First-round pick Billy Price was slotted in as the starter at center from day one. Jessie Bates III impressed enough during training camp to allow the team to move on from George Iloka and install the second-round pick as their starting free safety. And third-round pick Sam Hubbard looks to play a key rotational role at defensive end and tackle.
Then there’s former Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson.
Unlike the team’s other top picks, Jefferson hasn’t seen time with the top unit or made any standout plays in preseason games or practice that generated a lot of internet buzz. Not unlike fellow third-round pick Hubbard, Jefferson has some excellent athletic traits and was seen as a potential first-rounder at one point in the pre-draft process.
Jefferson however has some fixable issues in his game that will need to be worked out before he can become the player he is capable of being. In the Bengals’ final preseason game, he had some flash plays that showed why he is worth keeping around, but also showed that he has the same issues that he had in college.
Jefferson is inconsistent as a open-field tackler. When he looks to make a tackle in the open field if often does not get his body under control. He will reach and try to make a tackle outside the framework of his body, missing tackles far too often. In the clip below he does not get his adjust well to the ball-carriers cut and simply lunges for the tackle.
He needs to chop his feet and lower his hips to change his direction of pursuit, then get to the ball carrier before attempting the tackle.
Not a good look here for Malik pic.twitter.com/B80qmrCE0n— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) August 31, 2018
The first clip is a little better. He is under more control and most importantly he makes the tackle. He is still lunging and has his head down.
With the new Use of the Helmet rule, there has been a lot of emphasis on lowering the head to make contact. This is a clean tackle in that Jefferson’s head is not involved, but he does lower his head which can also lead to missed tackles.
When driving a car, if a person looks at something other than the road, they will naturally start to drift off the road. It is the same thing with tackling. If a player takes his eyes off ball carrier and looks at the ground, the defender is going down, but the ball carrier may not be coming with him, particularly if he jukes or cuts.
The second clip is much better. Jefferson gets his hips under control as the ball carrier alters his path. He gets to the tackle, keeping his eyes on the ball carrier, and bringing his entire body rather than lunging and hoping for a miracle.
This is a much better job by Jefferson.
Jefferson’s tackling issues mainly come in the open field, as he looks much better as a box player right now. Here he makes a great read on the sweep and sneaks in behind the pulling guard.
The running back is forced deeper into the backfield by the linebacker’s penetration, but Jefferson is able to get a hand on him. This slows him up enough to give Hubbard and linebacker Hardy Nickerson enough time to come and clean it up for a tackle-for-a-loss.
Jefferson slides right inside the puller for the TFL pic.twitter.com/fCVaXoScZk— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) August 31, 2018
Here Jefferson uses his hips and hands to get off the block and make the tackle. This is an excellent job in a clutch fourth-and-short situation, showing that Jefferson is not only capable of making big plays, he is capable of making them at big moments.
Here, Jefferson shows his athletic ability in coverage by running with the vertical route. He is lined up in man coverage over the slot and runs stride for stride with him playing the ball through his hands at just the right moment and getting the pass breakup. This shows that Jefferson has some ball skills in man coverage and the athletic ability to run with the deep route.
Jefferson running with the vertical pic.twitter.com/VZRhs9YUw3— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) August 31, 2018
Jefferson can look lost and float around in coverage at times, but in this clip he makes a good pass drop and reads the quarterback. After reading the quarterbacks indicators, he breaks towards the pass and leaps to deflect the ball. He shows here that he can execute in pass coverage and make the correct reads.
Good read and reaction by Malik Jefferson pic.twitter.com/c85a3VEFYB— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) August 31, 2018
The Bengals’ final preseason game was the best opportunity Jefferson has had to showcase his talents in the NFL. He is a very talented rookie, but like most rookies he has a few key areas in his game that he needs to work on and needs to get comfortable within the defense.
At times, he seems lost or confused, and as he learns the defense and his role in it, he will become more comfortable and as a result he will play faster and make more plays. Once his tackling improves and he gains a better understanding of playing in his fits, he could be a serious asset to the Bengals’ defense.
With Vontaze Burfict out for the first four games, the Bengals could sure use Jefferson early and often this year. He’s showing flashes of a guy who can make an impact. Perhaps that starts today against the Colts.
What are your expectations for Jefferson in his rookie year with the Bengals?