Troy Walters they're getting is that 9-to-5 dependability that came with a 71.3 percent career catch percentage while roaming special teams. Walters also learned plenty in his two stops with Denny Green.
"He taught me about roles and how important each role is," Walters says. "Know your role. Execute your role. Be your best at your role. It might be the No. 4 or No.5 receiver. Or No. 1. But everybody has a role."
Walters also watched quarterbacks and while he got Manning at the beginning and Warner at the end, he saw enough to know what the Bengals have in sophomore Joe Burrow.
"He's phenomenal. He plays on and off the field above what his status as a rookie or his age. He seems like an eight or nine year vet already to me," Walter says. "He's got the same kind of mindset and the same demeanor and the characteristics of the greats I played with. Peyton Manning. Kurt Warner. Those guys that really know the game, understand the game, understand offense. Understand what the defense is trying to do."
He says Taylor, the kid from the little office in College Station, is more than all right.
"He's going a great job. He's building a culture. He's building a program here," Walters says. "The guys are buying in. He does a lot. He's the head coach. He also calls the plays. He's got his hands in a lot of different areas. He has a vision. And that's what I'm impressed with. He knows where he wants to take the organization and he hasn't faltered through all the adversity. He was always the same. Consistent week in and week out."
That's the goal for his room, too. Like Taylor says. He knows what it looks like.
"That's what my job is. To make you the best," Walters says. "That's why I'm going to coach you hard."