How is a “breakout” season defined in the NFL? There’s a number of cases one could look at to help answer that question, but the themes are often similar. A veteran player retires or becomes a cap casualty, creating an advancement opportunity for a younger player at his position. A new coach joins a team, bringing with him a new vision for how to use the players on the roster. An injury (or two) happens, forcing a staff to delegate more snaps to a player who otherwise wouldn’t see them. It’s in these cases, often, that we find certain players have more to give than we expected.
On a franchise like the Bengals – known for stability more than anything else – breakout candidates can be hard to find. That said, these three defensive players all have a chance to change our perceptions of them in 2018.
(A previous article covering three offensive breakout candidates can be found here).
William Jackson III, CB
Some people would say that William Jackson III had his breakout season in 2017 – and there’s some truth to that. After losing his entire rookie season to a torn pectoral muscle, Jackson rejoined a Bengals’ cornerback unit featuring Darqueze Dennard, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Adam Jones. He saw limited snaps behind Dennard and Kirkpatrick, but he made the most of them. In fact, few cornerbacks in the league did more with their snaps than Jackson.
Jackson had the chance to line up across from Steelers receiver Antonio Brown twice in 2017. In those match-ups (per Pro Football Focus), Jackson allowed zero catches over seven targets and logged four pass breakups. It’s one of the accomplishments that PFF notes in their ranking of Jackson (44th) among the top 101 players of the 2017 season. Other PFF metrics that Jackson led the league in: yards allowed per coverage snap (.38), and coverage snaps played per reception allowed (26.4). Additionally, Jackson allowed a league-low 34.9 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught.
So what does Jackson have left to do to fully break out? Start. Starting reps mean a greater potential for mistakes. Jackson showed all-world potential last season, but he has to do it for sixteen games on a full plate of snaps. Jones – who started the season over Jackson – was allowed to walk in free agency. The only thing that will keep Jackson from finding a role as a starter is the possibility of struggling as a full-time player in run support. Otherwise, barring injury, I think we can expect Jackson to become one of the bright young stars of the NFL.
Jordan Willis, DE
The Bengals are known for having a deep rotation on the defensive line. It can make it difficult for younger players – especially rookies – to see much playing time. Established starters Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap made it difficult for Jordan Willis to see the field in his rookie year. It didn’t help that fellow rookie Carl Lawson – despite being listed as a linebacker – excelled as a pass-rushing specialist from the end position. Altogether, Willis saw slightly under a third of the Bengals’ defensive snaps in 2017.
In terms of pure athleticism, Willis might be the Bengals’ best defensive end. He ran a 4.53 forty-yard dash at his combine in 2017 after measuring in at 6’4″ and 255 pounds. That mark – like his 39-inch vertical jump, 4.28-second 20-yard shuttle, and 6.85-second three-cone drill – was the best in his class among defensive ends prospects. Willis has the physical traits required to dominate if he and his coaches can capitalize on them.
That said, playing time wasn’t the only thing holding Willis back last season. While he’s a stout run defender, Willis’ pass-rushing technique needs some work. There are plays where it appears that he gives up if his initial step doesn’t beat the offensive tackle. As athletic as Willis is, he doesn’t take full advantage of it on the field. Simply being the biggest and fastest player worked for him in college – he hasn’t developed the skills required to excel in the NFL yet. If he does under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Willis could have an incredible 2018 season.
Jordan Evans, LB
It seems like every year that the linebacker position is a problem for the Bengals. Between suspensions and injuries, the depth chart is always in a state of flux. In 2017, those injuries gave sixth-round rookie Jordan Evans an opportunity to play extensively, and he played relatively well. He seemed overwhelmed at times, particularly initially, but he got better and better as the season went on. If not for Evans’ own injury later in the year, his numbers would reflect that.
Despite that, Evans has a chance to play a prominent role in the Bengals’ linebacker corps if his momentum continues. Vontaze Burfict – the only unquestioned starter in the unit – will once again open the season under suspension. Evans has above-average instincts and goes through the read-and-react sequence quickly. He can build on his experience from last season and those traits and become a dependable piece at the position.
That development is key for Evans, though. If he doesn’t continue to move forward, the competition at the position will swallow him. Burfict, sooner than later, will walk back into a starting spot on the field. Third-round rookie Malik Jefferson, albeit maybe later, will compete for one as well. That’s to say nothing of free-agent acquisition Preston Brown or 2017 starter Nick Vigil. Evans can get and stay ahead of them on the field, but it’ll require a full commitment to improvement. If that happens, he could turn some heads.