When building a team in any sport, there are many factors to consider. Of course, talent reigns supreme, but creating chemistry with quality characters is also a must for long-term success. Sometimes those “high-character guys” aren’t the most physically-gifted, but they are still the glue to building a winning culture and keeping others accountable.
Much has been publicly made about the Bengals’ top two picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, in receiver John Ross and running back Joe Mixon. Both are seen as immense talents, but questions on injury history (Ross) and character (Mixon) linger. However, the picks the team made in the middle rounds might be where they truly struck gold.
Every once in awhile, high-character and big-time talent converge to create a player with massive upside. This year, that player could very well be Bengals third-round defensive end, Jordan Willis.
With 20 sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons at Kansas State, Willis made himself known as one of the best pass-rushers this year. Some believed he could be a fringe first round talent, but scouts questioning his “stiffness” allowed him to fall into the Bengals’ lap at the top of Round 3.
Aside from an extremely productive college player who also tested well in pre-draft workouts, Willis has a great head on his shoulders. So much so, that his college head coach, Bill Snyder, who has sporadically coached in college football since 1966, labeled him “the epitome of Kansas State football”.
As OTAs have begun, Willis has come as advertised. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther seems to be particularly excited about his pro outlook and what he can immediately bring to the Bengals’ defense.
“When you watch him on tape you can visualize him becoming a good pro and so far he’s shown every bit of it,” Guenther said via Bengals.com recently. “He’s everything you want. He never came off the field. He defends the run well. He rushes the passer. He always runs to the ball. We like our young guys.”
Willis will be vying for playing time as he sits behind starters Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, but he should initially be a solid rotational guy behind the two. While the Bengals finished with 33 quarterback sacks last year, it was only good for 19th in the NFL. Only Dunlap and Geno Atkins were able to find consistency at getting after the quarterback, which has been such a staple of recent Cincinnati defenses.
While Carl Lawson is getting some love as a possible Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration, Willis should also be in the conversation for a number of reasons.
Quick learning curve:
One thing Willis has over Lawson in a bid for early production is the fact that he isn’t switching positions. Sure, Lawson will still be asked to put his hand in the dirt, but he’s in the midst of transitioning to a 4-3 outside linebacker. The fourth-round pick had some experience dropping back with Auburn, but probably not to the level that Guenther will ask of him as a pro.
Willis, on the other hand, will continue to be the edge player he was at Kansas State. While he may not receive a huge amount of snaps as a rookie, he’ll be in the mix, provided he’s healthy and continues to show promise.
Additionally, Willis is a very intelligent guy—on and off of the football field. As Geoff Hobson noted, Willis finished his Bachelor’s degree early and has an incredibly mature demeanor. And though sometimes his seriousness has been taken as his being aloof, that just isn’t the case. He was his high school’s class president and reluctantly (because he’s quiet) took on the mantle of team captain with the Wildcats football team as a senior.
“Middle child,” Willis said to Hobson. “You learn to do a lot for yourself. I come in and be quiet. That’s just the way I am … I’m going to come in and work every day to get better … I’m a little different than other people. I’m not very boisterous or anything like that … I think that’s why people sometimes get the wrong idea.”
His production in college married his hustle and work ethic, which is all what drew the Bengals to him. The last time they took a player with a similar personality at the position in the third round was Michael Johnson and that worked out pretty well.
Surrounding help and quality mentors:
Much has been made about the antics of Adam Jones, the ugly incident with Mixon and the somewhat-unfounded bad-boy image of Vontaze Burfict (he’s been totally clean off of the field), which has created a negative public perception of the team. However, those who know the Bengals best, see guys like Dunlap, Atkins and Johnson as team leaders, who also happen to be some of their best players.
Willis will be playing alongside those three linemen, which will not only benefit him by playing next to immense talent, but should also pay off from a tutelage standpoint. All three aren’t huge showmen, even in the wake of big production, which should make Willis right at home in that position room.
Suddenly, guys like Atkins, Dunlap, Johnson and A.J. Green (another humble and uber-productive team leader) are approaching their 30s, which should be signaling a passing of the torch in the next few years. Willis will not only get snaps, but will have the benefit of learning from these guys’ examples on the field, in the weight room and during film study.