Jordan Willis’ rookie season was a bit of a roller coaster. He had four sacks during the preseason, which tied for the most of any NFL player, but he didn’t get too much playing time early on in 2017.
Once Carl Lawson had his coming out party in Week 3, it was tough for Willis to get snaps. He eventually earned his role during running downs. He had 25 tackles, four of which were for a loss.
Willis tallied up roughly 31 percent of the defensive snaps by the end of the season. However, going into his first full offseason as a professional, the one thing he is happiest about is finally having guys he gets along with around him.
“There was a couple guys who ended up not being on the team who were making it hard on me when I first came in,” Willis told Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I’m a quiet guy. Sometimes that is misinterpreted by people. Because I don’t talk a lot and a lot of people get offended by that or don’t understand it, so to speak.”
This is a super self-aware way of looking at this. Not only does Willis bring up the fact that he can be introverted sometimes, but he empathizes with the people who took his quiet behavior the wrong way.
Of course, he has nothing to apologize for. There are plenty of players around the league who keep a business first mentality to their approach. There are people, who for one reason or another, don’t crave people’s attention or acceptance.
Willis also did the nice thing by not mentioning any names, but it is obvious there were several players cut last offseason who could have been the source of this. Players like Will Clarke and Wallace Gilberry were cut last offseason to make room for the rookie. He could also be referring to players at the defensive tackle position as well considering how often they interact.
We may never know who exactly he is talking about, and that was Willis’ point of not naming names. He is keeping the focus on what he does on the field. A place where he could see a huge shift as well from last season. A big reason for that is the shift in atmosphere.
“Last year, I felt we could have used some newness,” Willis said. “I felt like when I came in last year a lot of stuff was set in stone, that was going to be it. This year there is some difference. It’s not like you know this is the way it is. You don’t know the way it’s going to happen come camp, come preseason, come season... The next step is getting on the field.”
The most obvious change is that former Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther left for the Raiders this offseason. The team now has Teryl Austin filling that role, and he has vowed to allow competition at almost every position. He isn’t coming in with the same loyalties to players that maybe Guenther had last season.
Just having the possibility of being a starter is a huge motivational piece. It is actually very disappointing to here that Willis felt that way last offseason. Obviously, the Bengals had two pretty well established defensive ends in Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, but especially after coming off a season like the 2016 one, you’d think the Bengals would’ve embraced competition a little more. It seems like it has already had an effect.
“You would watch him play against tight ends and knock people back,” Austin said. “He can really set the edge. That was one of the things that really stood out in a positive way... I’m real confident in the fact he can play on first and second down. If we can get his pass rush to come along – which he is really working hard on – we get that up to par it really helps our team.”
It is exciting to hear that Willis is making strides in his second season. Of course, Austin keeps it very real by saying Willis isn’t a finished product yet. That is a great motivating line. He doesn’t put Willis down. He compliments him, gives him a clear point to improve on and tells him how that will not only reward himself but the team as well. Austin clearly knows how to get the best out of his players.
As far as off the field goes, Willis is making strides to make sure he doesn’t have the same reputation as last year. He organized a go-kart party for his teammates.
It will be interesting to track Willis’ progress once training camp and preseason roll around. Who knows, he may even be out there to start 2018. Either way, it is just good to hear Willis is in a better place this offseason.