SO, in 2016 the Cincinnati Bengals failed to get that illustrious playoff win they’ve been seeking or even make the playoffs in general. There were a lot of factors that led to this including the health of key offensive players and the availability of a key defensive player. Age also began to rear its ugly head in the front seven and youth in the secondary. Expected contributors from the 2016 NFL draft were also taken out before the season even began. You could say this is a string of excuses but I’d like to think it’s a run of bad luck. Cincinnati’s due baby!
The health of AJ Green, Tyler Eifert, William Jackson III, and Andrew Billings are of no concern now (okay Tyler’s a little concerning but fingers crossed). With a solid free agency and 2017 NFL draft, along with the return of the aforementioned key contributors, Cincinnati would be primed for a speedy rebuild. HOWEVER, good ‘ole Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis don’t make it easy on you. Due to some unwritten rule in Paul Brown Stadium about not paying the best offensive lineman in the league like they are the best offensive lineman in the league, Kevin Zeitler (arguably the best guard in the AFC) and Andrew Whitworth (arguably the best tackle in the AFC) walked out the door. Cincinnati also gave up the 8th most sacks last season, and was 21st in YPA in rushing with them on the roster. They were replaced with Andre Smith…
So, considering the Bengals flubbed free agency (as usual), they’d really need to hit big in the draft to have a chance at another postseason appearance. Well, I took a few days to check measurables, research quirky stats (good and bad), and grind tape, just to tell you why I think these group of youngsters can contribute enough to push Cincinnati back into the playoffs. And as a disclaimer, if this blows up in my face, I’m 100% editing this post Chad Ford-style.
The Cincinnati Bengals 2017 draft class is a big one. The 11 newest Cincinnati Bengals are (in order): Washington WR John Ross, Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon, Kansas State DE Jordan Willis, Auburn LB Carl Lawson, Tennessee WR Josh Malone, Memphis K Jake Elliott, Michigan DT Ryan Glasgow, Utah OL JJ Dielman, Oklahoma LB Jordan Evans, Houston S Brandon Wilson, and Buffalo TE Mason Schreck. Cincinnati’s rookie classes generally breakdown into 3 categories: Rotation players, special teamers, developmental depth. No one from this class will be asked to carry the load at any position and more often than not, will be the low man on the totem pole until proven otherwise. The rotation players are obviously Ross, Mixon, Willis and Lawson. These 4 will be the determining factor in how well Cincinnati does in 2017. Excelling in their roles will ease the burden on the stars of this team. The special teamers will be Elliott, Evans, and Wilson. They will be expected to contribute immediately for Darrin Simmons’s unit. The remaining group of Malone, Glasgow, Dielman, and Schreck is developmental depth. While we expect all the rookie players to develop and be depth to some extent, barring an extraordinary training camp and preseason, this group is most likely to be inactive on game days and aren’t expected to contribute until 2018.
Rotation Players: This group of players were drafted with one thought in mind: SPLASH! John Ross and Joe Mixon combined for 56 career touchdowns and Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson combined for 40 career sacks. That is exactly what they will be expected to do with Cincinnati in their limited roles.
Say it with me now: John Ross, the number 9 pick in the NFL draft, will not be a starter in 2017. That job belongs to the veteran Brandon LaFell. John Ross will be the ultimate utility piece this season. He will run reverses, catch screens, run go routes, return punts and kicks all season long. His number one offensive job will be to score touchdowns, obviously. But very closely behind that will be getting AJ Green open. His 4.22 speed is a nice, large sign that says, “I will run past your safeties if you fuck around”. Which means, AJ Green will run past your safeties on the other side. This will also give the Tylers, Boyd and Eifert (God, I pray he survives this season), more room to operate in the middle of the field. All John Ross has to do is be a better Darrius Heyward-Bey and the offense becomes far more dynamic. And John Ross is definitely better than Darrius frikkan Heyward-Bey.
Now, we must address the elephant in the room… Joe Mixon broke 4 bones in Amelia Molitor’s face. He used a homosexual slur and derogative language towards her and her friend and was called a racial slur. What happened next is a way that no person should ever act in any circumstance. He was then suspended the following season at Oklahoma, instead of released outright, because he was a very talented football player. But giving an 18-year-old a second chance after making the biggest mistake of their life, is not a bad thing. He still had to work to get to this point and that moment in his life doesn’t make him any less worthy of earning his keep in life. He is still 20 years old, and will have just turned 21 at the start of training camp. I trust that as he continues to grow as a man he will continue to learn from that mistake and he won’t allow himself to cross that line again. And he’s going to catch a lot of passes, run for a lot of yards and score a lot of touchdowns in a Bengals uniform. And I’m going to cheer. Cast judgement if you want.
Let’s venture to the defense side of the ball for a bit and take a look at Jordan Willis. He is an athletic freak. He tested off the charts at the 2017 NFL Combine and he flashes that athleticism from time to time. He racked up 24.5 sacks in his career but it was all hustle and heart. He is relentless but raw. He’s explosive at the snap and kind of flails around until he eventually gets to the QB. It’s truly unbelievable to watch. Every now and then he flashes an elite swim move and bend on the edge, but his most effective move is hustle. One small problem with that though: hustle won’t consistently get you to the QB in the NFL. If Bengals Defensive Line coach Jacob Burney can mold Jordan Willis’ athleticism, there is potential for a high level rotational rusher. If he can contribute 4-6 sacks and about 24 pressures in his rookie season that’d be a rousing success. My one issue with this pick is that it could have been Derek Rivers, who I much preferred as a prospect. If he becomes the better prospect Marvin Lewis will have burnt any benefit of the doubt he has left.
Now to the real gem. I love this guy’s tape. It was so fun to watch. His pass rushing arsenal is exquisite. Carl Lawson wakes up, takes a shower, puts his pants on two feet at a once, pours himself a bowl of Wheaties and then proceeds to destroy offensive linemen. He is consistently destroying offensive lineman. It’s offensive (ha!). Auburn used him as a stand-up blitzer, inside rusher, left DE, right DE and he used inside moves, outside moves, swim moves, spins, bull rush, EVERY FRIKKAN THING. Now the only fear I have is that he is not great in space. Shifty running backs and receivers can get by him with their quickness on swing and flat routes. If I trusted Marvin to use him as a rusher for 95% of his snaps than that would quell this fear, but I believe Lawson will be rushing on closer to 65% of his snaps. He will be great coming down hill in the run game though. He is strong when he engages and has a nose for the football (cliché alert) so I think he’ll be a good player for Cincinnati regardless of whether they play him at DE or LB.
Special Teamers: This group’s contribution to the team will likely be just as important as the former’s. This team’s biggest issue last year was probably kicking (if not redzone offense). So, they drafted a kicker for the first time in Marvin Lewis’s 14-year tenure. And they drafted that kicker in the 5th round. They also traded up in the 6th round to draft a position-less athlete that will probably be the team’s special teams ace in waiting (see ya Cedric Peerman). The final member of this group is an extremely athletic LB who will be covering punts and kicks from day 1. The immediate impact special teamers from this draft are Jake Elliott, Brandon Wilson and Jordan Evans.
Last season Mike Nugent had a dead leg. Then he lost his confidence. He was 0 for 3 from 50+ and missed SIX EXTRA POINTS. That is dreadful and after a while the team stopped trotting him out for anything over 49. Jake Elliott was 4 for 5 on 50+ yard field goals in his career. He also has a long of 56 yards in his freshman season. Not to continue singing his praises but he never missed an extra point in his career. 2 plus 2 doesn’t always equal 4 but when it does you draft a kicker in the fifth round. And that is exactly what Cincinnati did here. Hopefully the 5th round wasn’t too high for him though. If he has a Roberto Aguayo-esque rookie season, I will find him and fight him myself. I am 6’3, 190. He’s 5’9, 165. Advantage: Me. Don’t fuck this up Jake or I’m coming for you… best of luck though.
Brandon Wilson will be Cedric Peerman 2.0. In addition to covering punts and kicks, he will step into immediate competition with Alex Erickson (2016 AFC return yard king) for number 1 return duties. He can also take RB or DB snaps in an emergency. In college, he scored 6 TDs: 1 fumble recovery for a TD, 1 INT returned for a TD, 2 kickoff returns for TDs, and 2 rushing TDs. He played running back, defensive back, and returned kicks. He ran a 4.3 40. He’s a football player (cliché!).
And last but certainly not least, Jordan Evans. He may have been my second favorite tape to watch. He constantly made splash plays on Oklahoma’s defense but I don’t see him breaking past the LBs ahead of him on the depth chart. Between the Mercenary Burfict, the newly acquired Kevin Minter, and last year’s 3rd round pick Nick Vigil, it is an uphill battle (cliché!) to crack rotation. Marvin Lewis also hates rookies so he will have to earn his way onto the field. However, with a strong training camp and preseason I could see him stealing snaps from Vigil. Jordan’s athleticism is insane. He explodes through gaps to make plays in the backfield, has great timing on delayed blitzs, and tracks down ball carriers in the open field. He excels in space which is something Cincinnati hasn’t had in its LBs since I was in grade school (I’m only 24). His greatest asset is his pass coverage. He has great feeling in zone coverage and soft hands as evidenced by his 4 interceptions his senior season. He also had 8 pass deflections which shows a solid ability to read the QB, albeit in the pass happy Big 12 where 60+ pass attempts is another day in the office. However, he didn’t fall to the 6th round for no reason. When lineman get a hold of him, they take him for a ride. And he knows this so he’s hesitant when taking on blocks. His athleticism allowed him to make plays at the college level but NFL offensive players are much stronger and much more athletic so that will not fly. He will be a key special teamer where Cincinnati can utilize that athleticism as a plus and as his body matures and he will work his way up the LB rotation.
Developmental Depth: This last group will be fringe rotational players or inactives on game day. Malone, Glasgow, Dielman and Schreck provide needed depth and competition at different positions on the roster. The dark horse in this group is Ryan Glasgow. With a solid preseason, he could see himself at NT2 on the depth chart and push Pat Sims out the door for good. Even with that I wouldn’t expect him to get many snaps.
Josh Malone’s tape is soooooooo hard to watch. That Tennessee offense was a drag. Josh Dobbs was just bad 90% of the time. It was read option, followed by zone read, followed by speed option followed by incompletion, wash, rinse, repeat. Josh Malone has tools. He is 6 feet 3 inches tall and 208 pounds. He ran a 4.4 forty and showed that speed plenty on tape. He ran 3 routes: curl, go and slant. He needs to work on his release and his route running but his ball tracking, hands, size and speed make him an appetizing project. With route technicians on the roster like Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd and the king of receivers himself, AJ Green, he has plenty of veterans to mentor him and assist with his growth.
Ryan Glasgow is in direct competition with Pat Sims. If he wins, he will be active and Pat Sims will be cut. If he loses, he will be inactive and some 3rd string QB will lose his job. He has solid tape, average measurables and came from a Harbaugh coached defense. His job will be to eat block and be a general pest for offensive linemen, which he excels at. He’s a grinder in the trenches (cliché!). I don’t expect him to steal snaps from Andrew Billings because when he comes off the field I’d expect the horses to come out to rush the QB. Ryan will spend this year getting marginal snaps or inactive as a whole but the hope is he will be a longtime plus contributor on the defensive line.
JJ Dielman will be a utility lineman who will play the Jake Fisher (2015) role. He played snaps at RT in his junior season and was pretty bad. He was slow coming out of his stance and consistently beat around the edge. He is pretty quick and does a good job mirroring his defender when he can catch up to them but is susceptible to power moves in pass pro as well. He is awesome in space though. At center, he can track down LBs on pulls and will make solid blocks on the move. When he gets in the open field on screens and draws he excels. He will play across the line eventually but he won’t be active for any of the 2017 season unless he flashes some amazing potential or Cincinnati’s offensive line disintegrated into sawdust.
I’m going to be honest. I could not find any tape on Mason Schreck outside of highlight reels. He is 6’4, 250 pounds, and runs a 4.75 40. He is an athletic specimen and does a great job high pointing the football down the seams and in the endzone. He gives the coaching staff a developmental piece for future seasons but won’t contribute this year unless Eifert is banged up. Well now that I’m thinking about it, if we’re banking on Eifert’s health he should probably be in the rotation players section. If he has a great camp and capitalizes on his athleticism and size, he could beat out either Kroft or Uzomah. I don’t see it happening but anything is possible after Tyler Eifert in the TE room (hell the room name is his damn initials).
I have moderate expectations for Cincinnati’s 2017 rookie class. If they exceed these expectations, Cincinnati will return to form. With an easier schedule (thanks to finishing 3rd in the AFC North last season), a core of star veterans, and an injection of youth from both the 2016 and 2017 draft classes, Cincinnati will be competing with Pittsburgh and Baltimore for the AFC North crown again in the 2017 season. They may not make the playoffs this season but I expect them to have a winning record and be making strides towards becoming a championship contender as soon as 2018.
– Be The Player You Want To Be