For young NFL linebackers, it's all about the light coming on. The time they take in the dark harnessing their bounty of talent to fit into the intricacies of the position varies and you can see the different stages of light in the early days of the Bengals training camp as they move from night to day.
With WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the de facto defensive captain, sitting out the first four training camp practices sophomore Jordan Evans has opened eyes with some plays at his spot. Evans put in his time last season by taking a surprising 311 rookie snaps as injuries piled up like Gatorade and now he's playing with the confidence of a guy that's lived and learned and knows it's his job to lose those season's first four starts while Burfict serves a suspension for a PEDs violation.
A blazer, Evans has alleviated fears he wouldn't be able to hold up physically and he got his hands on two more balls Saturday after knocking down an Andy Dalton pass on a Friday blitz.
Then there's rookie Malik Jefferson, a third-rounder laboring behind Evans at WILL that looks to be having a much better camp than spring. He's 6-2 and 235 pounds and he's not going to get much bigger. But he's a physical specimen who, like Evans, has rare speed and he's starting to show it after a May and June he looked stunned. A couple of insiders have noted the difference in Jefferson looks like night and day.
"Way, way more comfortable," Jefferson confirmed before Sunday's practice. "(The spring) was four weeks of going real fast. Learning the playbook in four weeks. It was frustrating. I knew what to do, I was just thinking too much about it."
This is why you love veterans that give back and why they make a difference. Back-up backer Vincent Rey has been around here nine years and he could have taken great offense to the drafting of Jefferson. After all, it was the sixth straight draft they picked a backer in the sixth round or higher and third time it was a third-rounder. (Note how the Bengals also keep drafting D-linemen.) Sean Porter never got healthy. They traded Marquis Flowers. P.J. Dawson washed out, but the last two, Evans and Nick Vigil, look to be here to contribute a lot. They're hoping Jefferson is on that same path and Rey has tried to answer his questions.
"He's strong, fast, quick. He's an AFC North linebacker," Rey said. "Those are the guys that come in. He will (learn the spot). He's been doing that and he'll continue to do that.
"I bet he took the playbook home and just went over it a whole bunch. I did that because it's the NFL and this thing is not just line up and run (to) the ball. There are way more plays, way more calls. Just knowing what you have to do, that's tough on its own. Then trying to find out what everybody else is doing, it's a whole other ballgame."
That's exactly what Jefferson said he did during the six-week break. He's still grinding, still trying to pick it up and now there's another adjustment as he figures out playing with the pads and if everybody stays healthy he'll only play on special teams this year. But as Rey has been telling him, "Everybody matters. There's only 46 guys dressed on Sunday. Everybody from top to bottom is important."
"Just over the break I got a better feel of it," Jefferson said. "Things slowed down from what I was looking at on film. I got lot better."
He calls Burfict "a great mentor," and says he's as much a factor on the field now as he was in the spring even though he's not playing. That's because Burfict is talking to them, coaching them, needling them and bringing them water.
"We feed off his energy. We do everything he tells us to do," Jefferson said. "He coaches like Coach. He's an expert. He knows exactly what to do. He's really good to have around. It makes me challenge myself. I just try to imitate his game. Try to think like he does and play as fast as he does."
Burfict may not look like the fastest guy as moves about the field. But when the ball is snapped …
"Unreal," Jefferson said. "Night and day."
It looks like the rookie is starting to see the light.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW: Here's a play from Saturday that shows you how good Evans has been this camp. Wide receiver A.J. Green ran a route over the middle and appeared to drop a throw from Dalton. But a second look shows that Evans dropped back in his zone after patiently sorting out a play-action fake, jumped and barely tipped the ball. It was just enough to screw up Green's timing. It's that athleticism that makes them think they've got a pretty good nickel backer on the make.
HANDING IT TO TATE: Hand size doesn't matter. Just look at rookie wide receiver Auden Tate, the 6-5 behemoth from Florida State. He not only catches everything. He wrenches it out of people's hands or plucks it out of the air at the last instant. You'd think he's got real muckers, but they're only 9 and 3/8 inches, which is average and borders on below average.
"I know they're not that big. I think it's both. Natural strength and working at it," Tate said. "I do squeezing drills when I do my upper body (lifting). I don't know what (Green's) hands are, but they're bigger than mine. I can just tell by how he catches the ball."
But not by much. At the 2011 scouting combine Green's hands measured 9 ¼ inches. Not huge. Slot receiver Tyler Boyd's hands are bigger than both at 9 and 6/8.