D.J. Reader has beached the Cap'n Crunch this offseason, among other carbs, as the Bengals' new, lighter anchor looks to expand on a role that made him one of the NFL's top young defensive linemen for the Texans last year.
When Reader and the rest of his teammates get on the field at Paul Brown Stadium, the only thing heavy about him is going to be that $53 million deal the Bengals gave him three months ago. Reader says he has shed about 20 pounds, is now about 320 and remains hungry despite becoming the NFL's the highest-paid nose tackle.
"I want to do the things that are going to make me a better player this year," Reader said recently. "Maybe get a little more quicker. My reps might go up, you never know. I wanted to be prepared for everything. I wanted to make sure I'm going to be in the best shape of my career. Play better and yet still be strong."
Defensive line coach Nick Eason, a veteran of 121 NFL games, says the lower weight won't bother Reader at all inside. He looks at Reader's 6-3 frame and sees an ascending player doing whatever he can to get better.
"You carry around a 20-pound weight on your back and then take it off and see how much of a difference it is," Eason said. "He's not a small guy. He's still big. He could lose 20 more pounds and still be bigger than most everybody. I think he's just doing what he can to be a better player and being more elusive and quicker."
His reps may increase. And not, they hope, because the Bengals have taken more defensive snaps than any team over the last three seasons. They want and need to end that. But because Reader, who turns 26 in three weeks, can add so much to what amounts to a new defense.
"We talked about that level of expectation we're going to have for him," Eason said. "He's going to be in involved in our sub packages and every package we have. His role is going to be expanded with us. His role is going to more than in Houston."
The snap counts remain to be seen, of course. So much of it depends on injuries and situations. The most snaps Reader has played in his four seasons is 638, or 60 percent of the Texans' load in 2018. Last year he followed it up with nearly the same, 621 for 58 percent. There could be a little bit more than that, but Eason's idea is that they're going to be healthier, deeper and better up front so that everyone gets less work and isn't as worn down as they were last season.
That's when Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins took more than 75 percent of the snaps, right end Sam Hubbard nearly 80 percent and left end Carlos Dunlap nearly 70 percent even though he missed two games with a knee issue. He still had the third most snaps on a line devastated by injury.
Eason, who played in two Super Bowls for the top five Steelers defense as a rotating 3-4 end, knows all about how good defenses keep the snaps down. Atkins and Hubbard averaging more than 50 snaps per game, that's tough.
"You start looking at our snaps, if you're dead last against the run you're probably going to be taking a lot of snaps," Eason said. "That means the ball is moving. Everybody's snaps are going to extremely high compared to (Reader's) because (the Texans) were getting three-and-outs and turnovers. I was on a No. 1 defense and when you're No. 1 in a lot of categories, our starters would have something like 35 snaps and I might have 17. That's not good to have a bunch of snaps."
Reader is one of the big keys to cutting down time on the field. He figures to move out to end in some packages, but that's not the reason he lost the weight.
"He's a multiple position guy. He's got position flexibility," Eason said. "I've seen videos of him training, doing things that are going to help him have a big time, Pro Bowl year."
Reader said he's been able to piece together an off-season regimen much like he did in previous years despite the challenges of the pandemic. It meant finding an unused gym and working alone or with someone else while sanitizing machines and practicing social distancing.
"Pretty much it was just eating right and working out," Reader said. "I changed a couple of habits. I stayed away from carbs. I didn't have as many carbs if I wasn't working out. Just trying to stay on the right side of that. Staying on the water and veggies. Lowering my intake."
It's a pretty basic concept. But it also shows why the Bengals believe Reader can be just as big of an asset in the locker room as well as in the middle of the defense.
"I just want to be better," Reader said. "As best as I can be."