CINCINNATI -- Jay Hayes empathizes with Devon Still.
Really, he does.
But the Cincinnati Bengals defensive line coach who says he proudly treats the 25-year-old defensive tackle like one of his own sons off the field knows that on it, he has to think of him differently. No matter how challenging the last year has been for Still and his 5-year-old daughter, Leah, who went into remission in March after battling through a rare pediatric cancer, Still's job isn't guaranteed.
If by the end of training camp Still isn't among the best of the Bengals' defensive tackles, he'll be cut. And with a crowded defensive line meeting room this offseason, there is a chance that could happen. Regardless of how tear-jerking Still's story may be, it won't factor into Hayes' evaluation.
"I play the best guy," Hayes said. "I can't get into pulling for anybody. I like them all. I like all my guys. I wish well for all of them. But it's just part of the deal.
"I wish they all could stay, but they can't."
Still isn't blind to the fact that one year after he was released from the Bengals in training camp and signed back days later to the practice squad, he could be outright given his walking papers later this summer. After all, the Bengals currently have nine defensive tackles on the roster and only about four or five spots to fill following the preseason finale. He also is out of practice-squad eligibility, meaning he has to make some team's roster in order to stay in the NFL.
"There's nothing wrong with competition. It brings the best out of people," Still said Tuesday, speaking just after returning to Cincinnati for the start of the Bengals' mandatory minicamp. "Our defensive line room is loaded right now, so everybody's going to have to bring their best to training camp, and I'm looking forward to the competition."
Still appears at this point to primarily be in competition for the final defensive tackle job. Geno Atkins, Domata Peko and Brandon Thompson are likely locks for the first three defensive tackle spots, while fourth-round draft pick Marcus Hardison likely figures into the equation, too. That would leave Still competing with Pat Sims, Kwame Geathers, DeShawn Williams and Kalafitoni Pole for that potential fifth and final spot.
Moved as he has been by Leah's perseverance and Still's openness about his daughter's journey, Hayes believes it would be unjust to other linemen if he let his off-field connection to Still cloud his judgement.
"The whole thing of who is the best guy is about who is the best guy. This is the NFL. That's what this is about," Hayes said. "It's not about who had the hardest road. That's not how this is built. We are just trying to put the best guys out there.
"Everybody has a story. I pray for all my guys at different times. Some days you pray a little more that the good Lord shines on a guy and his family because of circumstances. But I have to take personal things out of it. I can only, as best as I can be, be like justice and see the facts and go."
Down 18 pounds and in the best shape of his football-playing life, Still has faith he'll be back in stripes next fall. The Bengals' gesture of keeping him on the practice squad last September in part so Leah's medical treatments could be paid won't be in vain, he vowed.
"It's about trying to repay the Bengals for everything they did for me last season," Still said.