Even after a losing season, the Bengals still have a bright future with many up-and-coming players.
All throughout that team, you can find a wealth of talent that could blossom into special special as soon as next season. Assuming William Jackson III and Andrew Billings can recover from their season-ending injuries that cost them all of 2016, there’s a lot to look forward to when it comes to the young players on the roster.
The 24th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Jackson was the first player selected by the Bengals in last year's draft. The former Houston Cougars cornerback was regarded as one of the two or three best cornerback prospects in this draft. He led the NCAA and set a school record for pass breakups in 2015 with 23 to go with five interceptions.
Jackson made a lot of noise in offseason workouts, enough that he looked poised for a big role as a rookie, but a torn pectoral muscle in the opening days of training camp cost him all of 2016.
“It was super hard, man,” Jackson told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “It was super hard knowing that you could compete with those guys you (fixing to) play against and me just not being able to practice, just off to the side running. I kind of just had to stay positive-minded and talk to some good people and stay into it.”
Jackson came close enough in his recovery that the Bengals were going to bring him off Injured Reserve late in the season, but with cornerback already deep, they opted instead to give Cedric Peerman the lone I.R. designation. That was due to Giovani Bernard’s season-ending ACL tear, which left the Bengals with just two running backs on the roster.
Even had Jackson been on the 53-man roster, it’s likely he wouldn’t have played much with Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick locking down the boundary spots all year. And because Jackson, did miss all of it, even he’s admitted 2017 will be a rookie year of sorts for him.
“I’m just ready to get back into it,” Jackson III said. “I wish I could fast forward to when we come back so I can start all over again since I didn’t have a rookie year. I guess my rookie year be next year, man.”
As for Billings, the 122nd pick of last year’s Draft registered 5.5 sacks, 39 tackles and 14 tackles for loss in 2015 with the Baylor Bears. That earned him a 2015 All-American honor and the co-Defensive Player of the Year title in the Big 12.
Billings was set to be, at worst, a nice rotational tackle as a rookie, but he was forced to have knee surgery after badly tearing his meniscus in training camp.
“I went through a lot,” Billings said. “It was crazy. Disappointing. But now it’s like, ‘ready for next year.’ It’s the offseason. So it’s a re-start.”
Billings called himself “healthy” in December, though not enough to even dream of being ready to play football. The good news is he could do just about everything in the weight room, and he’s already working hard to make an impact in 2017.
“I’ll be here ready to go,” Billings said of participating in offseason activities. “Very (excited). Very. I want to make myself better because last year I didn’t get a chance to with combine training and stuff. I got to talk to (defensive coordinator) Paulie (Guenther) what I need to work on.”
As it stands, both players’ roles next year will largely be defined by what happens in the coming months. Starting nose tackle Domata Peko is set to become a free agent. If he’s re-signed, Billings likely see the field much less.
But if Peko goes elsewhere, Billings suddenly could not only play a lot next year, but even challenge Pat Sims for that starting spot next to Geno Atkins.
As for Jackson, his role will largely be determined by what happens with Adam Jones, who could be released after his latest offseason shenanigans.
There’s also the possibility that Dre Kirkpatrick leaves in free agency, meaning one or both starting boundary spots could be up for grabs. But if both are back, Jackson would be fighting just to get snaps on defense.