Finding help for defensive tackle Geno Atkins has been one of the Cincinnati Bengals’ most persisting struggles. In 2011, Atkins assumed the starting tackle spot and racked up 7.5 sacks. The draft that followed saw the Bengals double-down on interior help in the form of Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. Five years have gone by since and neither have developed into players truly worth a roster spot anywhere in the league, despite Thompson’s continued reservation on the Bengals’ roster. Still is currently looking for work after a year with the Texans, spent mostly injured.
Because of the awful return on investment from those two picks, and since the Bengals rarely target starting-caliber free agents, the team was forced to stick with Domata Peko through last year, well beyond his usefulness as a significant contributor. They also brought back Pat Sims from Oakland in 2015, who has since regressed into the player he is now. The last two years, the team has drafted a pair of fourth-round nose tackles, Andrew Billings and Ryan Glasgow, to ease the post-Peko transition. But that still leaves a hole behind the best interior lineman.
So where does Marcus Hardison fit into this? If you may’ve forgotten that name, it’s alright. Here’s a refresher:
Hardison started his collegiate career at Dodge City Community College. From 2011 to 2012, he recorded 96 tackles and seven sacks at defensive end. That production earned him the 5th spot in ESPN’s junior college prospect rankings for the 2013 class.
After the 2012 season, he chose an offer from Arizona State over a multitude of other big programs all over the country. There, he played a reserve role in 2013, and broke out as a starter in his senior year in 2014, recording 10 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 53 tackles to go along with three forced fumbles and two interceptions. He was projected to go somewhere in the middle rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft and the Bengals selected him with the 135th overall pick in the fourth round.
Hardison didn’t have a lot of experience or massive production behind him as an NFL prospect, but what he did have was a favorable athletic profile. He actually tested very similarly to 2012 fourth round pick and current Chicago Bear Jaye Howard:
Hardison & Howard Athletic Testing
|Age (Week 1)||23.58||23.72|
For having almost the exact same density, Hardison tested very fast and flexible, like Howard. Just to get an idea of what this athleticism can look like on the field when it counts:
Density-relative speed and flexibility are crucial for A and B gap rushing and plugging, and Howard shows that perfectly here. These two plays were from the 2016 AFC Divisional Round in Howard’s fourth year, just after his 27th birthday. In Howard’s first two years, he played a total of five games and for two teams. It wasn’t until his third year that he played a full season and in his fourth year he really broke out production wise, earning himself a two-year deal worth $10 million. But, at least Howard took actual snaps in his first two years, unlike Hardison.
Hardison celebrated his 25th birthday this past February and he has never been able to play a down of regular season football as a professional. He’s yet to justify his draft slot and show if that raw talent and athleticism is translatable on Sundays. But what have we seen so far from the past two preseasons he’s played? There are only a few quality examples, so let’s indulge:
Hardison was first used as a strong-side defensive end (and it was not pretty) because of some injuries at the position back in the 2015 preseason. He was then used inside almost full-time at under tackle because he could utilize his quick first step more effectively without having to turn the corner, like in the play above. Hardison’s instant penetration forces the running back to cut back into filled backside gaps and is stuffed for a loss.
These two plays unfortunately show the downside of Hardison, as he doesn’t yet know what he’s doing. Whether it was gap discipline, rushing with a plan, it wasn’t there after he came back from one injury, now we’re all expecting it to appear after losing his first two seasons to injury?
Notice on the first play, DeShawn Williams and Hardison are running a twist and Hardison can’t get off his block to fill the gap, so the running back bursts through for a big gain. Not even with his plus athleticism can he get there in time without precise recognition and hand usage to disengage.
On the second play, it was all Williams again. Williams creates quick penetration in his one-on-one against the center and forces the quarterback to move up and sideways in the pocket. Hardison just puts his head down and tries to generate some movement, and is in position to get a hit on the quarterback because of Williams’ pressure. In his first two preseasons, he flashed athleticism on pursuit plays and off the first step, but in regards to shedding blocks and reading blocks, he’s looked predictably lost.
Hardison was a raw prospect coming out of college; he needed as many reps as possible in his first two years, and has gotten none because of two separate injuries in two straight years. He was a high ceiling, low floor type player coming into the league, and having no experience in an actual regular season game at age 25 really lowers the ceiling from where it once could’ve been. That isn’t to say he can’t still become a player like a healthy version of Howard, but expecting him to shine in this year’s training camp and preseason and truly earn a roster spot, is frankly unrealistic, and honestly unfair.
The man hasn’t played a meaningful snap of football since 2014. You don’t get better at football by not being able to play football. And the amount of time he’s spent since last taking a snap is far from ideal. Sure he’s played a decent amount in both preseasons for which he’s been a member of the Bengals, but that’s a couple weeks per year, in between coming back from major injuries, against vanilla concepts and fellow second-string players.
The battle for Atkins’ backup spot will be between Hardison, Sims and Williams. Two of those players have actual snaps under their belt, but perhaps the staff still maintains the high expectations from when Hardison was drafted. It would be surprising, yet relieving, to see Hardison grab that spot and hold onto it for the season. If he can’t put it all together this year, there’s minimal hope going forward that he can do it at all.