What a wakeup call 2017 proved to be for Craig Mager.
A third-round pick in 2015, the cornerback arrived at training camp with 21 games and 10 starts under his belt over his first two seasons. The year before he totaled 29 tackles, four passes defensed and one interception.
Mager knew there'd be stiff competition as cornerback was probably the deepest position on the team. Still, you can imagine his surprise when he was waived during roster cuts. Instead of being part of the 53-man roster, he spent virtually the entire year on the practice squad before eventually being elevated to the active roster for the final three games of the season.
"It was humbling, but I feel like I've always been a humble dude," he said. "I really felt like I was missing out, and I missed being out there. But always try to play the cards I'm dealt. I still felt like I was a good player and that I deserved to be here. So I just continued to work. It got me to where I am right now. "
Once again, Mager is set on entering training camp with cornerback once again among the deepest positions on the Bolts.
However, he believes he is far better situated to earn a spot on the team following last year's stint on the practice squad. While tough to swallow at the time, he considers it a blessing in disguise.
In fact, he's grateful for the experience.
"It was what I needed," he said. "If you keep your mind right, you can use it to really develop yourself. I learned the playbook a lot better. I made a few tweaks to my technique that I really couldn't have made when it counts. You don't want to take chances in the game because if you make the wrong choice, it could end in a touchdown against you. So being able to work on certain things to my game on practice squad that I couldn't do if I was on the (active roster), it's helped me develop new techniques."
Mager can already see a big difference in his game as a result.
"I'm more confident," he said. "I feel good. I really trust my technique now. Again, just being on practice squad really helped me last year because I was able to really work on my game. If you're going out there and not guessing, you can trust a lot of things with your technique straight up. In our position you can't go out there guessing. Most of the time when you do that, you get beat. So I felt really confident coming into OTAs, and I feel like I really got better."
As a result, Mager is hoping to become the next in a litany of NFL players who needed a few years of seasoning before busting out. However, this marks the last year of Mager's rookie contract, so he is aware that time is of the essence and that time may be running short to prove himself.
"Honestly, I see that there is a lot of dudes who don't really reach their peak until three or four years in. Hey, until they run me up out of here, I'm going to try to be here as long as I can. I just turned 26 a couple days ago. It has taken me a little bit of time to warm up, but at the same time, I'm getting way smarter. I'm learning how to focus on the little details and the big details to take those next steps. So being on the practice squad, it kicked it into (reality) that I need to work my butt off and get my spot back."
So far, so good.
His play has forced Defensive Backs Coach Ron Milus to sing his praises following the end of the offseason program.
"I think Craig's in a good spot right now," he said. "I talked to him just the other week, and he said how being on the practice squad was probably good for him a year ago. How it good him back to being more focused, and understanding that nothing is given. He has a great mindsight right now. He's done a really nice job in OTA practices. Shoot, he's another one in what's going to be a stiff competition. And we feel pretty comfortable with Craig."