Marvin Lewis is looking at a team that may end up even younger than the 2011 kiddies.
Even head coach Marvin Lewis is admitting these days that going young can be a good thing. Lewis, a friend to veterans everywhere, acknowledged after Friday's walk-through that this may very well be his youngest team since the 2011 edition stocked by rookies A.J. Green and Andy Dalton shocked the world to win a Wild Card berth at 9-7.
Could they be better than that club despite the youth? Lewis sounds like he thinks they have a chance as they prep for Sunday's game (4:30-Cincinnati's Channel 19) in Washington.
"Well, because the guys at the top of the draft in '11 are better now than they were then," Lewis said. "And the guys that were drafted in '10 (Pro Bowl defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap) are better now than they were then. That's good."
They are definitely going to be younger than last season, when the average age was 26.30 years old. Just the presence of a pair of 21-year-olds, rookie running back Joe Mixon and rookie wide receiver Josh Malone, should guarantee that. And they'll be much younger than last year's average years of experience of 4.55. That may actually be lower than the 2011 Cut down roster's average years of experience of 3.75. Consider the '11 team's original 53 had a total of 16 rookies, first-year, and second-year players. When the 2017 Bengals cut down in eight days, they could have as many as 20.
Is Lewis getting easier in his old age?
"There's something to be said when the old coach says there's something to be said for young guys," Lewis said with a smile. "I like old guys, but our job as coaches is to develop young guys. Because they last longer. It's just proven. That's the way it is. We believe in building the team through the draft."
Joe Mixon, 21, will help lower that average roster age.
Lewis takes a good ribbing from members of the sporting press about his affinity for veteran players. But why shouldn't he?
Guys like defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry, 32, a 10-year vet, has had a ton of big games for him and reached the postseason four times as a Bengal. Not only that, he's a great locker room influence as an extremely bright guy with an Alpha personality. But he played just five snaps in the opener and seven last week as kids like Chris Smith and Marcus Hardison and rookies like Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson get most of the snaps.
"A lot of kids," Gilberry said. "You still need somebody to guide them. There's always a place for a guy like me."
Cincinnati Bengals host practice at Paul Brown Stadium Practice Fields
He's right about that and it is Lewis' delicate job of molding just enough youth with experience. But there are some training camps, like this one, when the last two draft classes have played well enough where Lewis says, "They've done what we expected them to do."
So youth is served. Lewis thinks it's another validation of how well director of player personnel Duke Tobin coordinates the input of the coaches in the draft room. Not a lot of NFL assistants have the sway of selecting a player that a Bengals coach has.
"The coaches understand that. It's great to be in a place where they can voice their opinion and we have to make a decision," Lewis said. "Some places they're locked in a side room and their opinion doesn't really matter. At least we're able to do due diligence and we all go in the room and decide together. 'This is why.' Duke has done a great job deciding that."
The decision on the final cuts is a little more streamlined than the draft. Tobin and his scouts have input. The assistants have input. But it comes down to one thing. This is Lewis' call in conjunction with Bengals president Mike Brown.
"He wants me and him to be united," Lewis said. "More important is Mike and I are on the same page."
Lewis admits that Brown usually wants the younger guy, but they see this thing pretty much the same way.
"You can probably figure out his list is always a little heavier one way than the other," Lewis said. "We are not that far apart"
CHRIS SMITH TACKLES PRO BOWLER WHILE ADMIRING HIS ROOKIE MATES
Chris Smith likes to finish every game he plays with at least one sack and that fits in nicely with Sunday's matchup in Washington (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) that pits the two teams with the longest streaks in the NFL of least one sack.
Smith, the torrid fourth-year nickel pass rusher at right end who has more hits this preseason than Williams and DiMaggio in '41, joins the rookie edge duo of Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis for their biggest test of the summer in the person of Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams.
Williams, the eight-year pro from Oklahoma, is a formidable opponent for three young rushers that have flashed in the Bengals' preseason. Lawson (shoulder), a fourth-rounder also trying his hand at SAM linebacker, has played only briefly in one game but was a workhorse in the open practices. Smith and Willis have racked up the better grades on the team in the two games with Smith securing a sack and 11 hits on the quarterback and Willis, who can play both left and right end in base and nickel, racking up two sacks, three hits, and five tackles.
"He's been doing it for a while. It's great to be able to go against Pro Bowl tackles," Smith said of Williams before Friday morning's walk-through. "The thing about Trent is his athleticism. He gets a lot of speed guys over there and he loves that because I think he plays some basketball after taking to some guys that know him from Oklahoma. You have to switch it up."
All three look about to make a club that is rapidly looking like what head coach Marvin Lewis calls the youngest Bengals team since 2011. Smith, stolen from the Jaguars in what could end up costing only a seventh-round pick, is a speed rusher himself and he'll stay that way on Sunday. Smith is a tape watcher of Pro Bowl tackles like Williams, Dallas' Tyron Smith, and former Chief Branden Albert, but learned maybe his most valuable lesson from watching rusher Dwight Freeney.
"When I was watching guys like Freeney, no matter what tackles they go against they always beat them. One thing about Freeney is he's going to do what he does. This week I'm not going to change what I do. I just have to bring it a little bit harder."
Smith, a fifth-round pick by Jacksonville, is a guy that has lived on the edge of the NFL so he's got a pretty good perspective on Willis and Lawson.
"(Willis) is one guy even though he's a rookie he thinks like he's a veteran," Smith said. "I call him 'J. Smooth.' He's so smooth with his rushing. It looks like he gives you one thing, but you don t know if he's going to spin, or bull, or cross chop and he has that vet mindset already. When guys have that they play for a long time.
"Lawson reminds of (Kansas City's) Dee Ford. He bends and he's fast around the edge."
There's no question the three edge guys have re-energized a lackluster Bengals' pass rush that had just 33 sacks last season. Still, the Bengals come into the season with a sack in at least 29 straight games to lead the NFL, ahead of Washington's 24.
WILLIAMS ESCAPES SURGERY, SEPT. 23 vs. PACK LOOMS
The word earlier in the week had been the target date for the return of starting safety Shawn Williams was Oct. 1 in Cleveland with the hope he'll be back the week before for the third game of the year in Green Bay Sept. 23. On Friday head coach Marvin Lewis said nothing to upset that apple cart and said Williams doesn't need surgery for his dislocated elbow.
"Everything's great. As he said, he's not going to let them keep a good man down," Lewis said. "He's in a brace and moving very well. He's way ahead of where the doctors thought he would be."