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Despite a slow start this summer, Bengals LB Malik Jefferson could be the real deal

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Malik Jefferson had a strong finish in the preseason, showing he could be the real deal for Cincinnati.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Minicamp Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

You can definitely see potential in rookie linebacker Malik Jefferson.

The Indianapolis Colts have fourth-and-one from midfield with 5:44 remaining in the first half of the Bengals vs. Colts preseason finale. Indianapolis shows single-back formation, strong left (where the tight end lines up), twins left (two wide receivers). Cincinnati responds with nickel, placing Jefferson and Hardy Nickerson at linebacker. Colts quarterback Phillip Walker secured the snap and handed off to running back Branden Oliver.

Jordan Willis, Sam Hubbard, Josh Tupou (another guy who made the roster with a strong preseason outing), and Andrew Brown neutralized the Colts offensive line, allowing Jefferson and Nickerson to roam freely. Jefferson approached the wall of humanity, feeling out vulnerabilities while sliding down the line of scrimmage. Eventually he found the lane Oliver targeted, lowering his right shoulder and dropping the running back for no-gain.

Turnover on downs.

Bengals football.

Earlier during the possession, Jefferson, playing SAM in a base 4-3 alignment, shot through the line of scrimmage, harassing Oliver. With help from Nickerson and Hubbard, the Colts lost a yard on the play.

Jefferson played a team-leading 67 defensive snaps during Cincinnati’s loss to the Colts last Thursday. He and Nickerson tied for a team-leading seven tackles, adding two passes defensed. Pro Football Focus ranked Jefferson as the second-best defender behind Nickerson, with the top score in coverage.

We ran a small story on Jefferson earlier this year, highlighting one quote in particular.

“He is everything you want athletically,” said an anonymous scout. “But I thought the instincts were off and the production was off. He didn’t get to the plays he should. He’s what I call a clear-view linebacker. If there’s nobody blocking him, if the defensive line keeps everybody off and if it’s right there between the tackles he can hammer you. But go try and find the ball, I thought he was really lacking. He looks just like you draw guys up. ‘Oh, my God, you want a linebacker, that’s the guy you want.’”

Jefferson isn’t expected to see much action on defense in his rookie year. He’s listed as the team’s backup weak-side linebacker behind Jordan Evans. Further complicating playing time probabilities is Vontaze Burfict’s October return, presumably knocking Evans to a backup role and Jefferson as a third-stringer.

Cincinnati will start Preston Brown in the middle, flanked by Nick Vigil (strong-side), and Jordan Evans (weak-side). Jefferson might not play much this year, but he has the potential to turn into a playmaker for the Bengals’ defense.