In some major American sports, people don’t expect a lot in a given season from that year’s crop of rookie players. This was once a truth of the NFL. At a time, first-year players were generally held off the field, and certainly didn’t face pressure to immediately succeed.
That’s no longer the case in today’s league. Teams like New Orleans – who rejoined the playoff picture on the back of an elite rookie class – can testify to that. That’s not exactly because the learning curve for college players has gotten any shorter or easier. It’s just a product of our time, for one reason or another.
Diagnosing that is beyond the scope of this article – point is, in 2017, rookies can bring a team immediate fortune. The Bengals finished the 2017 NFL Draft with eleven rookie additions to their roster. By the end of the season, they had sixteen split between the roster and injured reserve.
This includes eight first-year players on the defensive side of the ball. Those eight will be graded below, based on their contributions to the 2017 season, weighed against the Bengals’ investment to obtain them. The companion article regarding offensive players can be found here.
Jordan Willis (Defensive End, Kansas State – 3rd Round, 73rd Overall)
- Games Played: 16
- Tackles: 17
- Assisted Tackles: 8
- Sacks: 1.0
Frankly, it’s not fair to Willis that he has to be compared as an edge rusher against Carl Lawson.
Willis’ single sack won’t scare anyone the way that Lawson’s numbers do, but the third-round pick had a fine rookie season. Willis logged the sixth-highest number of defensive snaps among linemen, and the second-highest number of special teams snaps. Understandably, he finished with fewer defensive snaps than fellow defensive ends Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, and Chris Smith. Not to mention, of course, Carl Lawson coming in as an edge rusher on passing downs.
Willis’ 75.6 grade from Pro Football Focus is higher than Ryan Glasgow – effectively the starting nose tackle – scored. He’s not the sexiest name from a third round that produced Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt, but he’s a cut above average. Still, his grade is hard to quantify without production to his name.
Carl Lawson (Linebacker, Auburn – 4th Round, 116th Overall)
- Games Played: 16
- Tackles: 10
- Assisted Tackles: 6
- Sacks: 8.5
Ryan Glasgow, as I say a bit further down, is what a good pick in the fourth round looks like. Carl Lawson is what a great pick in the fourth round looks like.
With 8.5 sacks, Lawson was the most productive pass rusher of this rookie class by a considerable margin. Considering he was a fourth round pick, he’s easily worth the best grade of the Bengals’ class.
Now, are there limiting factors? Things that stand between Lawson and a perfect grade? Sure. His 482 snaps, while not a small number, is fourth among linebackers and would be fourth among defensive linemen. His role on running downs, in particular, is still a relative unknown. He’s an incredible talent, but he doesn’t have a full-time position locked down with it.
That’s not to take away Lawson’s incredible season – it’s just the difference between A and A+.
Ryan Glasgow (Defensive Tackle, Michigan – 4th Round, 138th Overall)
- Games Played: 16
- Tackles: 12
- Assisted Tackles: 11
Glasgow finished a distant fourth in defensive snaps among linemen behind Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Michael Johnson. He finished first among defensive linemen in special teams snaps. With a 71.2 grade on the season from Pro Football Focus, Glasgow’s stepped in and been an effective fourth lineman immediately.
He’s not the sexiest nose tackle – he weighs a humble 302 pounds – and he’ll turn 25 next season. None of that particularly matters though. He’ll never be Geno Atkins as a pass rusher either, but again, that doesn’t really matter. The Bengals already have one Geno Atkins, and they drafted two edge rushers just ahead of Glasgow. They needed a disciplined run defender with working lateral quickness. That’s what they got.
In the fourth round, that’s what a good pick looks like.
Jordan Evans (Linebacker, Oklahoma – 6th Round, 193rd Overall)
- Games Played: 15
- Tackles: 27
- Assisted Tackles: 11
- Passes Defended: 2
As the only drafted linebacker of the three rookies – excluding Lawson – Evans is the one of whom most is demanded. For a rookie, he didn’t do a terrible job. For a rookie too often forced into service with other, athletically-inferior rookies, he wasn’t bad at all. Evans was given a heavy workload, finishing fifth among linebackers in defensive snaps and second in special teams snaps. Over the course of them, he showed enough to make a case for himself as a future starting linebacker.
This season was something of a trial-by-fire for Evans, given the injuries at the linebacker position. Kevin Minter and Nick Vigil both finished the season on injured reserve. Vontaze Burfict, between suspension and injury, missed six games. The athleticism gap between Evans and the remaining three undrafted linebackers – Vincent Rey, Brandon Bell, and Hardy Nickerson – was clear. Given less time with a combination of those three and more with Burfict and Vigil, Evans could blossom in 2018. Even if he doesn’t, his abundance of special teams work speaks for itself.
Not a bad haul for 193rd overall.
Brandon Wilson (Safety, Houston – 6th Round, 207th Overall)
- Games Played: 8
- Tackles: 4
- Assisted Tackles: 1
Despite being inactive for the first eight games of the season, Wilson logged 133 snaps on special teams in 2017. That number accounted for all of his snaps – he never saw the field on defense. Only three Bengals defensive backs logged more special teams snaps: Clayton Fejedelem, Josh Shaw, and Darqueze Dennard. In terms of roster security, Shaw seems the most likely of those names to become expendable if Wilson develops in the offseason.
The complete lack of defensive snaps raises questions though – especially with the state of the backfield down the stretch. Maybe the coaching staff didn’t want to concern Wilson with learning multiple phases after his extended time away from practice. Considering how the scouting reports pegged him as a versatile athlete, it certainly doesn’t seem like a question of capability.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about Wilson’s fit on the team, given that yet-untested potential. Unfortunately, 133 snaps is well over the limit for an ‘incomplete’ grade, per my own arbitrary rules. That said ‘special teams contributor with upside to be defensive depth piece’ is fine for a 207th overall pick.
Brandon Bell (Linebacker, Penn State – UDFA)
- Games Played: 3
- Tackles: 4
- Assisted Tackles: 3
In some ways, Bell’s scouting report reads a lot like Nickerson’s. They were both seniors at Big Ten schools in 2016, where they were voted team captains. They measured an inch apart in height and a pound apart in weight before the draft. Both were knocked for being pushed around too easily by blockers at the second level.
The most notable difference is instincts – Bell had them, Nickerson was ripped for lacking them. The other difference was athleticism – Bell was knocked for his limited lateral agility and need to play within the box. Presumably, Bell would be the safer fill-in linebacker of the two, special teams aside.
Regardless, the Bengals clearly favored Nickerson – he earned over four times more snaps on both defense and special teams. Of the two, Nickerson seems the likelier bet to remain with the team for a long period. Bell is fine practice squad material, but he’d just as likely be poached by a needier team at the position.
Hardy Nickerson Jr. (Linebacker, Illinois – UDFA)
- Games Played: 14
- Tackles: 12
- Assisted Tackles: 2
- Passes Defended: 1
Nickerson’s greatest claim to fame in the Bengals organization heading into the season was the legacy of his father. His father, Hardy Nickerson Sr., had a sixteen-year NFL career as a linebacker, during which he received four All-Pro nominations. More specifically, the elder Nickerson spent 1992 with the Pittsburgh Steelers – during Marvin Lewis’ first year as their linebackers coach. Now, the elder Nickerson is the defensive coordinator at Illinois – where he coached the younger for one year in 2016.
One reason I rehash all of this is because Nickerson hasn’t done much to make his own name yet. He went undrafted amidst criticisms of weakness at the point of attack, lacking instincts, and wasting movement ineffectively. The other is because it still reflects his potential. He has a relentless motor – to the point of being a detriment in college, without the instincts to use it effectively. He was a team captain in each of his last two seasons, and was a hugely productive tackler throughout college. He’s precisely what coaches look for when scouting future special teams players.
Through his fourteen games in 2017, he lead the Bengals’ linebackers in special teams snaps. Although already 24 years old, he could develop into a long-term leader on the unit, somewhat like Vincent Rey. It hasn’t happened yet, but that’s not a bad outlook relative to the Bengals’ investment to acquire him.
Josh Tupou (Defensive Tackle, Colorado – UDFA)
Tupou’s height/weight combination jumps off the page – 6’3″ and 350 pounds, per the Bengals’ official roster. Some fans see that in nose tackles and fall in love, visualizing an impenetrable wall of human mass. Tupou, such a fan might suggest, is the only interior defensive line that the Bengals need.
Of course, there’s a reason he isn’t, and why the NFL doesn’t have many such walls. A reason perfectly encapsulated by the dings Tupou incurred in his scouting reports. As you might expect from a 350-pound man, Tupou lacks lateral agility, and thus has a small tackle radius. It’s a point commonly held against nose tackles prospects – and why more athletic players at the position are highly valued. As for the Bengals, they already have Andrew Billings – a better player with the same critical limitations. Billings is 21 years old – two years Tupou’s junior – and signed through 2020.
Tupou’s a valuable practice squad body as a nose tackle, and gets a minor curve for filling that void. He might keep that role for another year or two, but it would be surprising if he became much more.