One man's absence is another man's opportunity (or something like that) when it comes to the NFL.
Antoine Winfield has chosen to stay away from the Minnesota Vikings' offseason practices – both the mandatory minicamp and the voluntary organized team activities – creating an opportunity for third-year pro Marcus McCauley to revive his career.
"Any opportunity to get on the field, you want every rep, regardless if it's first or second team. They evaluate everybody every play, so I just try to do my technique to the best of my ability and try to get better. I don't really view it as first team or second team, nor does anybody else," said McCauley.
The former third-round draft pick should know how much this could mean to him. He hasn't had many good opportunities to prove himself since his rookie season.
Last year he was expected to compete for a regular role in the nickel defense, but injury sidetracked his progress in the preseason and he was never able to get establish himself back on the divisional championship train.
This offseason is presenting him an opportunity to find a seat right in the heart of the cornerback corps. With Winfield gone, McCauley has been taking the majority of the reps at left cornerback and staying at that position when the team goes to a nickel defense.
"I'd paint that probably the same way when John Sullivan had a chance to go when Matt Birk wasn't around last year. It's a great opportunity," head coach Brad Childress said. "There's no downside to him getting elevated reps. Really, everybody else's reps elevating as well."
While the reps in practice certainly have to help McCauley's confidence in how he plays within the defensive scheme, there also could be an emotional hurdle he's crossing after basically being left behind last year after his preseason knee injury, suffered before a scrimmage with the Kansas City Chiefs on Aug. 1.
McCauley played in less than 5 percent of the team's defensive plays during the regular season and was inactive for six of them, while other reserve cornerbacks like Benny Sapp and Charles Gordon (despite suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Week 10) played between 25 to 30 percent of time on defense, according to a league source.
"Of course last year was a tough time. I feel like my best years of football are ahead of me. Everybody goes through adversity every year. It's just that I got mine out of the way when I was young," McCauley said. "All you can do is get stronger from that. Last year was a big learning experience for me. It just taught me that you have to work continuously to get better in this league. Our team is trying to win, we're trying to win every game, so everybody is held accountable and they want the best person for the job."
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said McCauley's attitude has been exemplary.
"From the time that we started our offseason program back in April, his attitude and his demeanor, everything has been A-plus. He's off to a good start here (in minicamp), and I'm just looking forward to seeing him progress. This is his third season in the league, and you have to believe that this is the year that things will really come into play for him. So we're excited about where he is and where he will be."
While Winfield's absence has created an opening for McCauley, there is one downside for McCauley. He doesn't get to watch and learn from a Pro Bowl cornerback, something he did last year and likely will do when Winfield returns.
"I try to watch him and reflect on the things that I need to work on. … It really helped me last year to have to sit there and watch," McCauley said. "I just think that Antoine plays with passion. That's his game. If you play with passion, everything else will follow you. He's got great athleticism. He's a great player, period. He's seen it all. Just to be able to sit back and watch him helps me a lot."
McCauley is hoping that progress will be put into play this year after a mentally trying 2008 season.
"All I can do is move on," McCauley said. "I just try to take it day by day, play by play and try to get better."
CB McCauley moving forward
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