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Vets leading backers


Vincent Rey has been a go-to-guy early in camp as the backers try to settle in.

One thing you can say about Bengals rookie P.J. Dawson. He's picked the right guys to emulate in the linebackers room.

"It's me wanting to be the best player on this team. I have to learn from the guys who have been here. That's the only way I can overcome them," said Dawson as he stood in the locker room runway, helmet still strapped 10 minutes after Thursday's practice. "Mostly all the linebackers."

At the moment, saying the Bengals linebackers picture is a bit unsettled is a little like acknowledging Donald Trump won't be attending the Fox winter cotillion with Megyn Kelly.

Everyone is holding their breath on Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict, whose return is penciled in for the week of Aug. 22 or so. He's the heartbeat of the defense so they're being cautious. They are also being careful with the hamstring of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, yet to take a snap in camp. Backup outside backer Marquis Flowers is nursing an unknown ailment. And Dawson is going through the obligatory growing pains.

At this point the Bengals' decision to sign Packers veteran backer A.J. Hawk should enter stage left with a bow. Hawk has been working at both WILL and SAM and, as noticed by Maualuga the other day, "He's playing special teams, too…I admire a guy coming in like that. Like it's his first contract."

So the first team for the first week has been Hawk at WILL, Emmanuel Lamur at SAM and the vicar of versatility, Vincent Rey, in the middle.

Dawson's decision to latch on to one veteran in particular, Rey, the highly regarded special teams co-captain, is the kind of solid decision the Bengals hope Dawson keeps making as they try to mold him into a pro.

"I talk to Vinny more. He's more of a leader of a few things on the team. Nothing wrong with being like Vinny," Dawson said. "Just his leadership and the way he does things right."

 Which is funny because Rey is the anti-Dawson.

 Unheralded and undrafted out of the football backwater known as Duke, Rey wasn't invited to the 2010 NFL scouting combine and only entered the consciousness of the Bengals with hellacious measurables at his pro day. Then after getting cut as a rookie, he made the disciplined crawl to Solid Regular by paying attention to all the minute details, first as a special teamer and then as a valued backup. The man who played 113 snaps in his first three seasons played 952 last year and finished 12th in the NFL in tackles.

"I'm trying to do things the best I can. …Learning from Vinny, I can't go wrong," is how Dawson sees it and that's a good call.

Now here comes Dawson five years later out of the football citadels of Dallas and Texas Christian. He swarmed to Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and when he led the league in tackles, a third-round selection was right behind. Even though he had to fight the intangibles question as evidenced by CBS draft guru Rob Rang's conclusion, "Comes with typical JUCO questions about his maturity."   

Head coach Marvin Lewis alluded to as much in his Thursday's news conference when asked about Dawson's progress.

"I think, in that fashion, P.J. has listened and heard well. I think I'd probably give him a star for understanding that it's not about him anymore," Lewis said. "Generally,  (offensive players) should never touch the ground."

But he sounds pretty mature these days after he didn't hit the ground running in the spring. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who has been on him about how big the details are, likes what he's seen  the last couple of days. With people down, Dawson has been working at WILL backer on the second and third teams.

He had an active day Thursday with a few stops in the running game and knocked down the last pass of the day flung by little-used fourth-teamer Keith Wenning.

But Guenther wants to see more. They love his instincts, but the reason they signed Hawk is so they can have experience at WILL until Burfict returns from his micro fracture knee surgery while Dawson learns the ropes.

"He's got to learn to be consistent. Be a pro. Learn what it takes as far as being an NFL player. Studying," Guenther said. "He has the talent to be a very good player. I've seen guys like this before. If he puts his mind to it, keeps his mind to it, he'll have a bright future. He's got to learn how to be consistent every day. His attention to detail. It's part of being a young player."

Dawson sounds like he has bought in. He was the last player off the field Thursday after working by himself on a dummy with arms hanging by its sides.

"I need to be using my hands more. That's my weakness," Dawson said. "I'm more of a finesse guy. I just want to be able to use my hands more and be an all-around player."

That admission can make a coach cringe. But Dawson is showing he knows what he needs to do to prove to the coaches he's ready.

"There aren't many finesse linebackers in the NFL. He's got to learn to be an NFL linebacker it takes using your hands and being physical," Guenther said. "And being in the right spots. He's a rookie player. He has to put one day on top of the other and the light will come on eventually. He's on to things a little better now. He started off a slow. He's picked up things the last couple of days."

Rey, of course, is downplaying his impact. But that's what leaders do.

"If he needs a ride, or if he's got a question about how the NFL works, I help him out," said Rey, who studied at the knee of Dhani Jones and took his No. 57 to honor him when Jones left. "I know how it works. I've been here. I've got a little bit of knowledge.

"From what I've learned, he just needs to be consistent in doing what our coaches are telling him," Rey said. "What he needs is what I need. I need to be more consistent, too. I may be a little more consistent, but I've got some years on him. He's only been in the NFL a couple of months, you've got time."

Like former Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes (in town Thursday for Sirius NFL Radio), Rey is impressed with Dawson's instincts.

"One thing I will say about him is that he's a very savvy guy on the field. He has a good feel for the game," Rey said. "He was a heck of a college player. The key in the NFL is consistency."

Dawson is showing he's savvy enough to say it's not the Big 12 anymore when he realized he has to make adjustments.

"I'm just humbling myself more," Dawson said. "I see how the team looks at Vinny. I don't want to start here like I left college. I want to prove to everybody I can be that leader. That they can come to me for anything."

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