The Cincinnati Bengals received high praise for their Draft haul in 2016 and the coaching staff is finally getting to see a glimpse of the class on the field. Three of the team's first four picks were on the defensive side of the ball, making the rich even richer, given the team's frequent top-10 rankings in NFL defensive standings over the past five years.
With cornerback William Jackson III, linebacker Nick Vigil and defensive tackle Andrew Billings added this year, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is licking his chops, thinking about the possibilities. Guenther recently joined Bruce Murray and Brady Quinn of the SiriusXM NFL Radio network to speak on the rookie class and a myriad of other topics. One thing that stood out with Guenther's comments on the rookies, when asked by Quinn, his opinion on Jackson III's role with the team early in his career.
"He was just a tremendous talent in college," Guenther said. "In college, the hashes are wider and he was basically a press corner on the short side of the field with no safety help. The guy has had a great spring--he's got a lot of skill, a lot of speed and he's really good out of his break. Just as a typical rookie, he's trying to pick up the coverages and the defenses we put in. But, he's been really good and I think he's going to play a lot early on for us. We've got a lot of good corners here and it's going to be a good battle, come training camp."
The notion of Jackson playing "early on" goes against the popular opinion and what Marvin Lewis does with some of his rookies. It's an especially eyebrow-raising comment given the amount of talent at the position. Adam Jones, who just signed a lucrative three-year extension, and Dre Kirkpatrick are the assumed starters, given that they held those roles last year, while another first round corner, Darqueze Dennard, seems to have the leg-up as the slot corner. Swingman Josh Shaw will also likely see the field, so it's hard to pin-point how and when Jackson would play at cornerback early on.
Meanwhile, one of the least highly-regarded picks of the Bengals' 2016 NFL Draft class from a fan standpoint, Nick Vigil, has been impressing Guenther.
"He's been unbelievable," Guenther said. "He's the prototypical linebacker of this age with the passing game. He's really good in coverage, he's real smart--as a matter of fact, when we watched him on tape, he reminded me of a local guy from Cincinnati, which was Luke Kuechly in the play style. He's been repping in with our first group and he's been mixing in and it's not too big for him, so we're excited about him as well."
While he'll be taking a backseat to Vontaze Burfict, Karlos Dansby, Rey Maualuga and even Vincent Rey this year, Vigil should be a special teams ace and defensive rotator--especially in nickel packages. The Bengals allowed their coverage linebacker to walk this offseason in Emmanuel Lamur, so it's quite possible Guenther is grooming Vigil for that role and it's telling that Vigil has been working with the ones. Lamur never truly realized the potential the coaches saw in him with the Bengals, but Vigil's agility and athleticism could make him a valuable member to an already-strong defense.
Guenther also touched on who many fans deemed their favorite pick in the big defensive tackle they stole in the fourth round in Billings. "He's a big, strong, powerful guy," Guenther said. "He set bench, squat and deadlift records for the state of Texas. You know, this time of year isn't great for those guys because they don't have pads on, so they can't really push and shove or take on double-teams or anything like that. So, come training camp is when he's going to start to shine."
Many believe Billings will have the biggest impact of any of the defensive rookies, as he will be spelling Domata Peko on a number of occasions in 2016. The hope is that Billings shows enough to the coaches in 2016 to prove he's the long-term solution as a defensive tackle heir to Peko and that he'll help Geno Atkins anchor the interior of the line. Given his strength and production at Baylor, the sky appears to be the limit.
The Bengals are in the enviable position of not needing to rely heavily on this year's draft picks, but if they want to, Guenther sounds confident they'll be able to. While some of what he told Murray and Quinn could have been "coach speak", there's no doubt the long-term potential for the three aforementioned rookies is high.