The Bengals’ starting defensive line from 2022 is a formidable group. Trey Hendrickson has done nothing but make Pro Bowls since he inked his contract and Sam Hubbard is a well-rounded edge defender on the other side, while D.J. Reader is one of the best nose tackles in the game flanked by a solid player in B.J. Hill.
Players like Joseph Ossai, Zachary Carter and Cam Sample also impressed in stints last season. However, folks can’t deny the impact Larry Ogunjobi had on this defense in his brief 2021 stint. Unfortunately, his contract was short, as was his season, leaving with a significant ankle injury during the playoff game versus the Raiders.
Cincinnati has been able to find players who can provide significant mismatches from the interior of the defensive line, most notably with Geno Atkins, who paved a Hall of Fame career for himself. But, it’s getting increasingly obvious that the Bengals need another guy to rotate in and wreak havoc for Lou Anarumo.
Enter Tuli Tuipulotu, who was the lone bright spot of the upstart USC Trojans’ defense last year. Making splash plays from all over the line, the young Tuipulotu has the attention of many NFL clubs this spring.
Weight: 290 pounds (in 2022), weighed in at 266 at NFL Combine
Age: 20 (Turns 21 in September)
Position: Defensive End/3-Tech
Draft Projection: Mid-First to Early-Second Round
While most believe Tuipulotu was a bit of a “one-year wonder” in 2022, that isn’t necessarily the case. He had an admirable sophomore campaign with 5.5 sacks and a First-Team All-Pac-12 nomination.
However, Tuipulotu took a massive step forward in 2022. As Lincoln Riley overhauled the team—namely the offense—the Junior was an absolute menace on the defensive line
He had more tackles for loss (22) than accrued years on the planet (20) as a true junior last year, while also leading all of the NCAA with quarterback sacks (13.5). And, he made plays from the interior, as well as both edge spots.
With his stock ever-so high, Tuipulotu made the tough, but wise decision to enter the 2023 NFL Draft.
Playing strength is a strength, if we’re going to go tongue-in-cheek here. Tuipulotu has a unique blend of size, technique and strength to exploit issues on the offensive line from the opposition.
You don’t come by 13.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss in a single season by accident. USC deliberately lined him up in various spots on the defensive line depending on who they played that particular week, so he could take advantage of perceived weak links on the opposing team’s front.
While that may sound like some sort of indictment (going up against the weak links at times from who they were playing), it’s actually a testament to his versatility. Tuipulotu made plays from all over the line, showcasing his versatility and knack to create a big play.
He also shows high effort and solid play recognition in his tape. This was key in some of those plays for loss, as he continued to work even after being stymied in some cases at first blush.
When you look at the age and ascending production from his sophomore to junior year, it’s easy to see a guy who is on the incline in his football career. That’s an appealing facet for any pro defensive coordinator.
There aren’t a lot of glaring weaknesses from Tuipulotu, but I would be curious how he tests—specifically in the 10-yard split. He definitely has explosion on the line, but I’d be curious to gauge just how quick the initial get-off is, seeing as how he may gets looks on the edge at the NFL level, along with interior snaps.
While versatility is a huge asset for Tuipulotu, teams need to really get a grasp on his pro fit and if that college ability to make plays from all over the line will translate at the next level. It’s a forgone conclusion that he’ll generate issues for the opposing team inside as a pro, but will he be able to kick outside and get to the passer?
Of course, with that comes the whole “‘tweener” argument. Is he a guy who will struggle to find a niche in the NFL, or will he be the next big threat on a team’s defensive line?
More questions on that front have emerged with Tuipulotu’s major weight change at the Combine. He says he can fluctuate weight and play wherever teams want him, but a 25-pound change is drastic in pre-draft months.
The answer to the ‘tweener question resides in the ability of a team’s defensive coordinator and coaching staff. How high of an opinion do you have of Lou Anarumo? At this point, I think most of us have a pretty high one, thus, his ability to get the most out of Tuipulotu’s versatility seems favorable in Cincinnati.
There might be a little bit of a boom-or-bust hesitation with Tuipulotu, but his age and not truly being a one-year wonder dispute that notion. He’d be best-served to go to a team with an established staff and defensive coordinator to be able to hit the ground running and not have as steep of a learning curve.
At the Combine, Tuipulotu looked both fluid and strong in defensive line drills, but did not participate in timed and/or running events. His performance in these at a Pro Day will be key, but the Bengals have reportedly shown interest in him, but meeting with him in Indianapolis:
@ErikTMcKinney of @On3USC noted that USC DL Tuli Tuipolotu met w/#Bengals at the #Combine. Tuli also reportedly mentioned #Dolphins, #Falcons, #Bills & #Packers with CIN as teams with which he met. Didn't see this elsewhere, but here's that story: https://t.co/J66KbzeSgX https://t.co/5MXq1Kz20v— Anthony Cosenza (@CJAnthonyCUI) March 8, 2023
Regardless, Tuipulotu is a Swiss Army Knife of a weapon can be a huge asset to an NFL defense. Teaming him up with Hubbard, Hendrickson, Reader and Hill would bring a formidable group. And, as we know with highly-successful teams recently, trenches are key.