The Bengals defensive line was one of the team’s weaknesses last season. Only Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins were good on a consistent basis, and while the return of 2016 fourth-rounder, Andrew Billings, should help the running game, Cincinnati needs to shore up its pass rushing. The team must add an edge rusher in the first two rounds of the upcoming draft and likely another later on, but the Bengals could also use some help inside, and former Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson could be the perfect man for the job.
After a 2016 redshirt senior season, Johnson has received heavy praise as a force against the run, but he should be a better fit as a 3-technique who can break loose and get to the quarterback. Johnson plays with a lot of energy and as a former heavyweight wrestler in high school, has strong hands and knows how to use them. The Hawkeye was the first interior lineman to lead the school in sacks since Mike Daniels did it in 2011, showing why he could become a nice, versatile piece in an NFL front four rotation.
Position: Defensive tackle
Weight: 316 pounds
Arm length: 33 1/4"
Hands: 9 5/8"
40-yard dash: 5.38 seconds
Vertical jump: 28"
Broad jump: 8.03"
3-cone drill: 7.64 seconds
Draft projection: Round 3
A nightmarish combine performance brought Johnson’s stock down after a great Senior Bowl in which he displayed what he can bring to the team that drafts him. He looked slow and clearly unathletic, and didn’t stand out on the bench press, supposedly his biggest strength. Still, Johnson was highly productive at Iowa, with 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss in his last season there.
While playing on a very strong defense - Iowa has finished in the top 25 of total defense in the country for the last four years, Johnson thinks he can be better when turned loose, like at the Senior Bowl.
“I feel like as an individual, not playing in a defense where it’s read run first and then pass, I feel like I was able to go out and work on things from a pass rush standpoint (at the Senior Bowl) as opposed to reading a key and then going,” Johnson told The Gazette. I felt like I had a lot more freedom to really work as a player and more as a football player.”
Johnson isn’t a top talent in this year’s draft, but he has quick feet and is very strong at the point of attack.
No matter his numbers at the Combine, Johnson is strong as an ox. He is also very flexible and keeps his feet active, which combined with his relentless motor has him always looking to make a play.
Still, the concern is that he won’t be able to make much of an impact as a 3-technique and isn’t a clear fit at nose tackle either due to his narrow base and his inability to bend to create leverage.
What to like:
Johnson uses his hands beautifully to disrupt blocks and his explosiveness off the snap can make up for his lack of speed. He has a flexible upper body that allows him to get through the smallest gaps and his feet never stop moving. He’s got playmaking potential on passing downs and some scouts do think he can play 1-technique in the NFL. That versatility would always be welcome by the Bengals.
His burst is also a strength against the run. While he is too upright in his stance, he explodes into the blockers and his hands do the rest. He was a force in Iowa in the ground game and his short but powerful build makes him a strong tackler.
What needs work:
The former Hawkeye is just not a natural bender and that hurts him. While he possesses a nice bull rush, he struggles to fight blocks back if he doesn’t make the first contact and even if Johnson can get a great first step off the snap, when he doesn’t, he often fails to disengage.
Most scouts think his run defense will be easier to replicate in the pros than his pass rushing, and that makes his value lower. Not that Johnson can’t get a few sacks here and there, but he will probably need somebody else alongside to open up one-on-one matchups for him.
How does he fit in the Bengals:
The Bengals have the perfect running mate for Johnson in Atkins. He could give Billings some rest at nose tackle while also staying fresh for clear passing downs. Cincinnati likes to kick one of their ends inside on third downs, like they gave DeShawn Williams a chance to do late last season. Johnson would be an improvement over him while allowing defensive coordinator Paul Guenther not to overuse veteran Pat Sims.
A pretty bad Combine performance is leaving Johnson out of the first and second round discussions, and that benefits the Bengals, who could address their most pressing needs in those rounds and still have him as an option in the third. Atkins deserves more speed on his side and Johnson could fit the bill.