Hawkins, Gilberry reflect on CFA climbs

The spark that had them jogging through yesteryear was the sight of 30 temporary lockers clogging up the middle of the normally spacious locker room at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals will hold their rookie minicamp Friday through Sunday.

“When I walked in here and saw those, it took me back five years ago with the New York Giants,” defensive end Wallace Gilberry said.

Ten of the lockers belong to the players the Bengals selected in last month’s NFL Draft, while 12 others are assigned to recently-signed college free agents who will be trying to do anything possible to get noticed, just as Gilberry and wide receiver Andrew Hawkins did at the beginning of their careers.

“I think guys will be coming in and going 110 miles an hour, which is a good thing,” said Hawkins, who speaks with authority after going undrafted out of Toledo, playing two years in the Canadian Football League and getting cut by St. Louis and Cincinnati before re-signing with the Bengals in 2011.

“They have to earn the trust of coaches and teammates,” Hawkins added. “In the grand scheme of things, that is the most important thing – your teammate looking at you and saying that he is doing what he has to do.”

In addition to Hawkins and Gilberry, the Bengals roster features several other CFAs who have proven themselves in the NFL, including Vontaze Burfict and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year and five-time Pro Bowler James Harrison.

According to a study in the Syracuse Post-Standard, there were 412 CFAs on NFL rosters following cut-down day last year compared with 277 first-round picks. Green Bay, St. Louis and New Orleans led the way with 19, the Bengals had 11 and no team had fewer than nine.

“I gravitate to those guys because I have a soft spot for them,” Gilberry said of the CFAs. “I came in through that same door. Actually, it’s not even a door. It’s more like a doggie door. We have to make our own way. When you come in as a free agent, it’s definitely an uphill battle.

“The draft picks are going to get the look before you,” he continued. “You’re not going to have any time to mess up because your reps are limited. You have to take advantage of the time you get. Just keep your head down and buckle in. I’m speaking from experience. I’m not telling you something somebody told me.”

The crop of rookies will arrive Thursday night for what will be the biggest weekend of their athletic careers. In addition to the 10 draft picks and 12 CFAs, the group also includes four CFAs who were on the Bengals roster last year but still qualify as first-year players – linebacker J.K. Schaffer and Brandon Joiner, long snapper Bryce Davis and defensive end DeQuin Evans.

Like Gilberry, Hawkins said he is willing to offer whatever advice the rookies — and especially the CFAs — are seeking because of the way he was accepted early in his career.

“I was thankful that the older guys embraced me when I came in and saw that I was working hard,” he said. “It’s a long process. It’s stressful. There’s so much that goes into it, but a lot of it is out of your hands. They have to come in and bust their butt, but in a lot of ways it’s the luck of the draw.”

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