Craig Mager doesn’t need to look at the depth chart to know where he stands.
With a trio of established veterans in Jason Verrett, Brandon Flowers and Casey Hayward leading the way at cornerback, he understands what his role will be in 2016. For now, the second-year cornerback is content serving as their back up, determined to fill in without missing a beat whenever called upon.
If anything, Mager learned last year how important that role is to the success of a team. Whether through injuries, personnel packages or matchups, he knows he can be thrust into action at a moment’s notice.
“I just want to be a security blanket for those guys,” he said. “If they ever need a breather, or if something happens, they can tap out and I’ll go in and they know they won’t miss a beat. So I have to focus and prepare for every single receiver because I don’t know who I might have to replace. I need to study nickel packages, slot receivers, outside players. So I just try to study and learn three little things from each guy. If I can break it down to that and remember those three things, I’ll be good for the game.”
Mager entered the NFL a raw 5-11, 200-pound product out of Texas state. His first year was a learning experience as it was a monumental jump to the NFL from Sun Belt Conference. Still, the cornerback flashed the skillset that prompted the Bolts to select him 83rd overall in the third round of the draft. He finished with 11 tackles and two passes defensed in limited action.
“Last year was a growing process. Watching myself on tape last year, a lot of my breaks weren’t smooth and I wasn’t paying attention to the smaller details. This year I’m really concentrating on them. Like a six inch step. Six inches means it has got to be six inches. I’ve got to keep my thumbs up when I jab. So I’m picking up the smaller details, and I’m starting to realize how precise everything has to be. Last year I was just focused on lining up correctly.”
The 23-year old’s learning curve was so steep, he explained last season was the first time he ever lined up in the slot.
“I like lining up there, but playing nickel was a big adjustment because I’d never played there once in college. Now I have some live NFL reps in the nickel, so I feel better. I don’t mind playing in the slot. I like it. It was my first time and now I feel a lot more comfortable there.”
Even though Mager is embracing his role as a backup for the time being, in order to make that next leap, he is soaking up as much knowledge as possible from the trio of established vets, melding parts of their game into his own.
“The biggest thing I learned from Jason was actually just to know which hash the ball is on,” Mager said. “I really never thought about that too much coming to the NFL, but numbers and the hash are so different than in college. So just know where the ball is, and that is how you can play your leverage. (Flowers) taught me to be ready when the ball gets there. Coaches teach technique, and of course you want to be a good technician, but at the same time you have to make the play no matter what. Focus on what you want, but as soon as the ball gets there, make sure you break it up no matter how. And Casey, I love him to death. He is a cool guy, meshing well with all of us, and he is showing me most how to be myself. He has been doing what he’s done because he is true to himself, so that is what I am doing. I’m picking things from all of them, and putting them all together into my game. They are helping me build my own puzzle.”