One could argue the Bengals addressed all of their needs in the 2017 NFL Draft. While the roles for almost all of the 11 rookies selected seem to be clearly defined, a couple of players appear to be transitioning to unexpected positions as they clamor for a roster spot this year.
Part of the strategy with picks on day three of the draft comes with inheriting projects. Some of what coaches undertake with players selected on the final day of draft weekend comes in honing skills they weren’t necessarily asked to utilize much of in college. Such seems to be the case with fourth round pass-rusher Carl Lawson and Round 6 defensive back/running back, Brandon Wilson.
When the Bengals recently released the jersey numbers and positions of the newest crop of rookies, both Lawson and Wilson had surprising designations. Lawson, a pass-rushing specialist at Auburn, is listed as an outside linebacker with the club, while the athletic and versatile Wilson is initially working as both a running back and safety.
For those who have followed the team for some time, these types of decisions are, for a lack of better words, so very Bengals. Attempting to fit square pegs in round holes have derailed many careers, and it’s why guys like Ahmad Brooks have gone on to be effective players on other teams.
Is the somewhat-slight change to their positions in their transition to the NFL a wise decision for the Bengals? Or, should they just let these players do what they have done best at the NCAA ranks while with the club?
Cons with Carl Lawson as a SAM linebacker:
Past failures in similar endeavors: Whether it was with David Pollack, who had a similar skill set to Lawson, the team’s attempts to find a fit with the athletic Dontay Moch, or a brief experiment with Michael Johnson at linebacker, Marvin Lewis hasn’t found a similar formula at the outside linebacker position that he concocted in Baltimore two decades ago. Pollack probably had the most promising outlook of the three aforementioned players, but a neck injury derailed his career before it truly began. Johnson has had a productive career at defensive end, but Cincinnati’s staff essentially wasted a year of his development early in his career with this experiment.
Lawson was an effective edge rusher at Auburn, but didn’t do much of playing in the mid-levels of defenses. The Bengals needed an influx of youthful talent in getting after the quarterback, but a switch of Lawson to a traditional 4-3 linebacker spot might negate his strengths.
A 3-4 linebacker in a 4-3 system: As you look through Lawson’s scouting reports, there isn’t much there hinting that he could be a guy who could immediately play in space. However, if he were drafted to a team employing a 3-4 defense, that may not have been so much of an issue, as those teams would likely use him primarily as a blitzer.
Lewis and Paul Guenther will need to get creative for a guy like Lawson to be an effective player, in multiple facets, when playing in this defense. Not only will the Bengals need to hone his abilities to play off of the ball, they’ll need to create schemes to get him to rush the passer.
A developmental season in a year needing immediate impacts: Much of what makes the Bengals’ 2017 draft class exciting is the possibility of many of these players giving the team immediate dividends. Playing Lawson in a more traditional outside linebacker spot in a 4-3 defense might hinder one of their more promising rookies in 2017.
While Lewis and the Bengals have found some great players in the middle rounds, there have been examples of them attempting to get creative and whiffing with promising players. In a division where the Bengals play huge quarterbacks in six of their 17 games on the schedule (Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Brock Osweiler and DeShone Kizer), they need rushers to consistently get these guys on the ground. Lawson playing something similar to what Cincinnati did with James Harrison in 2013 might not allow him to do just that.
Pros to Carl Lawson as an outside linebacker:
Huge upside: There is the possibility that the Bengals finally find the formula of adding their coaching ability to a player that can finally grasp all of what they are teaching him. While it’s an unknown if Lawson will be able to mold into a linebacker that can do it all for the Bengals, if he can prove to do it, pairing him with Vontaze Burfict, Kevin Minter and Co. could give Cincinnati a very formidable middle level of the defense.
Versatility and flexibility: While there have been positional switch failures in the past, Lewis and Guenther do like to mix things up. Even if Lawson is behind the curve in grasping other facets to the linebacker spot, he should be able to find an early niche on passing downs, at a minimum.
Jordan Evans and Nick Vigil: There are a couple aspects as to what helps Lawson’s transition to linebacker early in his career. First, Guenther’s base defense often is a nickel look, which sometimes prevents linebackers with limited pass defending limitations to be off the field.
Secondly, the Bengals have recently invested picks in athletic guys who might be able to defend against the pass, letting Lawson do what what he does best while continuing to learn the new position. Nick Vigil is inexperienced, but has range, while this year’s sixth-round pick, Evans, had four interceptions in college last year.
Cons with Brandon Wilson at running back:
Crowded position groups: As it currently stands, the Bengals have three second round picks, who they all seem to like, on the roster at running back. Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill have been productive, but have had issues with injuries and inconsistency, while the team just added Joe Mixon, who, for better or worse, might be the starter. Add in Cedric Peerman, a former Pro Bowl special teams player who re-signed with the team this offseason, and Wilson looks to have a tough time making the roster at this position as it currently stands.
A Jack of all trades, but master of none: The Bengals have recently liked what they have seen from the University of Houston and their defensive backs, as evidenced with their selection of Wilson this year and William Jackson III in the first round in last year’s draft. Both are great athletes and Cincinnati is attempting to find a place for Wilson.
While there are great plusses with Wilson and his versatility (more on that in a second), is he truly great as a kick returner, running back or defensive back? Wilson had two career interceptions as a Cougar, while also scoring two touchdowns as a running back and two more as a kick returner. It’s almost like he’s a high school recruit once again, where he might be listed as an “athlete” instead of having a true position when entering the NFL.
If he’s a kick returner, who gets let go?: Last year, undrafted free agent Alex Erickson was a feel-good story for the Bengals, as he ended up leading the NFL in kick return yardage and average yards per kick return. The team also has Adam Jones who still provides excitement in this aspect, while also adding John Ross who had a successful collegiate track record in this regard as well.
Additionally, if the idea is for Wilson is to be a Swiss Army Knife-kind of a player, Peerman is a guy who fills a couple of roles with one roster spot. If Wilson is to make the roster, he’ll need to prove he’s a more capable contributor than those who currently seem to be roster staples.
The Pros with Brandon Wilson at running back:
What’s there to lose with a Round 6 pick?: In the grand scheme of things, the Bengals might be playing with house money when it comes to Wilson. With a sixth-round pick on a pretty decent roster, the team might feel that they can get creative with this guy who can do multiple things with minimal downside.
It also says something that Cincinnati made the rare move up for a player, as they did for Wilson last weekend. They’ll need to properly unearth his potential, but if they do, he could be one of those awesome late-round gems.
Versatility: Whether it’s on the offensive line or in the secondary, the Lewis era has been defined by having a preference of players who can play multiple positions. When it comes to the secondary, Wilson can be a backup safety or a slot corner. Not only does that help his cause, but the uncertainty with the ongoing saga with Jones is lingering over the team.
Throw in the possibility of him contributing as a running back and as a special teams player and one can see him finding a niche. As Lewis has noted many times in the past with other players, Wilson’s path to the final roster will be paved by his performances in the preseason and not so much in training camp, so if he truly is a “gamer”, he’ll need to show it in August.
One bird killing multiple stones: As Rebecca Toback noted in her early roster projection, Wilson could be used as a guy who is used as a safety, running back and special teamer. If so, that would mean the Bengals could go heavy at other crowded position groups like wide receiver and defensive back. If they feel he’s capable at returning kicks, being a gunner on coverage or playing multiple roles at defensive back, it could mean the end for another one-dimensional player he’s fighting with this summer.
What do you think of the Bengals transitioning some of their rookies to different positions?
Here is the SoundCloud clip of the Orange and Black segment where we talk about a couple of the most recent Bengals’ draft picks.
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