Russell taxis into roster bid

taxi squad (noun): group of professional football players under contract who practice with a team but are ineligible to participate in official games _ Merriam-Webster

KeiVarae Russell just spent the last year driving Bengals founder Paul Brown's souped-up 21st century version of an NFL cab.

Cincinnati Bengals host OTA's at Paul Brown Stadium Practice Fields.

Remember Russell? Just call him "1.000," or "1-for-1." He's the rookie cornerback from Notre Dame the Bengals plucked off waivers in the second week of last season in the 24 hours after the Chiefs cut him and didn't play defense until the Bengals' last snap of the season. With Ravens quarterback Ryan Mallett at the two-minute warning and down 27-10, Russell knew he was chucking it and jumped wide receiver Breshad Perriman on the sideline for the interception.

"They joke about it when they show the film," says Russell of the teammates that kid him about his loquaciousness. "I get a little happy, so they definitely joke about it."

All kidding aside, Russell's journey to this week's voluntary practice sessions and spot in the guts of the roster joust with impressive play is a peek at how the Bengals are approaching personnel these days with director of player personnel Duke Tobin, head coach Marvin Lewis, and a relatively deep roster that allows them the flexibility to develop with the last seven roster spots. It's also a bow to one of Paul Brown's oldest and most imitated innovations known as the taxi squad. An X-and-O guy knows he's made it when he ends up in the dictionary.

"We saw a raw guy last year that has upside," says secondary coach Kevin Coyle. "He's got skill, speed, and we were impressed with him when he was coming out of Notre Dame. A little rough around the edges. But talented."

The Bengals affixed a third-round grade to the 5-11, 196-pound Russell for the 2016 draft, so when the Chiefs came shopping him during training camp they were all ears. But a spate of injuries in training camp (Tyler Eifert, William Jackson, Andrew Billings) made the Bengals hit the pause button.

When the Chiefs cut Russell a month later on Sept. 14, the Bengals personnel folk and coaches gathered to discuss claiming him. Part of the issue was the broken leg late in his senior year at South Bend because, frankly, he just didn't look like the same guy on film.  But the coaches felt like they didn't need him right away, the scouts felt like he was a player with high-end talent at a high-end position, and both thought that was worthy of the chance at bringing along slowly under the watchful eye of Nick Cosgray, the Bengals' well-regarded and proven chief of rehab.

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Bene Benwikere and Russell are looking for a job in an established secondary.

But the only way to do something like that nowadays give a guy a few a couple of months for whatever reasons is put him on the active 53-man roster in the inactive spots 46-53. Injured reserve would lose him for the year and you wouldn't know what you had on the practice field. Putting him on the practice squad would expose him to waivers every day and a third-rounder that had this report from NFLDraftScout.com, "Russell has the athleticism and cover talent to play press coverage and make a living there … offers that versatility to an NFL team as a future starter or third corner," wouldn't hang out there very long.

In his 1979 autobiography "PB," with Jack Clary, Paul Brown details how the taxi squad was born and died.

 "We had rosters of only 32 or 33 players in those days and wanted to keep extra players (two or three) around the city in case injuries cut down our team. (Owners Arthur) McBride and (Dan) Sherby got them jobs driving taxicabs, and we paid them an additional hundred or so dollars a week to practice with us. There were no rules against this, as there are today …. Some coaches abused it, stashing 20 or more players on a reserve roster. This cut down the availability of players to teams that needed them late in the season and it wasn't fair to the players because it prevented many from playing for someone else and bettering their careers."

Russell didn't look very good early, but he began to get into the flow and with three days left in November against Baltimore he played his first NFL game on special teams, more than two months after the Bengals claimed him.

"I wasn't really hurt. I was recovering essentially from that broken leg I had my senior year," Russell says. "I didn't have that jack step I know I had. Now I'm feeling better. I'm feeling more explosive. … In the offseason my training numbers are off the charts. It's a lot smoother, a lot better."

After all that, it would appear the only spot open is the sixth and last corner job in a heated battle with four-year veteran Bene Benwikere. But you're only as good as the last man. Coyle sees a big press corner that can also slide into the slot, but he also needs to see more consistency.

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Paul Brown: an X-and-O guy who made it into the dictionary.

That's what he told Russell coming off the field Thursday. One play was sloppy and he got beat. The next time around he made a textbook interception.

"It was Cover Two and I didn't get deep enough," Russell says. "I told one of my scouts if they throw it again I'm picking it off and thy tried it again and I'm not going to say what happened."

Russell is a gregarious sort who says things like, "They pay me to make plays," and good-naturedly accepts the riding he gets from his mates in return. He believes he's in a good place after the slow start to his career.

"I understand the coaching a little bit better. I understand the defense a lot better," Russell says. "Obviously I have a lot more room to grow. But I'm a lot more comfortable."

Coyle says it's a matter of stringing snaps together.

"Eliminate the physical and mental mistakes," Coyle says. "Now he's got to prove as he goes through the OTAs and summer camp that he's a consistent quality NFL corner. He's got all the physical attributes. He just has to put it all together."

Russell came through on his post-game vow to leave the interception ball at his Everett, Wash., home for his mother and grandfather. But he's got everything else.

"I've got the cleats hanging up,' he says.

The year in the cab has rolled to a stop.

Cincinnati Bengals rookies visit Ronald McDonald House in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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