The Cincinnati Bengals selected Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson with their second third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. What are the expectations?
The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. We have covered Jefferson extensively including an immediate film review of his time at Texas. This past weekend we also looked at him becoming a possible dynamic duo partner with veteran linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Yet there is still more coverage to do with the fascinating linebacker out of Texas.
Jefferson brings some rare skillsets to the Bengals and will have to play specific roles with his lack of instincts. The Texas product has elite speed for his size and does a magnificent job in pursuit but can get swallowed up by offensive linemen when he is waiting for running backs to choose a direction or come to him. Finding the right way to utilize his talents and athleticism will be key for the Bengals defense if they want to get the full potential out of Jefferson.
It also turns out that the New England Patriots had called during Jefferson’s pick to try and trade with the Bengals according to Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer. The director of player personnel Duke Tobin told Dehner that he listened to the offer from the Patriots but decided to stick with Jefferson as their pick.
I decided to get some more in-depth knowledge on the star linebacker by talking to people that have watched him at Texas over the last three years. Discussing Jefferson with them really was an eye-opener for me on what they thought were his strengths and how he should be played at the next level to maximize potential. Gabriel Alcocer of “The Football Brainiacs” who covers the Texas Longhorns gave some great insight on Jefferson.
“Malik is not a ‘natural’, he’s not Matthews offspring (lol) and that has hurt his performance. On the other hand, watching him over the course of 3 years at Texas, you saw improvement and I’d add the Texas staff deployed him as more of a generalist at linebacker, whereas I see more specialization for him at the next level, that’s very important.”
Hearing this was very intriguing to me as figuring out where he will line up in the Bengals defense. I’ve talked about him lining up in the outside linebacker role in some base sets and being a nickel or dime linebacker for obvious passing downs. Finding a more specialization role for Jefferson makes sense when you remember that he was covering for holes in the Longhorn defense. In Cincinnati, Jefferson won’t have to cover up other holes in the defense and the Bengals can have him focus on his strengths. So where would he benefit lining up?
“The beauty of the NFL, fewer players are required to cover for roster deficiencies. Malik will specialize more at the next level (IMO). Malik is a chaser, pursuit player. Remember he also played in the uptempo Big 12, where linebackers are feasted on in the passing game. To an extent, he’ll be able to defend the pass well and against a wider variety of threats (athleticism). I like him best at an odd front weak side OLB, less so in a traditional 4-3 Will role because of the deficiencies you pointed out in your preview of the player.”
Jefferson was tested in coverage at Texas and had success when covering tight ends, running backs, and some slot receivers. His 4.52 40-dash is rare speed for a linebacker his size so Cincinnati could utilize that in where they play him in their new defense under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Putting him in place to chase running backs instead of plugging holes would benefit the young linebacker as well.
While the Bengals have run the 4-3 scheme, especially in base packages, over recent years there is buzz about them running some 3-4 looks as well. This could be largely beneficial to Jefferson as he played as a 3-4 inside and outside linebacker in college. He would play outside likely in Cincinnati which would take advantage of his skill sets.
“Malik offers versatility and allows for others to handle ‘dirty work’ while he gives chase, angle destroyer, and a good tackler. In a hybrid system (everyone now), I like him as a 3-4 OLB, especially on the weak side in Nickel (new base), and possibly Dime, he’s not a linebacker you take off the field, especially in those two sub-packages, now more common in the league.”
I’m interested to see how Jefferson pairs up against some of the slot receivers in the NFL this season. His speed won’t only be utilized in coverage, however. Jefferson could find himself blitzing from different spots in the defense with Austin wanting to turn the Bengals defense into an aggressive attacking one. Blitzing the passer could be another way Jefferson’s speed could cause problems for offenses.
“He’d be up against inside receivers, in the league, that’s tough! He could probably cover tight ends and backs in pattern with relative ease. If and when teams formation to take advantage of slot-LB match-ups, defenses will adjust. That said, he can pattern-match in zone-blitz schemes and be used as a rush end, tackles will have trouble with his speed.”
Jefferson is one of the most intriguing players the Bengals have acquired this offseason. We will have to wait until preseason and week one of the regular season to see how Cincinnati wants to utilize him his rookie season. If Austin utilizes him in a special role with the defense, we could be in for a great season of watching Jefferson make plays.