Defensive end was one of the Bengals’ bigger needs in the 2017 NFL Draft, and they addressed the issue by selecting Jordan Willis with the 73rd overall pick in the third round.
In training camp, Willis was regularly noted as one of the most exciting defensive prospects for the upcoming season. After an impressive performance in the Bengals’ first preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (six total tackles on 35 snaps), it seems the hype is warranted.
“He’s not as exciting or as flashy as Carl, but Jordan’s a natural pass rusher,” Carlos Dunlap told Jay Morrison of the Dayton Daily News. “These young guys can come in and play at a high level right away. If they’re ready, put them out there. And they’re ready.”
Despite Dunlap’s assessment, Willis actually looked much better than Lawson against the Buccaneers. Granted, Lawson only played 22 snaps and was reportedly injured during the game, but he still recorded just a single tackle on the day.
However, that comparison shouldn’t take away from just how well Willis played over the course of the game.
“There’s a guy who’s going to do something exactly the way you want him to do it,” Marvin Lewis said. “And then when he got to go play live football, he stood out. And that’s great.”
Willis’ great performance shouldn’t be a surprise, considering how focused he has been on camp and his development.
“We are trying to get him to smile every once in awhile,” Lewis added with a laugh. “He’s so doggone serious. He just wants to work to get better. He has that standard answer. ‘Yes sir, coach.’ It’s funny, because when you look at them you would think Carl would be the quiet one. But it’s not, it’s actually Jordan.”
Although Willis was drafted higher than Lawson, the hype surrounding Lawson this offseason and throughout his football career resulted in him being the Bengals’ more hyped pass-rushing prospect. So, you can see why Willis feels he isn’t given enough credit for the work he puts in.
“No one talked about me, even though I gave the overall best performance at the combine,” Willis said on draft night. “It’s been like that my whole entire career. I’ve never been in the conversation, but I always find a way to get in the conversation.”
Willis can certainly find his way into the conversation if he continues playing the way he has so far. At worst, he is burdened by a lack of tape showing how well he can play, although he doesn’t lack confidence. He has a number of invaluable skills for his position, and he knows it.
“I can power rush, I can add a little bit more power into my game, I can spin a little bit,” Willis said. “There’s certain things I can do. It’s just about getting that O lineman in that position and being able to execute it during the game.”
But, that’s not all. Willis has more up his sleeve for when the season starts and the final results begin to matter. Until then, he is focused on honing his techniques and making sure he is prepared to rise to every challenge he is presented.
“I can do more stuff,” Willis said. “I feel like I don’t need to do everything right now. Obviously I’m going to be playing against some good guys in the season, and I don’t want to put everything out there so that they can study me and be ready for me. So I can give that element of surprise a little bit.”
The Bengals will certainly be counting on Willis to live up to the hype. With Michael Johnson’s career trending downward, Wallace Gilberry turning 33 in December, and Will Clarke’s development stalling, having a talented young defensive end on track for success will be critical to the Bengals maintaining a strong defensive line.