The Cincinnati Bengals struggled to stop the run in 2017, but defensive end Jordan Willis could be a big answer along the defensive line in 2018.
Cincinnati Bengals fans look at linebacker Carl Lawson when they think of edge rushers last season from their rookie class. Many forget about the defensive end that was drafted just before Lawson in Jordan Willis. While Lawson racked up 8.5 sacks last season which is the stat line that grabs the most attention, Willis played a limited role along the defensive line but shined against the rushing attack.
Coming into the NFL, Willis was a very raw product. Still, plenty to develop, but the potential for Willis is unreal. We are looking at a player that can develop into not only just another pass rushing edge but a player that can get into the backfield and stop the run game. The rushing game was where Lawson struggled last season.
Among the defensive end position, Willis had the fewest defensive snaps last year with only 31 percent. Even Chris Smith had more reps than the rookie walking away with 35 percent. Smith left this offseason for the Cleveland Browns which leaves an opening for Willis. Defensive end Michael Johnson will also see his snaps fall this season given his age and stiffness. Johnson revamped his career last season when moving inside on passing downs. He was on the field for almost 60 percent of the defensive snaps and at his age, will not be able to do the same in 2018 successfully.
I think that Johnson and Willis will likely switch roles this season. Willis will be a three-down lineman and get around 60 percent of the defensive snaps while Johnson will rotate in but spend more time on the inside in passing situations where he was able to get into the backfield. I will write up something on Johnson shortly about what I expect his roles to be in 2018.
The only other player that will be looking for snaps outside of the players is the third-round pick, Sam Hubbard. He will likely have a limited role and specifically on passing downs which will leave those early downs to Willis. I would say that Hubbard will pick up what was left behind by Chris Smith this season. Here is what Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com had to say about Willis:
"“I’m a Jordan Willis guy, too, but I think he makes Michael Johnson better. Willis figures to be the every-down right end, but Johnson revived his career last season when he moved inside on passing downs. Johnson should be even better playing fewer snaps. He can give you six to seven to eight sacks in that role a la Wallace Gilberry. Plus, Mike’s leadership and what he means to the group and team is huge. This is a developmental year for Sam Hubbard, although he’ll help as a rusher on passing downs.”"
ESPN’s Katherine Terrell spent a day following around new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin during camps and some of her interviews with coaches, some said that Willis should have seen more snaps in 2017. The Bengals want to utilize him more in Austin’s new defensive scheme in 2018, and he should play a significant role. Early downs are where Willis will see a bulk load of snaps this season in my opinion. Given that Lawson will be in more linebacker responsibilities in base packages and Michael Johnson getting older, Willis will step into the role of defensive end across from Carlos Dunlap.
The play above might be one of my favorites that I saw from Jordan Willis last season. Not only does he get off his original blocker, but he also gets through the swinging guard to make the tackle in the backfield. His strength and awareness prove he should see a significant amount of playing time in 2018. Even when offensive linemen are all over him, he has the awareness and strength to still grab ahold of running backs and make the tackle. Here is another example of that.
Cleveland made a mistake here putting a tight end on Willis. He’s able to hold the tight end in play to force the running back inside and right as the back makes it to the hole, Willis grabs him. Another thing that impressed me about Willis was his not only ability to set the edge, but be able to change direction and cut with the running backs that tried to cut inside.
Willis sets the edge beautifully in this play against the Baltimore Ravens forcing the running back inside. Where many edge defenders would not have been able to make the cut with the running back, Willis was able to throw the tight end out of his way and get his hand out to grab ahold of the running back before safety help got there.
During his rookie season, Willis played on 59 percent of the run defense snaps for the Bengals defense. For a player that came into the league as a raw talent with the potential to be great, I think we saw plenty of flashes from him in his limited role last season to expect him to have a breakout 2018 season. In a league where read-options are becoming extremely popular, Willis’ awareness is a huge positive in his game. Not only that but his closing speed.
Houston Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson completely underestimated Willis’ not only awareness but speed to get to the outside. Watson, who proved to be a dangerous weapon running the ball last season before his injury was no match for Willis getting to the outside. I think that speed will be another reason he will turn into a solid pass rusher as well.
Here you can see the tight end make it look like his assignment is to block for the quarterback and then break off for a pass. Willis was so quick to get to the quarterback that the tight end had no chance of catching this pass. His straight-line speed is something that will make him very dangerous around the edge and from the backside on run plays.
I think we will see a significant uptick in snaps for Willis this season. We will likely still see Carl Lawson playing most of the nickel edge rushing sets, but I think that Willis will start to rotate into some of those snaps as well as the season progresses. He’s only of my favorite players to watch this season and see what he can do with a real opportunity.