Fast and Furious for Bengals depth chart

Posted Apr 29, 2017

In a need for speed the Bengals quenched their thirst at the Fountain of Youth at the top with the draft’s fastest player ever in No. 1 pick John Ross. And they kept on going when they picked three other players that either had the fastest 40 time in their position group or would have if they were invited to the NFL scouting combine.

The drafting of John Ross No. 1 signalled a run on the Bengals' draft board.

Remember the scene in the great baseball movie “A League of Their Own,” when scout Ernie Capadino gazes from the window and sees his two recruits in a mad dash to catch the rumbling train?

 “Well, I’ll say one thing for them,” he says. “They can run.”

 Welcome to the afterburners of the Bengals’ 2017 NFL draft. When the exhaust fumes cleared and the Bengals finished off their weekend of an NFL-high 11 draft picks, they were so fast that even special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons had a smile on Saturday.

“We’re way up there. I want to scare people,” Simmons said after they had added three returners and a kicker with the help of a Bengals-rare trade-up. “It’s good to scare people. Speed kills. The fear factor is a very motivating thing. Speed scares everyone.”

It was fast enough that CBS Sports called the Bengals the team that improved the most in the draft.

The special teams coach on any team is always the guy to go to for the pulse of the roster and, yes, he says, there is a need for speed and the Bengals quenched their thirst at the Fountain of Youth at the top with the draft’s fastest player ever in No. 1 pick John Ross.

 And they kept on going when they picked three other players that either had the fastest 40 time in their position group or would have if they were invited to the NFL scouting combine.

“There’s an evolution in college football, so it’s only natural that the NFL follow suit,” said head coach Marvin Lewis of a sport that keeps spreading out and relying more and more on speed.

 Despite his 228 pounds second-round running back Joe Mixon ran his 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds. Third-rounder Jordan Willis, a defensive end from Kansas State, had the fastest 40 of any D-lineman at the combine with 4.53 seconds. The first of three fourth-rounders, Auburn nickel rusher Carl Lawson, broke 4.7 seconds, and the second one, Tennessee wide receiver Josh Malone, has a breathless sped-size combo of 4.39 seconds with a 6-3ish, 208 pounds

 Then they traded up for just the fourth time in 50 drafts when they gave their first of two seventh rounders to go get Houston safety Brandon Wilson in the sixth round. Wilson, uninvited to the combine, ran 4.35 seconds at his workout, which would have led the combine safeties.

“Any time you trade forward, you’re targeting a player,” Lewis said. “We felt like, in that case, Brandon fit us in a good spot. We hadn’t taken a player at that position, and he’d have an opportunity to come in and really make us better. He’ll compete.”

Nearly everyone is going to compete, making it one of the most interesting training camps in Lewis’ 15 seasons. Before they traded up they plucked Oklahoma linebacker Jordan Evans in the sixth, another non-combine guy that blistered the 40 at his pro day in 4.51 seconds. That would have led the backers in Indy, too. Only Jabrill Peppers’ 4.46 was faster, but he belonged with the defensive backs.

 The competition starts at wide receiver, where Ross and Malone are busting into a position room already brimming with rookies from last year backing up the top three, sixth-rounder Cody Core and college free agent Alex Erickson.

Jordan Willis was the fastest defensive lineman in Indy.

Then go to the defensive line, where Willis could be an heir apparent starting end and Lawson waits to see if they count him with the linebackers or line when he comes off the edge on third down as veteran back-up edge guys Wallace Gilberry and Will Clarke grind back in the mix.

Throw in the last of the three fourth rounders, respected Michigan run-stuffer Ryan Glasgow, and there is a free-for-all at tackle after starters Geno Atkins and Andrew Billings. They’ll probably keep four and there is already Marcus Hardison, Pat Sims, Brandon Thompson and DeShawn Williams.

Evans is trying to crash the linebacker party where all six dress for games and Wilson, a kick returner who can also be a cover guy, is trying to dent a safety corps that includes special teams aces Clayton Fejedelem and Derron Smith that dressed every game.

“It is a lot of competition, and hopefully it opens some eyes,” Lewis said. “It’s good, because no place should be guaranteed. It gives us an opportunity to push to get better. We will get better with speed, playmaking, athleticism and so forth, so those are good things.”   

Emblematic of the competition is the depth chart for Simmons, no doubt his best draft in his 15 years with the club. He has no qualms about putting Ross or Mixon back there to return kick-offs even though they’re the first two picks.

“It’s not my call, but John had four touchdowns, so obviously he’s got something there,” Simmons said. “Joe had one earlier this year against Ohio State and he’s the more prototypical old school, bigger guy that can break tackles. But he can run. And Wilson, we had him on our board for returners. I’m not throwing in the towel on Alex Erickson for God’s sake. He led the AFC in kick returns.”

This is the kind of day Simmons had in the sixth round. Evans and Wilson are linked by one of the signature plays of the 2016 college season.

In an early-season matchup between Wilson’s Cougars and Evans’ Sooners, Oklahoma lined up for a 53-yard field goal. It was short and Wilson returned it 109 yards for a highlight-reel touchdown.

It was one of Wilson’s eight career touchdowns he scored six different ways: the missed field goal, two rushing, two kick returns, a fumble return, and interception return and a blocked field goal return.

“He can help you plenty of ways,” Simmons said.  “He used to be a running back, so he can do a lot of different things for you.”

But these guys just aren’t dancers. The Bengals seemed to have found fast guys who are also physical and have been known to show up with lunch pails. Lewis says even though they were fast, they had to have production first. Simmons says even the kicker drafted in the fifth round, Jake Elliott of Memphis, is tough. He says Wilson likes to mix it up and old friend Willie Anderson can’t say enough about Lawson, his fellow Auburn Tiger who went to his son’s high school in suburban Atlanta.

 Carl Lawson was No. 1 on the Bengals' last day board and got him.

Great kid. Coaches love him. Parents love him. Mothers want him to marry their daughters,” said Anderson, who knows such things because Lawson works out with pass rush specialist Chuck Smith in the facility where Anderson’s offensive line camp works.

“But he gets on the field and he’s nasty. Look out,” Anderson said. “I saw him at a seven-on-seven camp once in high school and they were absolutely afraid of him.”

Willis also married speed with sheer production and effort. Indeed, his motor is what stood out to defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. His value in the third round shot through the roof. They see Willis as an eventual three-down player who was worthy of a second-rounder in the grouping with Mixon.

“He plays hard every snap. In that league (the Big 12), there’s a lot of passing teams that have 80, 85, 90 snaps a game, and he never come off the field,” Guenther said. “He’s always running to the ball. When you look at the guy — to start it off — we did extensive research on a lot of these guys across the board, the different measurements and sizes and all those things, and that’s what really stood off the tape to watch with him is how hard he plays.

“You can see that there are some things that show up that are NFL traits right away — his body lean, his bend, and his relentlessness, obviously. I think he had, I don’t know, 11-and-a-half sacks last year, nine-and-a-half the year before, and a lot of tackles for loss. It’s a great guy to have on your team. Anytime you have a guy that plays as hard as he does, it gets to everybody.”



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