While Carl Lawson spent his rookie season chasing the Bengals rookie record for sacks, Jordan Willis spent his first year just fighting for snaps.
Though he was drafted one round before Lawson, Willis showed he had a much longer way to go as a pass-rusher and didn’t get the limelight Lawson earned as a sack artist. But the third-round pick still impressed with his own strengths in his limited playing time.
With a year under his belt, and a role already established on a talented defensive line, Willis is ready to show us he’s taken the next step.
Weight: 260 pounds
College: Kansas Sate
Hometown: San Diego, CA
Experience: Entering his second season
Willis is in the second year of his rookie deal worth roughly $3.6 million. He will make $628,000 in 2018 while carrying a cap hit of $678,300, according to Spotrac. He will be a free agent following the 2020 season.
The Bengals selected Willis 73rd overall pick in 2017 NFL Draft. He was a Big 12 defensive player of the year and was named a third team all-american in 2016, when he led the Wildcats with 17.5 tackles for a loss with 11.5 sacks. He earned the acknowledgment of being “the epitome” of Kansas State football by Hall of Fame coach Bill Snyder.
Despite this, Willis didn’t see immediate success in the NFL. He played in all 16 games only starting once, recording 17 tackles and one sack on the season. He did only play about 31 percent of the snaps, which was the lowest of any rotational defensive end including Lawson and Chris Smith.
Of course Willis wasn’t just playing at defensive end. He often filled the role of defensive tackle on obvious passing downs as well. The Bengals did this with Michael Johnson and mainly Smith. He still struggled to pressure the quarterback regardless.
Willis’ value wasn’t found rushing the passer, as he was more impressive against the run.
Jordan Willis (#75) was good against the run as a rookie. Played 59% of his snaps against the run. The only Bengals DE that saw more run plays than pass. pic.twitter.com/sB3JjzmIOI— Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) May 31, 2018
Willis shows a great ability to play with leverage, heavy hands that allow him shed blocks and chase down running backs. He understands how to set the edge and force the running back inside so others can fill in the gap and make a stop. It is really impressive how often he gets off his block just in time to fill what seems like an opening.
Willis should have a firm grip on his roster spot. He is only in his second season and showed plenty of promise during his rookie season. One coach even said Willis should’ve seen the field more during his rookie season.
Willis also won’t have much competition for his spot. Smith left during free agency, and the team replaced him with Sam Hubbard in this year’s draft. With Johnson all but on the way out after this year, and Carlos Dunlap still not under contract beyond this season, Willis should be viewed as a clear contingency plan at the position, and should be prepped for major playing time in 2019.
But with Johnson still here for the time being, Willis will be asked to rotate in and out with him and occasionally Dunlap. If he progresses like expected, Willis could be viewed as an integral piece of the future under new Bengals’ defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
One thing is for sure, Willis could make some noise if he gets the majority of snaps like he should.
Roster odds: 90 percent.