Andrew Hawkins is gone…what’s the concern? Worries about letting go of Brandon Tate…why? Avoiding the double dip on top CBs in this year’s draft…he’s got you covered. Onterio McCalebb could be a very exciting player for fans and a very useful weapon for the Bengals this coming year. McCalebb came to the Bengals as an undrafted free agent (UDFA) in 2013. He was national championship winning college running back with the Auburn Tigers in 2010. Since joining the team he’s been transitioning from running back to cornerback, but this team values versatility as one of the top attributes it looks for in its players. His transition is taking time, as is apparent from the lack of a usable NFL action picture, but the young player has shown to be promising while spending last year on the practice squad. It’s for this reason that McCalebb, an essential redshirted rookie, could be one of the most interesting camp stories of 2014.
McCalebb was a dynamic weapon in the run-heavy offense at Auburn. He was a part of several running plays that often involved a sweep of some sorts, enabling McCalebb to utilize his speed, trying to turn the corner and break up field. The Bengals were intrigued by this speed and took a flyer on him as an UDFA. They felt his slight frame (5’10”, 168 lbs) couldn’t hold up within an NFL offense, so they decided to use his speed and quickness at cornerback. He’s worked out with Bengals legend Ken Riley, who also made the offense to defense transition back in the late 1960s. He’s impressed long-time player Terence Newman and head coach Marvin Lewis, both of whom have commented on his improvement. And with a year under his belt, his shot to make the team on defense has improved dramatically. The team elected not to double dip this year with top cornerbacks, only selecting Darqueze Dennard early (they took Lavelle Westbrooks in the seventh round). Maybe this is a sign that the team feels they have a third young, promising corner in McCalebb.
If its history of adoration for versatile players is any sign, the team may see an opportunity to employ the entirety McCalebb’s ability. The league has began to utilize speedy, quick, shifty players like McCalebb on offense more often recently as the league moves ever further into the quarterback centric concept: players like Dexter McCluster, Tavon Austin, Cole Beasley, Julian Edelman, and this year’s selection of De’Anthony Thomas. Wes Welker has proven that this role can be played over the long haul. The Bengals had their own version in the recently departed Andrew Hawkins (to Cleveland). Maybe the injuries Hawkins has suffered in recent years has made the team weary of these types of players, but by not giving McCalebb his shot, they may be selling themselves short. While at Auburn, McCalebb proved to be an effective running back, albeit lacking versatility in his running style, averaging anywhere from 5.4 to an astounding 8.5 yards/carry. He may have been exclusively a speed back utilizing some gimmicky plays, but the Bengals wouldn’t want him to play the “bruising back” role anyway. He also proved he could be an effective receiver out of the backfield, often taking short passes for substantial gains en route to helping Auburn have very successful seasons in 2010 and 2011: 63 receptions for 9.84 yards/catch over his career, most of which came in his final two years. Finally he returned 53 kickoffs for an average of 25.7 yards/return over his college career, that’s including 2 TDs and long returns including 83, 99, and 100 yards. Draft pundits made some comparisons between Tavon Austin and McCalebb at the time, both fitting this versatile role. Although Austin’s stats are clearly more impressive it’s important to take into account the spread offense that Austin played within while McCalebb played within a run-heavy system. Envisioning McCalebb on the field and forcing the opposing defense to account for his big-play ability could really open up the field for the numerous other weapons on the Bengals offense. He would help fill the void left by Hawkins along with Giovani Bernard and Dane Sanzenbacher, as McCalebb’s talents clearly mirror that of Hawkins. So there’s his value with the ball; the resume seems to speak for itself.
Without the ball McCalebb is working to be equally effective. He could easily fill the role of gunner on kick and punt coverages, vacated by Andrew Hawkins, with his speed and agility. The final piece to this puzzle comes back to McCalebb’s ability as a corner in the NFL. Admittedly things get dicey here. First his experience is very little to date and the team has a stud, albeit oft-injured, corner in the slot in Leon Hall. Going forward it may be most prudent to keep him there as much as possible, asking less of both his achilles. That being said the Bengals play in the nickel set most often. Having a sixth corner on the roster who can fill many holes and contribute all over the field only increases his chances of justifying the extra “cornerback.” He also would provide insurance if Hall needs to manage his reps or suffers another injury. This coming preseason will hopefully provide McCalebb with the reps to prove that he is a capable reserve corner in the NFL.
Knowing how to avoid taking full-blown hits and when to go down or get out-of-bounds is key to any of these “slight” players while making an impact on offense. This wouldn’t really be much to learn for McCalebb as he often had to keep this in mind while playing against the often NFL-caliber opposition in the SEC. The team’s belief in McCalebb is evident when teammates and the coaching staff laud his improvement and work-ethic. Their investment is obvious in the time they have given him. Fan’s support for McCalebb as the future triple threat option from Cincinnati should be equally apparent this coming training camp.