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More than a numbers game


First-rounder Cedric Ogbuehi, with offensive line coach Paul Alexander, is now lockering next to Andrew Whitworth.

The Bengals took their 2015 team picture Monday and no one knows if it going to be an Instagram of immortality or infamy, which is why they play the games. And why when they call it a numbers game, it is, instead, always about the people.

Veterans and rookies.

People like Chris Carter, the fifth-year linebacker who won a job after moving on from two other teams. He couldn't stop smiling wearing No. 51 after a career he has worn No. 54 in Pittsburgh, No. 53 in Indianapolis, and No. 56 here last year. Not to mention No. 49 in training camp.

"I could have stayed at No. 49, but I won the right to have an option," Carter said. "A great player already has my number. George (Iloka) has 43, my number in college. I envisioned myself as a Troy Polamalu, just having that passion not the position."

This is a tough game. For the past two seasons No. 51 belonged to linebacker Jayson DiManche. But on Thursday night in the pre-season finale he suffered a season-ending injury.

Now the number belongs to Carter.

"I think it fits me," Carter said. "It doesn't remind me of anybody. It's a clean slate. It's something for me to start something new. Kind of go out and make a name for myself."

Across the locker room another fifth-year player reflected on his new lease on life. The Bengals cut Greg Little after last season and he was still out there the day training camp started when the Bengals needed receivers in the wake of James Wright's season-ending knee surgery.

Plagued by inconsistent play (read drops) as well as sporadic play on special teams during his four previous seasons in the league, Little won an uphill roster battle by catching the ball, covering kicks and having a believer in head coach Marvin Lewis. He says that shot of faith helped.

"Charles Woodson said after I think their third or fourth preseason game that their coach really understands them,"  Little said of the Raiders' Jack Del Rio. "He has a relationship with him. I think that's what Marvin has here. It's great that Marvin has such a tight-knit relationship and he knows individuals on his team. That's important to cultivating a veteran type of team. You have to know what you're dealing with and what kind of guys that you're dealing with."

For Little, he always believed if he was with a team from the outset of training camp, he could prove he was one of the six best receivers. Not all six are going to dress. The only ones for sure are The Big Three and Brandon Tate  and either Little or rookie Mario Alford will be the fifth to suit up in Oakland.  At the moment, he'll keep doing what he's doing.

"it's not where you're coming into a middle of the season and you're learning as you go," said Little of what happened to him last year when he joined the Bengals in October.  "There is a little bit more time to spend on the details of installations in training camp. I've never had a problem with learning any system. I've played in quite a few in my career in the NFL. That's never been a problem. I just knew that that's all that I needed."

And then there are veterans like left tackle Andrew Whitworth  who have never been near the roster bubbles in their lives. In fact, coaches put veterans like Whitworth in the bubble of rookies.

First-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi's new locker is in the middle of Whitworth (to his right) and left guard Clint Boling (to his left). Boling is emerging as a leader in his first year of a five-year deal, but at some point in the next few years, Whitworth is the guy Ogbuehi is going to replace.

"He's a great kid," Whitworth said. "I think he's going to be a great one if all the physical stuff works out. He's extremely smart, he's really diligent about learning what to do and how to learn it. And you look at him and you know he looks like an NFL tackle."

Whitworth doesn't mind that the obvious intent is for him to shower Ogbuehi with knowledge.

"It means a lot to me that the guy who comes after me is good, too," Whitworth said. "Like I came in behind Levi (Jones) and Willie (Anderson). Sometimes I'm a little hard on him, but I understand the job."

Rookie safety Derron Smith, a sixth-rounder,  understood that a veteran no longer here had a hand in helping make the club. Shiloh Keo, a fifth-rounder himself in 2011 for the Texans, arrived right after the season with 42 NFL games under his belt, most of them under Vance Joseph when the Bengals cornerbacks coach ran the Houston secondary.

Smith, known for his brains while coming up with 15 career picks in 40 straight starts for Fresno State, had no problem figuring out that he and Keo were gunning for the same spot.

"The Bengals have usually kept four safeties," Smith said. "You got three solid already here in George (Iloka), Reggie (Nelson) and Shawn (Williams). At the same time he was a good guy, good player, he helped me out a lot. "

Smith said, no really, it wasn't awkward.

"Not at all," he said. "That just goes to show the professionalism on his half. Both of us fighting for a spot but at the same time being able to go out there and work together as a safety tandem." 

When the news arrived Saturday via text from safeties coach Mark Carrier that he had made it, Smith was smart enough to know he got more than a blue ribbon.

"This is one of the most loaded rosters in the NFL," Smith said. "To make this team is definitely an accomplishment on my behalf but I couldn't have done it without my family, friends and help of the vets here. It's definitely exciting times. "

So he did what any 23-year-old kid would do.

"I let my parents know, let my brother know. They were all excited," Smith said. "It was definitely a joyous time for me and my family. "

No numbers game. Just people wearing numbers over their stories in a team picture.

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