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Projecting Bengals’ next starting defensive tackle

Andrew Billings appears to be on track to take Domata Peko’s vacated starting position, but could there be surprise competition in the fold?

Following the departure of Domata Peko to the Denver Broncos, the Cincinnati Bengals have a starting spot to fill at defensive tackle. The heir to Peko’s position seems to be Andrew Billings, who experienced a mind-boggling fall to the Bengals in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, despite being projected as a potential first-round pick for the Bengals that year. However, he could have some significant competition for the starting spot in that of fellow fourth-round pick Marcus Hardison, who had high potential when joining the Bengals but has experienced consecutive preseason injuries, keeping him off the regular-season playing field.

The Bengals have been anxious to see what Hardison can do and hopefully they’ll finally see it in 2017.

“He was coming on. He was getting physical,’ Bengals defensive line coach Jacob Burney told Geoff Hobson of of Hardison. “He certainly has the athleticism to play both inside and at end. You like the guys that are able to do that.”

Hardison was drafted a year ahead of Billings, in 2015. Unfortunately, like Billings, injuries have kept him from taking a regular season snap in the NFL. So far in his career, the only thing he has been able to show is potential, because he simply hasn’t had an opportunity to showcase his talent in important situations.

“I was helpless,” Hardison said. “I never missed practice or a game before I was drafted. I was itching to play … They brought me here for a reason.”

However, he has received plenty of help from the veteran defensive linemen at his position and he is still itching to prove the Bengals made the right decision by selecting him with the 135th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

“We have a great defensive line. I embraced it watching my rookie year,” Hardison said. “Every guy has touched me in some way. Mike (Johnson) kind of took me under his wing …. He’s showed me how to stay healthy, how to take care of my body, and how to learn the playbook. Not learn what you do, but why you’re doing it.”

In particular, he seems to have already developed a fantastic working relationship with one of the team’s most experienced former draft picks at defensive tackle.

“The main person over my head every day is Pat Sims. He’s always on my case,” Hardison said. “Every guy has their role … He’s always taught me a lot of stuff on the field. A big impact … As soon as April 17th comes (when the Bengals report back to Cincinnati for voluntary workouts), he’ll be on my butt.”

However, Hardison is going to have to have plenty of work to do if he wants to leapfrog Billings for the starting defensive tackle spot. Billings has been known as an absolutely punishing, if not a bit short, defensive tackle with out-of-this-world strength and a tenacity to his game that made him very difficult to block in college.

The primary knock against Billings, and a big reason why he fell in the draft, is he seems to have a limit to his motor. He has a bad habit of slowing down at the second level and isn’t thought of as an every-down lineman. Hardison might not be as strong, but his motor and drive are unquestionable. Furthermore, at 6’3” and 310 pounds, he seems to be much more naturally intimidating than Billings.

“I get that from my dad,” Hardison said. “He played basketball in high school. He’s about 6-5, 300. I come from a pretty big family. I knew I was going to grow. My big uncle is 6-5, 360-380. My little uncle is the biggest uncle.”

In addition to impressing as a hard worker with big potential he is a team-first player and positive addition to the locker room. That could certainly come in handy as the Bengals are looking to replace the leadership and locker room presence of Peko.

“I get the guys laughing and we go to work,” Hardison said. “When I crack a joke, I crack a smile and that keeps me going.”

Still, he knows when it’s time to curtail the jokes and go to work.

“I’m the laid back, goofy guy (on the d-Line’s text group),” Hardison said. “But when you turn on the lights and it’s time to go, I have a serious side.

That serious side is exactly what makes Hardison such an exciting prospect for the Bengals’ starting defensive tackle position. Granted, Billings is more developed in so many areas of his game and is lightyears ahead of Hardison in terms of pure strength. But, at the end of the day, the competition between two former fourth round picks will come down to who wants the starting job more after returning from injury. Don’t be surprised if it’s not the player you expected.