The Cincinnati Bengals pass rush was among the team’s biggest concerns heading into the offseason, yet the club waited until the third round of the NFL Draft to address the position. They got their man in Jordan Willis, a high-engine end from Kansas State who had been greatly productive in his last two seasons in college, and whose athleticism could have made him a Day One pick.
It is fellow rookie Carl Lawson, drafted in the fourth round, who’s getting all the attention during training camp so far when it comes to defensive rookies, but Willis will surely get his fair share of chances to prove he can be a difference maker for Paul Guenther’s defense. With Lawson, John Ross and Joe Mixon, it’s easy to forget about Willis, but he’s got tremendous potential and should be able to contribute right away for a team that hopes it can get back to the playoffs after a disappointing 2016 season.
Position: Defensive end
Weight: 255 pounds
College: Kansas State
Hometown: San Diego, California
Draft status: Third-round pick, 73th overall
Willis signed a four year, $3,304,400 contract with the Bengals this offseason, including a $904,400 signing bonus, $904,400 guaranteed, and an average annual salary of $826,100. In 2017, Willis will earn a base salary of $465,000 and a signing bonus of $904,400, while carrying a cap hit of $691,100 and a dead cap value of $904,400, according to Spotrac.
After finishing in the bottom third of the sack producers in the league, the Bengals tried to boost its corps with two collegiate players, picking Willis in the third round when rumor had it he could have been a first rounder. The fastest of all defensive linemen at the Scouting Combine, Willis is a freak athlete who often had to deal with a very short rotation in Kansas State - he played the ninth most snaps in the country for any defensive lineman. He was targeted as both a 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker, but his speed, quickness and size allow him to play everywhere.
Prior to getting drafted by the Bengals, I predicted he would provide them with something they’d been missing for a long time. Willis was a speed rusher in college that produce 20 sacks in just the last two seasons in school. He showed he had a killer first step and takeoff and his explosiveness will be a very welcomed sight after a few seasons of watching the underwhelming Michael Johnson and Margus Hunt.
Willis has flaws, of course. There’s a reason why he lasted until the third round. Despite all his numbers at the Combine and his solid production as a run stopper for the Wildcats, he was still very deliberate as a pass rusher and will have to improve and show he can turn the corner consistently if he wants to become a starter for the Bengals. As I said in his film room feature, 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 numbers 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.
He’s got the tools to succeed and the will to put in all the hard work required for the next level, and if there’s something you can’t teach it’s speed.
Willis will make the roster as long as he stays health. The Bengals still have Carlos Dunlap, Johnson, Wallace Gilberry, Will Clarke and Marcus Hardison, but Willis should get a chance to contribute early if only as a designated pass rusher in clear passing situations. Cincinnati likes its veterans, and some of those guys have versatility as they can theoretically play inside and outside, but none of them offers what Willis can.
Without the pedigree of Ross or Mixon or the hype of Lawson, Willis can actually carve a niche for himself in Guenther’s unit while he becomes a more complete player. He figures to at least get the same opportunities as both Clarke and Hunt have in the last three years.
Roster chances: 100 percent.