When the Bengals open their preseason Saturday night in Tampa against the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers (7:30-Cincinnati's-Channel 12), the NFL career of Bengals quicksilver linebacker Jordan Evans comes to a screeching 360 degrees.
Evans made his debut as the Bengals fastest linebacker against the Bucs in the 2017 preseason opener at Paul Brown Stadium in a position group headed by erstwhile Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict. Burfict, just days away from signing a second contract extension, ruled the middle with a starting group of Kevin Minter and Nick Vigil that was long on instincts, short on speed and had more beef than breeze.
On Saturday night, Evans straddles the eras as the only one left against these Bucs but everyone is just as fast, if not faster. Although that gets you a good-natured debate in a room Evans now owns with 60 games of seasoning.
"The game's changed. It's changed since I've been here," said Evans after Thursday's practice. "I've changed even how my body looks because it's become a pass league and you have to be able to run sideline to sideline. You see the guys they're bringing in now. They've got speed and speed kills. That's just what the league is turning into.
"The game caught up to me," Evans said with a laugh. "I joke with these guys all the time. I'm still the fastest."
The Bengals cleaned house. Before this year's Big Man Draft that netted seven linemen, there was the Backer Draft of 2020 that plucked three speed guys in the seven rounds.
Burfict, who motivated Evans to become more physical by making a distinct sound whenever Evans made a hit on film, is no longer in the picture. Minter, Vigil and Evans fellow rookie Hardy Nickerson are long gone, too, as sophomore Logan Wilson is installed Saturday as the man in the middle with the defensive radio.
If the Bengals offensive line group is under the most scrutiny Saturday, then the backers are a close second. The middle of the field has been a quagmire for them during the past three years they've allowed the most rushing yards in the league.
But after an encouraging training camp of good angles and tipped balls and picked passes (it started with Germaine Pratt ranging for an interception of Joe Burrow down the middle) and speed, speed, speed, they believe this sleeker version of the backers has more of the answers.
"Consistency is the biggest reason they've improved. It's the same guys every day and that's benefitted us," said linebackers coach Al Golden, a hard-driving two-time college head coach who took over in 2020 to complete the overhaul. "We've got more depth. We'll play more guys. It's a good rotation. We've developed some depth."
Wilson has practiced as advertised when they took him in the third round out of Wyoming. With his savvy speed, Wilson, at least one NFL coaching veteran on the staff believes, is on the verge of stardom.
"Logan has become more vocal and better at the line," Golden said.
And he says maybe the most improved is the third-year Pratt, one of the two starting backers and another guy that's faster than anybody they've had there but Evans. The two-backer look is another change Evans has straddled under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.
"You have to be able to do more things. And you still have to be physical. I know that was the knock on me coming out," said Evans, a sixth-rounder from Oklahoma. "But look at the division even since I've been here. Pittsburgh and Baltimore used to be downhill, power teams. But the Steelers spread it out. Baltimore still does it, but they've got Lamar (Jackson) now. I think I've seen a tremendous amount of change."
Hence the addition of Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey in the 2020 draft, a couple of 230-pound guys that can run and were used to lining up all over the field in college. Bailey, the seventh-rounder out of Purdue, took less than 200 snaps from scrimmage as he rehabbed from a torn ACL.
But he's looked more healthy this camp with one interception and a slew of tips.
"I'm excited to see these guys. It's like they're still rookies. They didn't have a preseason last year," Evans said. "The biggest jump is between year one and year two."
Here's what Golden wants to see from his guys Saturday:
"Limited mistakes. Play fast. Play hard. Who can take the technique into the game and play with poise."
The 6-0, 235-pound Bailey (the Bengals bookended the 2020 draft with Ohio when they took Burrow out of Athens and Bailey out of Columbus) is a poster board for what the Bengals seek at that spot. They want them all to play all the spots on all three downs and at Purdue Bailey played on the ball in a 3-4 and in space in a 4-3. Just about what Anarumo wants him to do here.
For instance, when Bailey is next to Wilson, he's playing the WILL. If he's next to Pratt, he's working the middle at MIKE.
"You get cleared at a certain time, but you need to get back to adapting to the stresses football requires," Bailey said of the knee injury. "It just takes a long time and I've been getting more experience taking plays over and over in different defenses against certain offensive plays. It's slowing down for me."
If it sounds like Bailey has a degree in movement and sport sciences, he does. Not only that, he's got a master's in leadership, but Evans has that covered in a room where he used to learn from Burfict and Vincent Rey.
"Tez was one of the best linebackers I've ever seen. If anybody knows what he can do and what he's about, they know that's a true statement," Evans said. "He's the one that made me more physical. In film, he used to make a noise every time I hit somebody and it pissed me off, so I wanted to go hit somebody.
"The way he reads out a play, the way he attacks blockers, he just continued to feed me at a young age. I only had two years with him, but they were very beneficial. I learned a lot from Vinny Rey, too. Those are the things I still hold on to and I'm looking to pass on. I want everyone to get better."
Bailey confirms Evans has been that guy. They both share the late-round tag.
"He's helping me off the field with the business side of it," Bailey said. "He was a late-round pick and he talks about how there are so many things out of your control. End of the day, it's just controlling what you can control."
Talk about leading by example. He came back in 2020 with a different type of body to match the defense and he does what Evans does. He's there when you need him. On 62 snaps last season, he had two sacks, an interception, and a fumble recovery.
"He's a football guy. Football is what makes him tick," Pratt said. "Whenever he gets an opportunity, he takes advantage."
Which is what a preseason opener is all about. No matter the era.