The 2016 season didn’t go as planned for the Cincinnati Bengals, missing the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. After the disappointing season, the Bengals lost two key offensive linemen in Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth during free agency. The culmination of disappointment resulted in a Bengals fan base that was very down on their team and ownership. Then came the draft, and all of a sudden there seemed to be an injection of excitement among the fanbase.
Many have hyped the 2017 draft class and training camp has only increased the eagerness to see these guys in live action. First round pick, John Ross sat out from the first preseason game due to offseason shoulder surgery and sixth round pick Brandon Wilson is out for an undetermined amount of time due to a knee injury. Therefore, we didn’t get to see them against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday night. However, the other nine draft picks did play, and they showed a lot of good qualities about which to get excited. Here’s a rundown of the individual performances from the Bengals’ rookie draft picks from the preseason opener against the Buccaneers:
Mixon carried the ball six times for 31-yards and caught one pass for 11-yards, and he looked good doing it. Mixon is so naturally gifted that it just looks effortless for him. On his one reception, he turned a five-yard gain into an 11-yard pickup by using both power and shiftiness. There’s a reason that some considered Mixon the most complete back in the draft. When Mixon carried the football, we saw elite vision, cutting ability, and burst. A man his size shouldn’t be able able to move like that. He also did a nice job in pass protection, which will go a long way in determining how much playing time he sees early in the season.
I suggest everyone jump on the Willis hype train because he showed up in a big way during the first preseason game. He’s fast, he’s powerful, and he has a motor that will not quit. Willis tested out as the second most athletic defensive lineman at the NFL Scouting Combine, just behind No. 1 overall pick, Myles Garrett. The question with him was whether or not those Combine numbers would show up on the field. Based on what we saw on Friday night, it appears Willis has a chance to be special. His burst off the line is impressive, but that’s not the most impressive part of his game. His best trait is his relentlessness. There was one play that stood out in the first quarter, when the starters were still in the game. Willis beat his man and put pressure on Jameis Winston, forcing him out of the pocket. That was nice, but what was even better was that he was in on the tackle 15-yards down the field after missing on the sack opportunity. He plays every snap at full speed until the whistle is blown. Combine that effort with his physical tools, and Willis is a guy who could be a major contributor this season.
Lawson is a guy who the coaches have raved about since the beginning of camp. He’s been making the Bengals offensive line look bad since they put the pads on. Marvin Lewis has made comparisons to former first-round pick, David Pollack. It seems as if Lewis has been searching for Pollack’s replacement since a serious neck injury ended his career in 2006. Lawson might be that guy. The Bengals are looking to use him as an edge rusher and an outside linebacker. As a pass rush specialist, it’s clear Lawson has a chance to make an impact right away. He showed great burst and athleticism against the Buccaneers on Friday night. According to Pro Football Focus, Lawson finished with an overall grade of 81.9, which was good for the third best grade on the team. The only players who graded out better than Lawson were Willis (82.2) and Chris Smith (89.4). If Lawson continues to wow people like he did against the Buccaneers, he is primed to make a big impact on this defense right away, just like Willis.
The Bengals rookie edge rushing duo has been as advertised so far tonight pic.twitter.com/tT2QBBOguc— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) August 12, 2017
I mentioned above Lawson finished with the third highest Pro Football Focus grade against the Buccaneers at 81.9. Who do you think finished with the fourth highest grade on the team? That’s right, it was defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow with an impressive 81.6. Glasgow showed a knack for getting pressure on the quarterback, as evidenced by the following play.
Glasgow tossed his man and hits the QB pic.twitter.com/aD2FZNymNd— Joe (@JoeGoodberry) August 12, 2017
Along with Willis and Lawson, Glasgow is yet another rookie who could work his way into the defensive line rotation if he continues to perform like he did against the Buccaneers.
Malone has been somewhat of a forgotten commodity in this draft class. However, we need to be careful not to sleep on him. He showed us why when he had a nice catch for a touchdown in the back of the end-zone on Friday. Malone is a big bodied receiver, standing at 6’3” and weighing 208 pounds. He may not see the field a whole lot right away because of a loaded receiving corps, but if he does get a chance he could be a nice, big red-zone target for the Bengals, as evidenced by his touchdown catch against the Buccaneers.
It’s well documented that Mike Nugent struggled mightily in 2016. It seemed like every time he attempted a field goal, you had to cock your head sideways and yell at the ball to get straight, trying to do your part in swaying the ball through the uprights. There was a different feel when Elliott knocked through his 45-yard field goal against the Buccaneers. When the ball left his foot, it was true the whole way. Elliott's kick went right through the middle of the uprights and might have been good from 60-yards with how solidly it was kicked. He then followed that up with a kickoff that sailed well out of the end-zone. Randy Bullock had a nice game too, knocking in a 53-yard field goal, but given the fact the Bengals spent a fifth round draft pick on Elliott, he’s likely to win this kicking competition if he can stay consistent.
Intermediate passing defense has been an Achilles’ heel for the Bengals for quite awhile. Fortunately, it seems as if second year linebacker Nick Vigil is athletic enough to cover tight ends and receivers running across the middle, due to his speed and athleticism. Evans is also a guy who shows a lot of speed and athleticism at the linebacker position. He may not start for the Bengals right away, but at least he provides some depth. He’s one of those guys that always seems to be involved in the play. You may not notice him much from the naked eye, but then you look up, he’s leading the team in tackles; Evans ended up tying Vigil in leading the team with six tackles (five solo and one assisted) on Friday night. He’s a guy with a lot of promise moving forward.
Dielman is the third center on the depth chart, behind Russell Bodine and T.J. Johnson and is also competing at the guard position. The defensive linemen he was facing versus the Buccaneers were likely guys who are, like him, on the roster bubble. That being said, Dielman played an impressive game. You have to like the way he came off the ball and engaged with the defender. He displayed a nice punch and he never got knocked backward. I would take his performance with a grain of salt because of the level of competition, but Dielman had a nice showing on Friday night. It would be interesting to see him get some work with the second offensive line unit against the Kansas City Chiefs this week.
Schreck didn’t do enough to really get a good feel for his potential at the NFL level. He was in on some plays in the second half and seemed to be holding his own as a blocker. He did a nice job blocking for Jeff Driskel during his Mike Vick-like touchdown run. But, he didn’t have any opportunities in the passing game. With C.J. Uzomah sidelined with an ankle injury, Schreck has an opportunity to carve out a spot on the roster, but he’s going to have to stand out a little more than he did against the Buccaneers. That’s especially true with undrafted rookie Cethan Carter looking to compete, too.
The Bengals should be thrilled with how their 2017 draft picks performed in the first preseason game. Mixon looks like he could be a special player in this league. Lawson, Willis, and Glasgow have gotten off to a very promising start, and if they continue to improve, the trio could give the Bengals a strong defensive line for years to come. Malone showed he has the potential to be a big bodied red-zone target if called upon, and Elliott seems to have the leg to give the Bengals a quality kicker, which as we learned last year, is a very important position. We’ve just seen one game of preseason action and the next three weeks will provide a lot more insight on the future of the Bengals.