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Bengals Weekend Lineman: Examining Trey Hendrickson’s hot start

Cincinnati’s $60 million pass-rusher has looked the part through four weeks.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Time is an aspect of evaluation that we don’t factor in enough. When is the appropriate time to judge a decision properly?

For NFL Draft picks and classes, the rule of thumb is typically after three years. This is when teams can place fifth-year options on their first-round picks, and every player is eligible for second contracts. Three years is also the approximate average length of an NFL career, so it’s commonly accepted as the true point in time to judge draft decisions.

Free agency is treated a bit differently. The players are more or less known commodities, and most of the contracts they sign on the open market don’t end up lasting the originally planned duration. Teams can structure the deals in ways that give them easy outs before they’re obligated to pay 100% of the player’s salary. Because of this, we tend to expedite our judgements when it comes to free agency.

Cincinnati Bengals fans have already done this with Trae Waynes, who played his first game in Cincinnati last week. Waynes missed all of last season with a torn pectoral and the first three games of this season with a hamstring injury. The deal Waynes signed back in 2020 was for just three years, and he’s already missed 19 games. That’ll put you in the crosshairs of the relentless public.

Needless to say, things have been going much better for Trey Hendrickson’s image.

Let’s go back to March, when Hendrickson was hitting the market and the Bengals were dealing with problems of their own. Carl Lawson was being courted by the New York Jets and eventually signed with them. This left the Bengals with Sam Hubbard and a bunch of unknowns at defensive end, which is why they sprung into action and offered Hendrickson a four-year, $60 million deal he could not refuse.

Hendrickson had been a solid complementary pass-rusher for the New Orleans Saints in his first four years as a pro. Despite the 13.5 sacks he finished with in 2020, many saw his contract as a bad deal for the Bengals, especially after they watched Lawson walk away to the Jets for less total money. Hendrickson was never the best pass-rusher on the Saints’ defensive line, and Cameron Jordan’s presence gifted him with many clean up sacks. Is it better to be a disruptor or a finisher? Well, finishers end up with the bigger pay days.

That was source of skepticism surrounding Hendrickson’s arrival in Cincinnati. His numbers from 2020 looked nice on paper, but could they be replicated in a new setting, and when he wasn’t playing for a new contract?

Through four games of the 2021 season, the answer is looking like a yes.

Four games might be a bit too soon to fully buy-in, but the numbers are hard to dispute. Here’s where Hendrickson ranks among edge defenders in several pass-rushing metrics from ESPN and Pro Football Focus (among players with 50% of pass-rushing snaps played):

  • 8th in ESPN’s pass rush win rate
  • 9th in PFF’s pass rush win rate
  • 9th in PFF’s pass rush grade
  • 8th in PFF’s pass rush grade against true pass sets
  • 6th in PFF’s pass rush win rate against true pass sets

And for the traditionalists out there, he’s currently at 2.5 sacks and six quarterback hits.

How does the tape match up? I looked at his first four games in stripes to find out for myself.

139 pass-rushing snaps into his Bengals career, Hendrickson is definitely looking the part of a top pass-rusher. He doesn’t have the most violent hands or the quickest first step, but he understands timing, angles, and how to maximize the athletic traits he does have.

Is he disrupting the pocket on his own? Yes. Is he also finishing those reps with tangible production at a decent rate? Also yes.

What many pundits, including myself, feared before the season is actually the opposite of what’s unfolding. Hendrickson is the one who’s creating initial pressure and finishing at the quarterback the most. D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill are both having hot starts of their own rushing the passer, but it’s not like they’re drawing attention away from Hendrickson. No one on this defensive line is garnering double teams, and most of them are taking advantage.

The numbers and film align well, but let’s not forget our friend in timing. Hendrickson has had the pleasure of facing these left tackles in this order: A backup in Rashod Hill, a 39-year old Jason Peters, whomever Dan Moore Jr. is, and Cam Robinson. Not exactly murderers’ row of blindside protectors, even though Peters is still playing relatively well.

Is it too soon to truly introduce Hendrickson into the upper echelon of pass-rushers? I’d lean towards yes, but that doesn’t take away all he’s done so far, it only means there’s so much more to prove. The good news for him is that the competition won’t get any tougher this week. The Green Bay Packers’ offensive line is down to their third left tackle in Yosh Nijman. Hendrickson doesn’t make the matchups, he just takes advantage of them.

Cincinnati’s entire defense has been overhauled since the end of the 2019 season. If you follow the money, the defensive line is where they’ve investment the most, and Hendrickson is the most lucrative piece. Through four games of a four-year deal, they’re getting exactly what they’re paying for.