Undrafted rookie Nikita Whitlock is looking at how Domata Peko (above) sometimes moves from nose tackle to fullback.
The Bengals are expected to announce their smallest rookie free agent class in recent years some time Monday and various tweets and published reports have the estimated dozen headlined by Texas guard Trey Hopkins and Stanford tight end Ryan Hewitt, as well as Wake Forest nose tackle Nikita Whitlock.
The Bengals are going turn the 5-9, 250-pound Whitlock into a pure fullback and not assign him any defense when the rookies can report Monday for their first day of work. Because of the glut of young players already on the depth chart and the addition of eight draft picks, the college free agents have a task that's harder than usual in an effort for even one of them to crack the 53-man Opening Day roster. But it has the makings of a talented practice squad with some intriguing storylines, particularly Whitlock's transition from offense to defense.
He's one of four players that visited Cincinnati last month that the Bengals picked up late in the draft or signed as free agents. While the big-name players get the spotlight during those visits allotted 30 visits, the Bengals make as much hay in the back end of the draft. Also in town were sixth-round pick Marquis Flowers, a linebacker from Arizona, and seventh-rounder James Wright, a wide receiver from LSU, as well as Hopkins.
During his visit, the Bengals outlined how they use defensive tackle Domata Peko in some goal-line and short-yardage situations and Whitlock now has a goal.
"Hopefully I can come in and reverse his role," Whitlock said. "I know he must have a lot on his plate. Maybe I can play fullback and get a few snaps on the defensive line…I think I can play anywhere on the line."
But he won't find out. At least any time soon. The Bengals want him concentrating on fullback, a position he has never played in a game and didn't work at until this past winter when he studied under former Bengals running back Garrison Hearst in Atlanta at Chip Smith's Competitive Edge Sports.
A ferocious competitor who tortured much bigger players in the middle of the Wake Forest line, Whitlock was disappointed when he was told in the middle of last season he'd have to play fullback if he wanted to play in the pros. After all, he was in the mix for ACC Defensive Player of the Year, an award that eventually went to a top 15 pick in Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
"My passion is the defensive line, but I've got a better opportunity to play on the next level at fullback," Whitlock said. "I do believe with my size and speed I could play on the defensive line, but I have to take what I can get. It's put new breath in the game. I'm learning how to run routes and block, it's totally the opposite of trying to tackle somebody. Its basic things and I'm just re-teaching myself."
The Bengals weren't the only team trying to get him to make the transition. Seattle, Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta were on the phone to him after the draft and it came down to that visit. Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons is among the people that attracted him when he came to Paul Brown Stadium.
"I loved the coaches and the atmosphere here," Whitlock said. "I watched film with them and I think there's a role for me. I had good conversation with the special teams coach and that's a spot where I think I can really help."
The Bengals didn't have a conventional fullback last year and they still won't if Whitlock someone wedges his way on to the roster. But given his project status, he probably has to go to the practice squad route first. The Bengals currently use tight end Orson Charles as a fullback and he's going into the second year of his transition. Hewitt is also viewed as a guy that also might be able to play both.
"I think with these two positions (nose tackle and fullback), it's the most natural progression you can make," Whitlock said.
GRADING SEASON: It looks like a mixed bag for the Bengals when it comes to the post-draft grades. They went as high as an A-minus from SI.com to a C from Walter Football.com, which just goes to show it's all in the eye of the beholder.
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. gave them a B: "Pretty good draft for the Bengals, who seem to do this every year."
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports, a big fan of the Bengals drafts, didn't like the pick of LSU running back Jeremy Hill in the second round and gave them a C-plus. WalterFootball.com gave them a C ripping the 2-3-4 picks, saying that third-rounder Will Clarke is more of a 3-4 end and that center Russell Bodine was a reach in the fourth round.
But Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com liked those first four picks and gave them a B: "(The Bengals) have evolved into one of the better drafting teams in the league, consistently filling gaps in the roster via cheaper college prospects, rather than over-paying veterans."