There may not be a Bengals defender more primed for a breakout 2016 season than Josh Shaw.
This offseason, the second-year defensive back has been working all over the defensive backfield after playing mainly at cornerback as a rookie. Back in the 2015 NFL Draft, Cincinnati used the 120th-overall pick to select Shaw, an all-conference player at USC who played both cornerback and safety.
The Bengals love having versatile players who can play multiple positions on defense, and Shaw looks poised to be the latest Swiss-Army-Knife-type defender in Cincinnati.
But initially, it looked like safety was where Shaw would spend most of his season. With a cornerback unit loaded with first-round Draft picks, Shaw's best chance to play was as a safety, but that was before training camp began.
Since then, William Jackson III suffered a potential season-ending pectoral tear. Dre Kirkpatrick has had an erratic camp. Darqueze Dennard is looking as injury-prone as ever and hasn't returned to practice from his ankle injury. And, Leon Hall chose to sign with the Giants instead of returning to Cincinnati.
All of this is why Shaw has quickly gone from backup safety to starting slot corner. He played there and on the boundary briefly in 2015, but he's in for far more playing time in the slot in 2016.
So far so good, according to Bengals safety George Iloka.
"He has the skills set; he has the instincts. He’s bigger than Leon. How far he goes is based on what he does, Iloka told Bengals.com of Shaw. "He could be a very good nickel for us. Josh has done a good job taking things in stride. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice.
"He’s young in terms of playing the nickel position in this defense, and I’ve been impressed with how fast he’s picked it up and probably the coaches are, too. He’s out there playing fast. That’s one thing he does. Right or wrong. Even if it’s not exactly how they drew it up, he runs around, and he makes plays."
Shaw himself says the process is going well as he's preparing as if this will be his starting job, even if he's relegated to backup duty throughout 2016.
"Each day you get more and more comfortable,’ Shaw said. "You have to have leverage because you’re not split wide like a corner. You’re in between the numbers and the hash. You have to know your help. It could be a safety, a linebacker, sometimes a defensive end. Just knowing where your help is tells you exactly how to play."
Shaw is trying to take what he learned from Hall in 2015 while watching more film of the veteran to see what it takes to be a good NFL slot man.
"You have to watch Leon. Leon was in the system for a long time, and he did an unbelievable job in there in the slot," Shaw said. "Leon was smart. A lot of times he knew what was happening before the play. And I’m lucky now because I’ve got George and (cornerback Adam Jones) alerting me how to react to certain things."
Defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle knows the importance of the guys who may not be listed as starters, but end up playing big roles throughout the season.
"There’s not a starting 11 on defense," Coyle said. "There’s 13, 14, 15 guys that are going to be regulars according to the situation. Josh is a versatile guy, and he’s going to be an integral part of what we’ll do."
In college at USC, Shaw didn't become a full-time starter until 2013, where in the 14 games he started, 11 were at corner and three at free safety. He notched 67 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, seven pass defenses and four interceptions.
It looked as though Shaw was becoming defensive star and a likely top-50 pick in the 2015 draft. However, off-the-field issues in 2014 led to Shaw's stock plummeting to the point where Cincinnati was able to snag him in Round 4.
After a good showing in training camp and the preseason, Shaw played in 15 games in 2015 as he became a key special teams contributor while also getting occasional snaps on defense.
That was thanks in large part to Dennard's season-ending shoulder injury in Week 11, which effectively made Shaw the fourth corner for the rest of the season.
Hopefully that playing time as a rookie, combined with Shaw getting so many reps in training camp, will have him ready to be the starting slot receiver if he's called on this year.