Malik Jefferson can play all three backer spots.
We haven’t seen Teryl Austin much at all this offseason, his first as the Bengals defensive coordinator.
But when he surfaced late Friday night in the media room with three of his position coaches from all three levels of his defense, it was a little bit clearer how he plans to take them to the next level.
Versatility, flexibility and multiplicity as the defense swept the second and third rounds for the Bengal draft room with the help of what appeared to be a Bengal first. They traded down in a round to move up in the next when they dealt back eight spots in the second round to pull themselves out of the last pick of Friday night from 100 all the way up to 78.
The Bengals weren’t enamored of the health of the offensive tackles or the talent level of the defensive tackles at this point in the draft. They’re loaded at wide receivers and running back and it was too early to grab a quarterback.
So believing they were looking at the same players at 46 that they would be looking at in the mid-third round, they made the trade with Kansas City.
“We felt moving back eight spots or so would allow us to likely still pick from the same group of players,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “It was good among everyone here because they get to go home a little early. We had a chance to move up and pick in the middle of the round. That was appealing to us.”
So three players staring at them as possibilities with the 46th pick all ended up on Austin’s defense.
With the 54th pick in the second round he got the free safety he’s sought ever since he got here in Wake Forest’s young but instinctive Jessie Bates III. With the 77th and 78th pick in the third round, Austin went back-to-back for a relentless pass rusher the other team always seems to have in Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard by way of Cincinnati’s Moeller High School, and a five-star recruit t Texas who began to play that way this season in linebacker Malik Jefferson.
“One of the things I think you should be able to do is not have guys pigeon-holed. You want to have guys who can move around,” Austin said. Sam plays outside and can rush inside. Bates makes the plays and is strong. There’s a lot of different things here that can go on with Jefferson. He can run, he can play middle or outside. Those are things we are looking for in guys — versatility — so we’re not pigeon-holed into what we can and can’t do.”
What it means for the veteran incumbents remain to be played out since at first blush it doesn’t seem like any of the three rookies will start right away. But the Bengals are running out of roster room at all three positions.
The draftnicks are saying that. Bates, 21, needs some time to develop into a starter, Jefferson comes in behind some experienced guys, and Hubbard figures to keep his rotational role going from college.
Austin is calling Bates “a free safety candidate,” which seems to indicate a slight switch from head coach Marvin Lewis’ insistence a safety is a safety. But this safety sounds like he’ll be playing more of what George Iloka does than Shawn Williams.
The buzz word is “skill set,” in that Bates has a different one than what’s already at safety.
“He was in a system that puts some pressure on safeties when they were covering slots, when it was man-to-man and covering ‘two-way goes,’ and he was holding up,” said safeties coach Robert Livingston.
Jefferson is paying the price for great expectations. He came out of the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, Texas in 2014 as the top backer in the country before becoming a freshman All-America. Since then the pundits have been critical he hasn’t been Superman ever since. But he is gifted with 4.5 40-yard dash speed.
“It’s very tough. You know that Texas puts that pressure on you, because there’s no NFL teams out there for that city,” Jefferson said. “So they put a lot of pressure on you, but they have the right guys there with you. The university will take care of itself, and the guys there will have to step up in the future because of what we were establishing as a foundation there as players for those guys to (follow). The University of Texas did me a great favor for me by preparing me for this day.”
But linebackers coach Jim Haslett isn’t looking for a five-star guy. He’ll take a guy that just wants to star and Jefferson has all the tools
“It adds to what we’ve done the last couple of years with Nick Vigil, a linebacker who can run, and Jordan Evans,” Haslett said. “This was another guy who ran a 4.5. He’s got great speed. He’s got great size and good position. He’s a three-year starter at Texas. He was a captain as a junior, and then came out early. He’s got a lot of upside to him. I went down and worked him out, and he had an outstanding workout. He’s a guy who I honestly thought he wouldn’t be there at this pick. It’s a good pick up for this team. He should be able to help us on special teams, which we need.”
If anybody is impacted by Jefferson it is the undrafted rookies of last season, Hardy Nickerson and Brandon Bell. The man who made the third-round announcements, 209 third-round right end Michael Johnson, doesn’t seem to be in trouble despite the addition of Hubbard. They like the way Johnson can move inside to rush the passer.
But they also like what these three guys bring to the table. It’s believed to be the first time they picked three straight defenders since 2015.
“Each of the guys is different, but I do think they each have the technique,” Austin said. “We talked about the motor in Sam, and in terms of the other guys and how fast and athletic they are. I think we added speed and athleticism, toughness, grit and great motors. All these guys play hard.”
Bengals select Malik Jefferson in the third-round of the 2018 NFL Draft