The Bengals exited the 2017 NFL Draft with the most drafted players in the league, 11 to be exact. Eight of those 11 ended up suiting up and playing for Cincinnati in their rookie year, including several players that were signed as college free agents. Here’s our final rookie report, going over in detail how every rookie fared in 2017.
John Ross, WR - 1st Round, 9th overall
17 offensive snaps, 1.77% of total offensive snaps
The Bengals made one of the biggest splashes of the first round of the draft last year in choosing the fastest player ever to enter the draft. But no player with their name called so early last April was doomed to underwhelm from the start as much as Ross was this year. The only thing worse than a highly-invested first-year draft pick playing poorly, is not playing at all. Availability is the best ability, and that was Ross’s first issue.
Healing from a torn labrum he suffered during the combine, Ross missed most of the team’s offseason work, but managed to get medically cleared for the team’s third preseason game and played. A few days later, he left the fourth preseason game early due to a mid-game knee injury and missed Week 1 of the regular season as a result. He returned to the field four days later for Week 2 against the Texans for just one play:
That would be the last we would see of Ross until Week 7 against the Colts. He was held out of practice with that same nagging knee injury until after their Week 6 matchup against the Steelers. He was on the field for a mere six snaps against Indianapolis, didn’t dress at all against the Jaguars in Week 8, and returned to the field in Week 9 against the Titans, for again, only six snaps.
This began the negligence of Ross from not only the offense, but from the dress list entirely. Reports from the team and head coach Marvin Lewis claimed he was too far behind everyone else because of his injuries and simply wasn’t ready to contribute
to an offense that would finish amongst the worst in the league. Ross would end up being placed on injured reserve for an injury on the opposite shoulder that was hurt earlier in the year. Ross, according to Lewis, admitted to hiding the injury in hopes of playing, and later came clean, which resulted in his season being over, as if it started anyways.
History doesn’t bode well for receivers drafted as high as Ross who don’t produce in their first year. The 2018 offseason is going to be the most important stretch of months in Ross’s career if he is going to establish himself in Bill Lazor’s offense and become an outlier.
Joe Mixon, RB - 2nd Round, 48th overall
384 offensive snaps, 39.92% of total offensive snaps
15 special teams snaps, 3.33% of total special teams snaps
While Ross may’ve been the surprise pick for the Bengals, the writing was all over the wall for their second-round pick.
No team did more due diligence on the talented running back with a troubling past from Oklahoma than Cincinnati. As you may remember, Bengals running backs coach Kyle Caskey spent almost a week with Mixon well before late April.
They were so infatuated with Mixon’s talent, and affirmed their unwavering confidence that he wouldn’t revert to his past mistakes off the field. After all the vetting and character evaluating, the Bengals still ended up trading down seven spots in the second round before eventually making him the next Bengal.
Predictably, Mixon wasn’t immediately the lead back ahead of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Mixon rushed for just nine yards on eight carries in his debut against the Ravens in Week 1, and received only one more carry against the Texans days later.
Offensive Coordinator Ken Zampese was fired after the offense failed to score a touchdown in its first two games, and Lazor took over. From Week 3 on, Mixon was leading the way in opportunity, but efficient production from the 21 year old was still hard to come by.
All season long, Mixon was forced to constantly create yards on his own, getting little to no help from his offensive line. At the midway point of the season, Mixon was averaging less than three yards per carry, and every week you could see why.
A big reason behind Mixon’s struggles was not just the offensive line’s deficiencies, but their obstinacy to feed him carries out of the I formation, something he never did in college. By season’s end, Mixon rushed for 345 yards on 110 carries (3.1 average) with quarterback Andy Dalton taking the snap from under center. He accumulated 281 yards on 68 carries (4.1 average) when taking the handoff from Dalton in shotgun formation.
Late in the season, when Lazor starting using Mixon in the shotgun more, we saw some of the ability that popped up every 10 seconds in his college tape. He eclipsed 100 yards rushing on nearly five yards per carry for the first time in his career against Cleveland in Week 12, and averaged at least four yards per carry in every game he played after that.
Mixon was concussed in their Week 13 game against Pittsburgh and missed the following two games as a result, but finished strong against the Lions and Ravens. His raw season totals don’t look sexy on the surface, but knowing the context, there’s no reason why Mixon should shoulder blame. He has the trust of the staff and his teammates, he’ll be fine going forward.
Jordan Willis, DE - 3rd round, 73rd overall
360 defensive snaps, 31.41% of total defensive snaps
136 special teams snaps, 30.22% of total special teams snaps
A relatively unknown Big 12 pass rusher to most of the draft community leading up to the combine, Willis made sure everyone knew who he was when he left Indianapolis, posting top times and jumps for all edge rushers.
Still, many were skeptical about Willis’s inconsistencies on tape, and didn’t quite see the athleticism in pads like they saw in compression gear. That doubt crept into the draft that saw Willis drop to the top of the third round, where the Bengals scooped him up.
For the most part, the pre-draft buzz about Willis was correct. The athletic, yet raw, defensive end had issues winning against NFL tackles on the right and left side. His lack of a consistent get-off and any inside counter move led to issues with his speed rush. Where he was effective was defending the run.
Used predominantly in their base packages on first and second down, Willis was consistent in setting the edge, and displayed nuanced technique. A couple plays a week you could find him playing with hands above his eyes, and resetting the line of scrimmage at the point of attack.
Willis is already a solid run defender with a constant motor, it’s up to defensive line coach Jacob Burney and new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to get the most out of him as a pass rusher in a pivotal sophomore year.
Carl Lawson, LB - 4th Round, 116th overall
477 defensive snaps, 41.62% of total defensive snaps
155 special teams snaps, 34.44% of total special teams snaps
The golden boy of the Bengals draft class did not disappoint in his rookie season. Following a surprise descent to day three of the draft, the top name on the Bengals big board in the fourth-round came in with high expectations. After all, the former five-star recruit was one of, if not the most, technically sound edge rusher in the entire draft class.
So when there were reports from OTAs in the spring about Lawson practicing at off-ball linebacker, a level of uncertainty surrounded Lawson’s usage. Those were completely snuffed out in the preseason where Lawson first flashed as a pass rush specialist coming off the right side. Much like Mixon, he was limited in the first two games. But he made his first imprint in Week 3 against Green Bay:
With starting left tackle David Bakhtiari out, Lawson took advantage of the mismatch against backup Kyle Murphy and recorded his first two-and-a-half sacks of his career that afternoon in Lambeau Field. Five-and-a-half sacks followed throughout the year and Lawson finished first among all rookies in sacks, and ended up with only one less sack than team-leader Geno Atkins. He didn’t end up breaking Carlos Dunlap’s rookie sack record, but he showed the refined hand placement and timing that all great pass rushers have, and he’s just 22 years old.
In that way, he’s the opposite of Willis, who has the upper tier athleticism and length that makes him a sound edge-setter in run defense, where Lawson has his limitations and still needs work. But in back to back middle-round picks, the Bengals successfully supplemented the snaps lost due to Will Clarke, Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt’s departures and added on quality production as well. I’d call that a success.
Josh Malone, WR - 4th Round, 128th overall
247 offensive snaps (25.68% of total defensive snaps)
23 special teams snaps (5.11% of total special teams snaps)
It wasn’t a great year for the other Bengals rookie receiver. Selected with the pick the Bengals received in trading back with the Vikings to acquire Mixon, Malone was revered as another day two prospect that fell into the fourth-round.
Not much was expected of Malone, the youngest member of the Bengals receiving corps, but was called upon when injuries hit Ross and Tyler Boyd after the Week 6 bye. Malone made his debut in Week 7 against the Steelers. A week later, he caught his first pass, which happened to be his first touchdown too:
Malone and Dalton managed to connect only five times on 14 targets the entire rest of the season after that touchdown, though Malone’s snaps remained stable up until the finals two games of the season.
Wide receiver is the one position on the team that is expected to have no turnover, as all seven on the roster are all under contract. Malone has a chance to use the playing time he earned this year to keep Cody Core in the rearview mirror.
Ryan Glasgow, DT - 4th Round, 138th overall
412 defensive snaps (35.95% of total defensive snaps)
170 special teams snaps (37.78% of total special teams snaps)
Glasgow was the third defensive tackle in three years taken by the Bengals in the fourth-round, and was tasked to take on the major snaps all throughout the season. In college, he was a one-gap plug in run defense that didn’t offer much as a pass rusher, which is exactly how he played this year.
Like Andrew Billings, there were times where he was blown off the ball due to late hands or sloppy feet, but the flashes he showed were encouraging enough to keep him in as opposed to the veteran Pat Sims.
Glasgow is solid piece infused in a defensive line that experienced so much turnover, but his presence should not make the Bengals shy away from adding a legitimate passing rushing threat behind Geno Atkins. Glasgow and Billings should be the two nose tackles to make the roster next year.
Brian Hill, RB - 5th Round, 156th overall
19 offensive snaps (1.98% of total offensive snaps)
111 special teams snaps (24.67% of total special teams snaps)
If I told you Brian hill would play more for the Bengals this season than John Ross, you would’ve laughed at me. Hill wasn’t drafted by the Bengals, but was claimed off the Falcons practice squad when Jeremy Hill when on injured reserve in the middle of the season. He didn’t see many opportunities on offense, but flashed when he got the ball. He likely has an inside track to be the team’s third back going into next year.
Jordan Evans, LB - 6th Round, 193rd overall
311 defensive snaps (27.14% of total defensive snaps)
246 special teams snaps (54.67% of total special teams snaps)
No position group for the Bengals (except maybe safety) experienced more turmoil this season than the linebackers. Vontaze Burfict’s suspension in the beginning of the season along with inconsistent health, Kevin Minter’s regression, and Nick Vigil’s season-ending injury all impacted the performance of the defense. Evans was asked to play significant snaps in the back-half of the season, and struggled mightily early on, specifically in coverage.
Athleticism wasn’t the issue, the game simply looked too fast for Evans, who was picked on frequently. But the defense didn’t have much of a choice and was forced to keep him out there. As the season winded down, Evans started to look comfortable and let his instincts take over, something that wouldn’t have happened if he was benched. He looks like a serviceable spot starter and vital special teamer moving forward.
Brandon Wilson, DB - 6th Round, 207th overall pick
133 special teams snaps (29.56% of total special teams snaps)
The first player the Bengals traded up for since Russell Bodine happened to be a two-way player from Houston. Wilson missed most of the season with a knee injury he was still recovering from in the offseason. When he was finally cleared to play, he immediately became a valuable asset on special teams, something the Bengals lacked with Cedric Peerman out for the year. Expect the same going forward.
Cethan Carter and Hardy Nickerson were the Bengals’ most played undrafted rookies, as both eclipsed 60% of the team’s total special teams’ snaps. Nickerson was thrusted into the starting MIKE linebacker, but looked unfit in the role. Both players made the opening day roster and stuck with the team in some capacity for all 17 weeks, which is admirable. Brandon Bell, Kent Perkins, Josh Tupou and Jarveon Williams were all called up from the practice squad at some point during the season and were emergency backups late in the season. Bell and Tupou both saw meaningful snaps in separate games, while Perkins and Williams combined for just seven non-special teams snaps.
Omitted from this were both fifth-round picks Jake Elliott and J.J. Dielman, who never made the final roster and ended up on different teams. Seventh round pick Mason Schreck was kept on the practice squad all season long as well.