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KeiVarae Russell eying roster spot in crowded cornerback group

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The Bengals grabbed Russell off waivers last year in hopes that some NFL coaching would help him live up to his billing as a third-round draft pick.

Cincinnati Bengals v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The football journey of KeiVarae Russell may be just getting started in the NFL, but it’s been a strange one to say the least.

The former Notre Dame star was one of the better cornerbacks in college football while enjoying a standout career with Notre Dame. But an academic scandal in August of 2014 led to him being suspended for the entire season. He returned in 2015 and went on to record 60 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and four pass deflections in 11 games.

Going into the 2016 NFL Draft, Russell was projected to be selected somewhere in the Round 2-4 range and was viewed as a nice developmental corner. The Kansas City Chiefs wound up spending a third-round pick on Russell, so it seemed that’s where his NFL career would take place for at least the next two to four years.

The Bengals were impressed with Russell going into the draft, but didn’t need to spend a draft pick on him after taking William Jackson III in Round 1.

“We saw a raw guy last year that has upside,” secondary coach Kevin Coyle told Bengals.com. “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.”

However, Russell had a poor showing in training camp and the preseason. The Chiefs were also deep at cornerback, so roster spots were limited already. It didn’t help matters that Russell suffered a broken leg toward the end of his final college season, which led to him being limited during the pre-draft period and his first offseason in the NFL.

“I wasn’t really hurt. I was recovering essentially from that broken leg I had my senior year,” said Russell. “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.”

All of this helped lead to the Chiefs’ surprising decision to waive Russell during final roster cuts. It’s very rare to see a third-round pick waived within his first two years in the league, let alone before he even makes it to Week 1 of his rookie season.

Shortly after Russell was waived, the Bengals claimed him off waivers and kept him on their 53-man roster for all of 2016. He ended up appearing in five games and even made an interception in Week 17 against the Baltimore Ravens, on his first defensive snap of the year.

Thus far in OTAs, Russell has done well after having a full year of NFL coaching and practice experience under his belt.

“I understand the coaching a little bit better. I understand the defense a lot better,” Russell said. “Obviously I have a lot more room to grow. But I’m a lot more comfortable.”

Coyle is also high on Russell for what he brings to the table in terms of talent and physical ability. What Russell now has to do is get the mental aspect down, and we could see a quality NFL corner blossom soon.

“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.”

Even with a world of talent, it will be tough for Russell to make the Bengals’ 53-man roster this year in a secondary that should be loaded. He certainly has his work cut out for him with Darqueze Dennard, Josh Shaw, William Jackson III, Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick already locked into roster spots. There’s also veteran Bene Benwikere who will make a strong push for a roster spot, and rookie Brandon Wilson can play corner as well.

The good news is both Wilson and Shaw could end up being the backup safeties, so Russell may have a good shot at winning one of those final cornerback spots, assuming the team keeps six players at the position. That’s probably how many they’ll keep, especially with Adam Jones facing a potential NFL-mandated suspension.