In the draft, the Bengals selected a lot of defensive players. This should allow new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to have lots of options next year.
When Marvin Lewis announced that he would pursue other opportunities following the 2017 season, many immediately started speculating on his replacement. While reach candidates like Stanford coach David Shaw were fun possibilities to entertain, I wanted to find likely candidates who would help the Bengals win immediately. To me, the best candidate to replace Marvin Lewis was clear: then-Detroit Lions DC Teryl Austin.
The Bengals were incredibly fortunate then that Austin happened to be available for their open defensive coordinator spot. The Bengals pulled a coup landing Austin as their coordinator, and now have two coaches with head coaching talent on the sidelines.
The quotes coming out of Detroit on Austin are incredibly telling of his impact on that team. Reserve corner Nevin Lawson referred to Austin as a “mad scientist” whose play calling and defensive sets are cutting-edge creative. The players love the innovative sets, too. Defensive end Kerry Hyder said, “TA does a great job of putting us in the right spot…calling the right calls and making it easy on us.” Maybe most enticing of all Austin’s characteristics, though, is his ability to motivate his players. Then-head coach Jim Caldwell noted this, stating, “he has the necessary fire to get things going when he has to and he can put an arm around them when need be.” All in all, the hype around Austin seems to be very real.
The Bengals are clearly excited about Austin taking over defensive play calling. The front office invested heavy draft capital in the defense. 3 of their first 4 picks and 6 of their first 8 picks were defensive players. While the Bengals addressed their largest need, offensive line, in the first round, they drafted multiple weapons to give Austin lots of options entering the season. The Bengals made a commitment to building this team as a defensive-oriented monster, with Austin at the helm.
Jessie Bates III headlines the defensive draft class, and Austin clearly loves his potential on next year’s team. Bates profiles as a free safety, but his role may be much more fluid this year. Austin sees Bates moving all around the field in his first year, and his skill set will allow him to be that versatile.
"“I see him as a free safety candidate for us. I think the guys got really good ball skills. He’s got a good football IQ in the pass game. I think he brings a little different skill set in the back end for us and I think he has abillity to move down on slots and cover slots. … If you want to stay in some base defense, we’ve got a guy that can help us stay in base defense and cover slots.”"
In particular, Austin will likely use Bates in a three-safety set. The three safety set is not common in the NFL, but the Bengals have a lot of safety talent on this roster. Austin may find a use for all three guys. Although Bates projects as a future free safety, he likely won’t get much playing time in two safety sets. Both George Iloka and Shawn Williams are ahead of him on the depth chart. Bates can allow Iloka to hover closer to the line of scrimmage in a three-safety set, though, which is Iloka’s (and Bates’) most natural position. A three safety set would be a new addition to this defense, but Bates, Iloka, and Williams could make that set really effective.
The third round picks should be immediate contributors too. I see parallels between Sam Hubbard and Hyder, who had a breakout season under Austin. Hyder put up 8 sacks, which is likely higher than Hubbard’s ceiling, but Austin can use Hubbard creatively in blitz packages. Hubbard and Hyder both have good speed and play hard, even if they lack elite athleticism. Austin now has a bevy of pass rushers at his disposal with the addition of Hubbard.
The other third-round pick, Malik Jefferson, is really intriguing in Austin’s system as well. Jefferson is a player whose athleticism has always been greater than his on-field product. Austin may be able to tap into Jefferson’s talent and motivate him to develop into an excellent NFL player. Jefferson is a perfect fit for the 4-3 system and should play a mix of strong-side linebacker and middle linebacker. Austin’s defensive scheme allows for the off-ball linebackers to rack up tackles like Tahir Whitehead has done for the past couple years. Jefferson, if he can reach his potential, could take over the Whitehead role and possibly exceed 100 tackles.
The Bengals spent each of their fifth-round picks on defensive players as well, taking cornerbacks Davontae Harris and Darius Phillips and defensive tackle Andrew Brown. Both Harris and Phillips should provide some more secondary depth (something Austin never had in Detroit). Andrew Brown, though, is the most interesting of the three picks. Brown was a former top ten recruit who didn’t quite pan out at Virginia, but the potential is still clearly there. Much like Jefferson, if anyone can coax Brown into growth, it’s Austin.
Austin loves to rotate his defensive tackles in order to keep them fresh. Likely, Austin will implement that system in Cincinnati to bolster the run game due to the lack of true 1-technique DTs on the roster. Brown is a 3-technique, like Geno Atkins and Ryan Glasgow. Brown will likely see some playing time this year just because of Austin’s aggressive rotations, and hopefully, he can flash some of his potential.
Each of the six defensive draftees of the Bengals should see some playing time next year. Because of Austin’s creativity, there will likely be multiple sets, some of which can take advantage of the unique skills of the rookies. There may be some changes coming to the defense, but with Austin at the helm and talented new personnel incoming, the Bengals’ defense should return to elite form in 2018.