Taylor Mays admits there had been a time when he cringed when somebody asked if he could play linebacker.
There are just some things you didn't ask a safety.
But now that he has opted for a one-year deal to re-join the Bengals, he sounds fine with it.
"I'd hate it when people asked me if I played linebacker," Mays said last week. "Back in college or a few years ago. But, honestly, you can help the team a lot if a guy plays a couple of different positions and plays them effectively. That's kind of what my mindset is going in. Being as good a safety as well as a good a linebacker as I can be in dime or nickel."
Ever since he came out of the 2010 draft ballyhooed as the next great USC safety, Mays, 26, had been grinding to find his niche in the NFL. At 6-3, 230 pounds, Mays has second-round speed and size, but there are other elements that matter so much more in the league, such as comfort and fit. After a trade on the eve of his second NFL season from San Francisco to Cincinnati, Mays seemed to finally find both last year in the season's first seven and a half games before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury on the last play of the first half against the Jets.
Up to that point in 2013 he had played 203 snaps, or about 43 percent of them, a career-high as one the Bengals' two nickel backers. Mays was grinding to make the team as a safety, but in the preseason finale when starting nickel backer Emmanuel Lamur suffered, oddly enough, the same shoulder injury that would sideline Mays, linebackers coach Paul Guenther (now his new defensive coordinator) grabbed Mays from the secondary and taught him nickel backer in time for the opener.
Mays took enough to the job that he had it before that throwaway last play against the Jets (an innocuous seven-yard) that turned out to be so damaging.
"Obviously I have high expectations for myself. I still consider myself a safety. I still want to be a great safety," Mays said. "But there is more to it. I want to help the team and contribute to the defense."
Mays likes the sound of the word "hybrid," ("It's where the NFL is going") and he just has to look on his own team. There are tight ends playing like wide receivers (Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert), wide receivers playing like tight ends (Mohamed Sanu) and running backs playing like wide receivers (Giovani Bernard).
It looks right now like Mays would be a prime candidate to be the fourth safety (with Reggie Nelson, George Iloka, Shawn Williams) and the sixth backer (take your pick), but so much is up in the air pending the draft. It's hard to anticipate the Bengals adding a veteran at backer or safety.
Mays and the 6-4, 242-pound Lamur have become close by coincidence and circumstance. Lamur is a former college safety who switched to linebacker but has played at times as a safety in the Bengals' sub packages. Mays, on the other hand, is a safety that has played backer in the sub packages.
"E-Man and I are very similar. We can do different things," Mays said. "We were rehabbing together (during last season) and pushing each other. We were talking trash, saying who was going to come back faster or stronger.
"I think he can play safety with the way he moves. It's a hybrid thing. I think we've got some pretty good weapons on defense."
Bengals secondary coach Mark Carrier is one of those USC safeties that made the Pro Bowl (three of them) back in the early '90s, but it was a much different game than it is today.
"Now they don't give you the chance to substitute with all the no huddle stuff and you've got so many offensive players that are versatile," Carrier said. "You need guys big enough to play the run and be able to cover.
"I think (Mays) has matured," he said. "He can see where he fits and his role. He's certainly the kind of guy that can help you."
Carrier is tougher on Mays than most because he is just that, a USC safety, and Mays seems to like the tough love that was personified by former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Mays said he did talk to other teams in free agency, but at 26 more than at 22, it comes down to familiarity.
"There were a couple of different factors for me," Mays said. "I didn't want to go to another team for just one year. I wanted to be somewhere where they knew me to a certain extent. It kind of seems like a new start because we have a new defensive coordinator, but at the same time it's familiar to me and especially coming off an injury last year."
Plus, Mays has a kinship with Guenther. Guenther is the guy that gave Mays "The Tez Treatment," and got him ready in a short amount of time, just like Guenther got rookie middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict ready to play the WILL in 48 hours because of injury in 2012.
"I wanted to be a part of it. I like Coach Guenther a lot. I would say he got me ready to play," Mays said. "His style of coaching and teaching is simple but very complex, almost at the same time. With his attitude and personality, he's one of these coaches that gets a lot out of his players. Sort of like Zim, but in a different way.
"One of the things that is going to make Coach Guenther a good coach is the way he sees defenses in his head. He's going to use players to their strengths."
That's why Mays thinks he fits, even with Lamur back and healthy. So is linebacker Vinny Rey after he excelled in the nickel spot after Mays got hurt. But, as Mays is finding out, you can have strengths even if you're a safety/linebacker.
"I would have been really sensitive to it," Mays said of the title. "I don't see it like that anymore. I see it as an in-between player."