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Taylor-made project?

Reggie Nelson

Welcome to Clinic Central, where Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and secondary coach Kevin Coyle have been in practice for several years now with the shingle out at Paul Brown Stadium rehabbing NFL careers.

They're easy to reach, whether you're on the waiver wire, the trading block, or the scrap heap. 1-800-FIND-A-WAY. The pictures of nickel linebacker Brandon Johnson, safeties Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson, and cornerback Adam Jones are on the wall. And safety Taylor Mays, with the Tests-Like-The-Rock-But-Plays-Like-Kid-Rock tag, is in the waiting room.

"You either change the peg," Lewis said Tuesday upon welcoming Mays, "or you better get a peg that fits the hole."

The Bengals finalized their trade for Mays on Tuesday, ending a two-year flirtation that began with the USC safety on their campus visits. It wound through the 2010 NFL scouting combine and into Draft Day when they considered trading back up into the second round to get him. And it heated up three weeks ago when the team that did get him, the 49ers, told the rest of the league they were shopping him.

Here's a guy it is said has breathtaking straight-line speed but has trouble changing direction and breaking down his SuperHeroes body well enough to make plays.

On Tuesday, Greg Cosell of NFL Films told Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee why Mays was gone after a year.

"The NFL game is about lateral movement and change of direction, and he doesn't have that. ... I thought he was a overall a big-time stiff, and I thought he was very lucky to be picked in the second round," Cosell told the paper.

Just the kind of guy for Clinic Central?

"I'm not a coach. I think people evaluate and say whatever they're going to say regardless," Mays said after practice Tuesday, wearing No. 47. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes. From being here and dealing with this coaching staff, they seem like not just with me but with everybody, they're going to get the most out of every individual player. So hopefully that combination will hit right and we're going to throw a knockout punch."

What is there not to like about Mays? He's 6-3, 230 pounds and ran the combine 40-yard dash so fast his time was debated for days. After Monday night's redeye and Tuesday's 7 a.m. physical, Mays was still at Paul Brown Stadium on Tuesday past 9 p.m. meeting with safeties coach Paul Guenther.

And like Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers says, "He's a great guy off the field and comes from an unbelievably successful family."

But if Mays had a worse rookie year last season in San Francisco, he would have been back in the Pac-10. He didn't play much in his six starts and was pushed out of the starting lineup in the last seven games even though the Niners took him with the 49th overall pick in the second round. Then he struggled on special teams.

Then he was the sixth safety at this training camp when Niners general manager Trent Baalke's office sent a league-wide email advertising Mays' services.

"It's not that it didn't work; it could be a better situation for myself and for them and how things work out," Mays said. "It's nothing personal. Some of the guys in that locker room are my best friends in the world. When I met with Trent and shook his hand as I walked out I wished him the best and he wished me the best. I think it was genuine."

If anyone can relate, it is Crocker. A third-round pick of the Browns in 2003, he was traded to the Falcons after the 2005 season and hooked up with Zimmer in Atlanta in 2007. Both moved on the next year, Zimmer to Cincinnati and Crocker to Miami and when the Dolphins stunned Crocker by cutting him after the sixth game of 2008, Zimmer brought him in off the street nine days later to rescue a secondary obliterated with injury.

Crocker played so well in the second half of the season that he became a team leader, helped set the table for the 2009 AFC North sweep, and won a four-year, $10 million contract in just eight games.

"When I came in here, I still had a world of confidence," Crocker said. "I was just coming from a bad place where I didn't fit in. I just needed to be somewhere I was going to be utilized, where they were familiar with me. I was coming back to a familiar place and I think that was the biggest thing for me.

"Getting back to Zim. He just knew what type of player I was. He just kind of let me play and not put a lot of reins on what I could and couldn't do."

Mays certainly sounds at home. He has never played for Zimmer and Coyle, but they gave him a pretty good going-over when he made a pre-draft visit to PBS in April 2010, as well as at the combine, and at his pro day. There are no promises here. The clinicians' job is to find out why a guy with so many tools had such a bad rookie year and the Bengals have less than two weeks to figure out if he makes the roster.

"Coach Zimmer was tough, concrete; concrete wall, tough," Mays said. "Way a defensive coordinator is supposed to be. I like coach Coyle, I liked his style and what he was about, his philosophy. I was happy. I am just fortunate to be out here in this situation now and try to make the most out of it.

"I don't know (of Cincinnati's rep for rescues). I just know one of my teammates in San Francisco was Madieu (Williams) and he was out here and had nothing but great things to say about this franchise and coaching staff. That was another thing that made this transition easier for me. I trust in it and I trust in ... obviously, I am happy to be here."

Mays can also look at the other starting safety, a guy that was drafted even higher than him. Reggie Nelson was the 20th pick of the 2007 draft by the Jaguars and last year in Cutdown week they shopped him like the Niners just shopped Mays, most likely for a late-round pick in 2012.

Nelson was another guy Coyle coveted on Draft Day and if Michigan cornerback Leon Hall hadn't been there at No. 18, Nelson very well could have been Cincinnati's man then. Three years later the Bengals got him for cornerback David Jones and a conditional draft pick. Now in his fifth NFL season, Nelson has been one of the team's top players this preseason as a dynamo in the run game and a factor in coverage.

"Reggie is very talented," Crocker said. "He's very athletic. He's not only athletic, but he's also a good person, a good kid. He's very coachable. That's one of the things people said he wasn't when he was coming in here, that he wasn't coachable. And that's completely opposite. He's hungry. He can play."

Crocker knows how Zimmer can get it out of Mays. He's seen it before.

"Zim's very good at evaluating talent," Crocker said. "He knows your limitations. He know where you're best suited. He tries to play more to your strength than your weakness. In practice he forces you to work more on your weaknesses than your strengths. Things that you aren't as good at you're really going to practice hard on those things and in the game you'll get much better."

It looked like Mays mostly watched during his first practice, but Lewis thinks after watching Mays' former Niners teammate Manny Lawson adjust fairly seamlessly to this defense after practicing only three weeks that Mays can pick up enough in two practices before playing the Panthers in Thursday's 7 p.m. game at PBS.

"I think a lot of it is general right now; it will be specific when they coach me up in it," Mays said. "I have to get comfortable in it and then see how I can hopefully contribute to this team in whatever way. It is definitely a good feeling and motivated feeling to try to earn the respect of my teammates and the coaches and try to put this team where they are supposed to be. "

Mays knows the Bengals will ask him to play both strong and free.

"You have to know both. It's like any NFL defense. You have to be able to do both. It's a lot of the same stuff but we'll see," he said.

If it sounds like he's 43 instead of 23, he does. He played at a big-time school, saw his draft stock rise and fall like a 401k and then had to handle the fallout of a public auction that included rumors he was headed to the Bears to play linebacker.

"It was tough at first; it didn't affect my confidence," Mays said. "I like to say I feel confident in the potential I had. That's the mentality I had every day and it didn't change. Have that mindset and figure everything would work out and just fortunate that it did at this point."

Sounds like Crocker, doesn't it?

"They speculate and you don't know this or that," Mays said. "That's why I really didn't want to hear, 'you might go here or there.' It's a serious thing. You go to Chicago or you go to Cincinnati or Seattle; it's not like it's a phone call away."

Much like Crocker, it is like Mays is going to a familiar place. Not only have Lewis, Zimmer and Coyle vetted him, but USC teammates Rivers and Rey Maualuga are here, as well as former Niners teammates Lawson and cornerback Nate Clements. Mays walked off the practice field with Maualuga on Tuesday and Maualuga approached the media like Mays' handler.

"No bad questions," he said.

Not today.

"I think it helps. I think it helps it in terms of football, but you have to live in the city as well," Mays said of the familiar faces. "It is more than just being on the practice field that makes it a lot easier. Having older guys like Nate. Not old guys, older guys like Nate helped me out a lot last year and even Rey and guys I have looked up to (like) Keith, makes the transition easier, the social part easier. Then the football part comes along with that."

Maybe it's in the stars that it's the right fit. Mays was born in 1988, the year the Bengals won the right to play the Niners in the Super Bowl. Crocker says this is a good place for him.

"We'll see how it all works out," Crocker said. "What is he going to be doing? Who knows that right now? But we'll be here for him. Whatever he needs."

The clinic is open for business. 

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