Current Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis created his reputation as a defensive guru by getting some great careers out of past linebackers under his tutelage. Most of those stars of the past were from his time as the defensive coordinator in Baltimore, but he does have some recent standouts with the Bengals as well.
Still, the team has struggled to consistently find defenders in the mid-levels of their defense who can play three downs under Lewis. Vontaze Burfict is currently the crown jewel in the head coach’s development of Cincinnati linebackers, but grooming every-down players and those who can ably cover in pass defense have been two long-needed facets to the position group.
In recent years, the Bengals have taken mid and late-round chances on linebackers who have shown range and football intelligence in pass defense while in college. However, the team hasn’t received the results they had hoped for recently in Emmanuel Lamur, Marquis Flowers and P.J. Dawson, while they are also attempting to see what they may have in last year’s third round pick, Nick Vigil.
The Bengals continued their draft trend this year with the selection of Oklahoma linebacker Jordan Evans in Round 6. While sixth-round picks don’t necessarily shout “immediate impact”, especially with 10 other draft classmates looking to cling to a roster spot on an already-crowded team, the uphill battle Evans has might not be as steep as some of the other rookies he’s joining.
Evans has an interesting set of skills that could greatly benefit the Bengals’ defense this year. In the early parts of the 2016 season, one of the handful of deficiencies that came to light for the team was their inability to properly cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. This was painfully obvious in the Week 6 loss to the Patriots, where players at those positions (Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, James White and LeGarrette Blount) racked up 277 combined yards and three touchdowns on 22 receptions.
College production and workout numbers:
Part of the 2017 offseason plan for Cincinnati has been to get younger, faster and more athletic. Lewis and Paul Guenther have often preferred thumpers in the middle of their defense, but in the last two draft classes, they grabbed more rangy players in Vigil and Evans.
In his time at Oklahoma, Evans showed great range and play-making ability—particularly last season as a senior. Aside from flashing a little bit of pass-rush ability with 2.5 sacks in 2016, he also grabbed four interceptions, with two of them going for touchdowns. Though he wasn’t known as the most physical linebacker in the draft, he was very active and proved capable as a coverage man at the collegiate level.
In fact, Pro Football Focus noted that he was consistently good in coverage last year, allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw for just one touchdown and a 64.3 passer rating against him. While the Bengals’ play press-man coverage on the boundaries and in the slot, they do ask their linebackers to play in zone frequently, which appears to be an area in which Evans excelled as a Sooner.
Part of what drew the Bengals to Vigil were his outstanding Combine numbers—particularly in the three cone and 20-yard shuttle drills. Evans translated his game tape to pre-draft workouts, as he ran an impressive 4.50 seconds in the 40-yard dash and had a 38.5-inch vertical jump, which should also prove to be valuable assets in pass defense.
Uncertainty at the SAM spot this year:
As it currently stands, one is inclined to think Vincent Rey has the inside track on the outside starting linebacker job. They’re set at the weak side with Burfict and Kevin Minter is replacing Rey Maualuga in the middle, so the team might prefer to rely on veteran experience once again in 2017.
Yes, the team drafted Carl Lawson in the fourth round, but he has yet to develop true outside linebacker skills at this point and may just be a pass-rushing specialist early in his career. Vigil also should be a package substitution in different spots, so there might be some avenues for Evans to see the field—particularly if he ends up having a good preseason.
Evans might never be an every-down player for the Bengals, but his skill set could greatly benefit the team against the pass—even if in the short-term. The division is littered with pass-catchers at running back and tight end, so having a rangy player to cut off passing lanes, as Evans proved to frequently be able to do in college, is a must.