As far as narratives go, the Bengals not playing their rookies has become a slightly outdated one.
In the past three seasons, Cincinnati has been more than willing to play their early draft picks in their rookie seasons. Tyler Boyd, Nick Vigil, Joe Mixon, Jordan Willis, Carl Lawson and Ryan Glasgow all played significant snaps when they were rookies in 2016 and 2017, and Billy Price, Jessie Bates and Sam Hubbard have all essentially become starters this season. William Jackson, Andrew Billings and John Ross had to wait a bit longer due to injuries, but all three of them eventually became key contributors in time as well.
This makes the case of Malik Jefferson, one of their third-round picks from this year, rather strange.
Jefferson saw his season come to an end recently as he was put on injured reserve following the Bengals win over the Raiders. In the 12 games he appeared in, he only recorded 11 snaps on defense to his 214 on special teams.
Despite his contributions on kickoff and punt teams, his rookie season ultimately it feels like a waste considering how many of his teammates at the position were injured throughout the season. Marvin Lewis tried to explain why we didn’t see more of Jefferson, and how that could change next season.
“He’ll get an opportunity when football starts in April to understand assignments, gain opportunity and gain trust. Gain confidence in himself and confidence in what he’s doing all of the time,” Lewis told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “He has the physical tools to do it, he just has to put it all together and get the correct opportunity. We got him on the field a little bit. He grew a little bit this season on special teams, which is generally a start for becoming a good NFL linebacker.
“He needs to just go out and play, and that’s what the preseason is all about — to go out there, play productively and not have errors in assignments.”
If offseason trends continue as is, Jefferson will easily be back in the fold next season. He was a very talented special teams player, so his roster spot is as safe can be.
It feels like Jefferson is one good preseason away from having a role for this team. Although, that depends on who leaves, and if the draft or sign any new linebackers. Still, Lewis' statement has some big issues that fans should have problems with.
At some point, this just comes off as selective criticism. It doesn’t make sense that we are hearing this about Jefferson, and yet we have seen this team try and make Hardy Nickerson a starter on at least two occasions, and has become the first guy off the bench when an injury occurs. Nickerson blows assignments all the time, and yet he has played the third-most snaps of any linebacker on the team.
Again, Jefferson only played 11 defensive snaps all season long. Preston Brown only played in seven games this year, Vontaze Burfict has played in six and Nick Vigil has played in nine games. How this team has only allowed Jefferson to see 11 snaps is a crime. For those wondering, Nickerson has 445 snaps this season, which is just under 45 percent of the defense’s total.
Lewis’ comments wouldn’t be so deserving of criticism if they weren’t attached to an obvious lack of awareness. We’ve seen with our own eyes how bad Nickerson has played game after game. During Lewis’ tenure, we’ve seen young players go through growing pains after their rookie seasons because they were prohibited from making those mistakes as soon as possible. This feels inevitable when looking at Jefferson’s immediate future.
While most of Jefferson’s young teammates have gotten chances, he has become the latest player that was deemed not ready for most likely hypocritical reasons. Adding in the fact that he plays the position where the team is weakest, Lewis needs to reflect on what he’s saying here.