Jordan Willis has the potential to become what the Cincinnati Bengals defense has been missing for the last few years. With rocket speed and quick explosion off the snap, he will add another dimension to a front four that clearly needed an infusion of athleticism on the edges. But, Willis is far from a finished product and whether he becomes a great pass rusher in the NFL or not will come down to his ability to turn the corner and get to the quarterback.
Don’t get me wrong, Willis was greatly productive in college, despite a huge workload in a very thin rotation, and his Combine numbers were otherworldly. Among the 25 edge rushers selected in the first round in the past five years, his 10-yard split (1.54 seconds) ranks first, his 40 (4.53) ranks second, his vertical (39 inches) ranks fourth and three-cone (6.85 seconds) and broad (10-5) rank fifth. But what the film tells me is that athleticism won’t translate into success at the highest level if he can’t turn the corner more often.
The Bengals knew they had a problem last season, and were looking to revamp their defensive line adding speed to complement Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. Willis is fast and has a very quick take off, but he knows what he needs to do in order to achieve the same status as the guys he models his game on, Cameron Wake of the Dolphins and Robert Quinn of the Rams. “They know how to bend around the corner".
Some of his issues are due to a lack of secondary moves after he’s engaged with the offensive lineman. Willis has an outstanding swim move that he’ll use early and often, but if he fails to beat his opponent, he’s been taken out of the play easily. After all, even with all those physical tools there’s a reason why he wasn’t drafted until the third round; he needs polishment. His Combine number were great, but some of those numbers were a result of his great hustle. That’s not a bad thing, but being able to beat the tackle is always a better way to project future performances.
Another problem is that Willis is stiff turning the corner, something I saw the few times I watched him in the open field. That inability to bend forces him past the quarterback more often than you’d like to see. As NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein said in Willis’ draft profile, the timing of his hands needs work, “as he tends to shoot prematurely, opening himself up to counter moves.”
The bright side is that his issues are ones that can be coached and fixed. Speed on the other hand can’t be taught, which is why Willis is such a tantalizing prospect. His first step is so quick he can attack offensive tackles before they’re ready to counter. Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther recently said he looks at the 10-yard dash time rather than the 40-yard time for defensive ends, which means he prioritize quickness over straight line speed at the position. That makes sense and if Willis can learn how to adjust if he loses the first hand battle, he’ll be hard to stop.
That combined with a superior work ethic and intelligence on- and off-the-field are why the Bengals feel so good about this pick. Willis displayed his smarts on game tape often, but I was more impressed with his discipline defending the read option. In addition to that, at Kansas State Wills used his elite quickness to make plays on the ball.
The other aspect of Willis’ game that stands out is his motor. I talked about his big usage at Kansas State in my profile of him before the draft, and how he even admitted to being tired out there. But most of the times that didn’t matter, and even when he looked out of the action, he managed to impact the play for a deflection, a forced fumble or a sack when the opposing quarterback scrambled the wrong way. The Bengals could strike gold unleashing Willis as their designated pass rusher, limiting his usage and keeping him fresh.
Willis has the athletic tools and the will to become a contributor early for the Bengals, even if he never turns into a number one guy on the edge. Cincinnati already has Dunlap and the presence of Atkins inside means Willis will get his fair share of one-on-ones outside. He proved in the Senior Bowl he can excel at those as he impressed in one-on-one drills and earned the South team’s Most Outstanding Player honors due to his two sacks, two forced fumbles and a pass breakup.
Of course you’d like Willis to be more flexible and agile, but that would have probably turned him into a top five pick. During his rookie year, he’s going to have a smaller role in Cincinnati than he did in college, which will allow him to grow as a player and see if he can become a consistent producer in the NFL.
Now, it’ll be up to the Bengals’ staff and Willis himself to keep working on his consistency and technique in order to uncover his tremendous potential.