One year in the NFL can make a big difference.
Entering his rookie season in 2016, expectations weren’t all that high for Utah State product Nick Vigil. The then-rookie linebacker was seen as a reach for the Cincinnati Bengals as a third round draft pick and most expected him to be used exclusively on special teams in his first season.
That’s the case with many Bengals defensive draft picks, so, there was little reason to think otherwise with Vigil. But, Vigil impressed in training camp and then recorded 18 tackles and an interception in the preseason. With that success, he slowly found playing time on defense with games of note including a five snap appearance in Week 3, an 11 snap effort in Week 11 and then he played 18, 20 and 37 snaps in the final three games of the season respectively. Much of that playing time was due to Vontaze Burfict suffering a concussion while playing against the Steelers in Week 15.
The next man up philosophy applied and the playing time and experience Vigil received as a result will come in handy this season as he figures to take on a starting role on the Bengals defense. After Karlos Dansby was signed away to the Cardinals and Rey Maualuga was cut this offseason, two starting roles among the linebacker unit are up for grabs. Kevin Minter, signed in free agency, figures to take on Maualuga's middle linebacker role, while Vigil assumes Dansby's gig on the outside.
After just a few practices so far this offseason, Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther likes what he’s seen from Vigil.
“He looks a lot better,” Guenther said via My Dayton Daily News. “I always say in between your first and second year you’ve got to make the biggest jump. He knows where to be, what the schedule’s going to be like. He’s not a rookie anymore. So he’s on top of things that way.”
OTAs to date have been non-padded, no-contact practices, so it’s not his tackling or ability to chase down running backs that’s impressing Guenther — though, Vigil did break up a pass intended for Cedric Peerman on Tuesday, per Katherine Terrell — but it’s his technique and football IQ that has caught Guenther’s attention.
“Physically you’re not going to be able to show as many things this time of year,” Guenther said. “It’s the footwork, his eyes, his technique, things like that. Knowing if we’re changing a call at the line of scrimmage, can he communicate it to the safety or the corner or the D line. He’s done all those things so far, so it’s been good.”
Vigil credits the playing time he received during his rookie season as a reason for his improved look so far this offseason.
“That was big,” Vigil said of the playing time he received down the stretch in 2016. “When you don’t see those reps and then you get them at the end of the year and you see how fast it actually moves at game speed, that helps a lot knowing what to expect. I think I learned a lot, especially playing a lot of special teams. I think as the year went on I got a little bit better and then getting the reps a little later on in the year really helped me out.”
Off-the-field, Vigil has been working on getting stronger and adding muscle to his frame.
“Just eat clean, try and build muscle and not a lot of fat,” he said of his goals this offseason. “Last year I don’t think I had a really good diet. I’ve been focusing on that. Then just being able to understand what everything is going on with the defense, what everybody is doing.
It sounds like Vigil is off to a great start this offseason; hopefully it translates to the field in 2017 as he takes on a greatly increased role on the Bengals defense.