Eight months ago, the Bengals entered the 2016 NFL Draft with the 24th slot, and with it, they selected seven productive players. Shortly after, they grabbed a few intriguing undrafted free agents to fill out their 2016 roster. Now, with this draft class finishing out its rookie season, let’s review their last game of the year in our Week 17 Bengals rookie report.
- Tyler Boyd
- Cody Core
- Alex Erickson
- Clayton Fejedelem
- KeiVarae Russell
- Nick Vigil
- Jeff Driskel
- Christian Westerman
Sunday’s efficient offensive attack was heavily carried by running back Rex Burkhead, so Boyd didn’t see many balls come his way. But he was effective with his three touches, with his first two coming on back-to-back plays in the first quarter:
At this point in the game, Burkhead had 29 yards and a touchdown on five carries, so the setup to this reverse for Boyd was already in place. The Ravens’ eight-man box loses all discipline while focusing on Burkhead, so Boyd had ample room to scamper for 15 yards and the first down.
On the very next snap, they fooled the Ravens again:
Using play action on the Bengals’ most common run play, the fake drew linebacker C.J. Mosley toward the line and loses positioning of Boyd, who basically runs a streaker toward the emptiness of the Ravens’ zone coverage in the middle of the field.
Boyd finished the game with two receptions for 39 yards along with his 15 yard reverse run. His two grabs got him to 603 yards and 54 catches on the season, which makes him the most productive Bengals rookie receiver since A.J. Green by far. Not only did Boyd stay healthy all year, but he was a useful weapon throughout the entire season with minimal ups, downs and mishaps. Besides only finding the end zone a mere one time, his production this season was all we could have asked for this year.
When Core was drafted in the sixth round, he became the ninth receiver on the roster at the time, but the Bengals clearly had plans for him. He worked his way up the depth chart with injuries to James Wright and then Green. Core’s time on the field took an exponential jump late in the season, and his increase in production followed. Against the Ravens, he took the second most snaps at wide receiver and led the team in yards with 82 on four catches, with most of them coming after the catch.
His longest catch of the day went for 31 yards late in the second quarter:
The combo of Boyd and Core running this short scissors concept caused the Ravens corners to run into each other and gave Core the necessary separation to extend the play. It was a very nice play design and execution by the two.
Core ends his year with exactly 200 yards on 17 catches while appearing in eight games, and all of his production came in the last five games when he was actually used on offense. These stats extrapolated over a 16 games schedule equate to 640 yards and about 54 catches, which is pretty similar to Boyd’s year. I think Core’s production will increase next season, the question is, by how much?
All Erickson needed was a 14 yard fourth quarter kickoff return to surpass 800 kickoff return yards for the year. His 810 yards for the year leads all other returners, as he has averaged an impressive 27.9 yards per return on his 29 attempts. His season as a punt returner leaves much more to be desired, as he averaged seven yards per return on his 28 tries.
For comparison’s sake, Brandon Tate amassed 662 kickoff return yards on 29 attempts, averaging 22.8 yards per return, but averaged 11.6 yards per punt return on his 26 tries this year for the Buffalo Bills. Looking back on it, regardless how you feel about the decision to cut Tate and keep Erickson, moving on from Tate was a much needed change for the team, and the results in Erickson’s play were very pleasing, to say the least.
Late in the game, Fejedelem was on the field for eight snaps and he recorded no stats to speak of.
With two clear starters and a high upside backup already on the roster, the idea of Fejedelem getting any playing time entering the year was unlikely. But in the time he was out there, he turned some heads with his physicality and form-tackling. Expect a similar role for him next season, as the safety position should see little to no change.
Back in the middle of September, the Kansas City Chiefs released their third-round pick in Russell. And as soon as he was available, the Bengals, who had already lost their high-round rookie cornerback, snatched Russell from waivers, and stashed him on the bench for the next three months. Russell finally got on the field on defense for one play against the Ravens, and wouldn’t you know, the ball came right at him:
Just as not all day-two draft picks find themselves on two teams in their first season, not all cornerbacks get their first interception on their first snap. Based on the ball skills Russell showed here, he was apparently more than ready for his time:
Russell is one of the corners who could see a huge increase in playing time if free agent Dre Kirkpatrick leaves this offseason. If Kirkpatrick stays and the Bengals extend him a new deal, it’s hard to see Russell playing a lot as the fifth corner on the depth chart, barring injury to others ahead of him, of course.
With Vontaze Burfict out for the second week in a row, Vigil got a good number of snaps at linebacker. In his 37 snaps, he matched up with tight end Dennis Pitta in coverage a few times. Early in the second quarter, Pitta got the best of him:
Vigil was late with his press and completely gave up inside leverage to Pitta, who separates himself enough to make the catch over-the-middle. Vigil is athletic enough to stop this play again if tested, but his mental processing is still pretty shaky here.
Later in the third quarter, the Ravens tried to go to Pitta for a crucial fourth down conversion, and Vigil didn’t let Pitta beat him again:
Instincts, explosion, and length are all on display in this play. Vigil trusts his eyes, closes in quickly, and has enough reach to deflect the pass. Playing time is important for young players, and we’ve been preaching it all year. Because for every mistake rookies may make, they can make up for them at any given moment.
With Karlos Dansby entering free agency and Rey Maualuga on the chopping block, Vigil looks to be in line for significant playing time next season. And because of plays like that, I’m pretty excited.
All the rookies we’ve seen and haven’t seen this year are rookies no more, and we have a long four months before we get to meet the next class of prospects joining the team. You can’t appropriately judge a draft class after just one year, but as far as final thoughts go, but as of right now, this class looks better than the last two draft classes combined in my opinion. And we haven’t even seen William Jackson or Andrew Billings on the field yet.
Based on the play of these young men, the future of the Bengals looks a little bit brighter.