D.J Reader, not only the richest free agent in the history of the Bengals but the highest-rated, has come to town as hungry as the kid out of Clemson that arrived in Houston four years ago.
Except back then, he wasn't so much taken under the wing but enveloped by his defensive tackle mate, J.J. Watt, already a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year whom lockered next to him all four years down there.
Now Reader, who just turned 26 last month, is one of those pulling people under his 6-3, 320-pound wingspan.
That's one reason why the Bengals paid him $52 million for the next four years to not only play the nose, but up and down the line. The guy's got a tremendous personality oozing with leadership.
But he's also smart and he knows that he's on the line with an eight-time Pro Bowl tackle in Geno Atkins headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and left end Carlos Dunlap is about to become the Bengals' all-time sack leader.
"I was more of a sidekick in Houston," Reader said Wednesday on an engaging Zoom call in his first Cincinnati media appearance. "I had a really big leader in my room and still here, you know I got two big leaders in my room, so I just kind of come in and fill in a role that (is) me being me and just trying to go about it the right way and going about it in a way it which to win.
"Winning is hard. It's tough to do it in this league and everybody's trying to do it, so I think that's the biggest thing, just trying to keep guys on the winning mindset and just how you go about winning."
Playing with Watt for the past four seasons clearly left an impression on Reader in a relationship that is still ongoing after an offseason they spent working out together in Houston.
"Respect is earned, not given. You've got to punch the clock every day. I think it was that for me," Reader said. "Just watching him put in that work every single day. He punched the clock every day and never was it a day off, and I've always appreciated that from him. And then along with him being one of my best friends. I can still reach out and talk to him and text him at any time. He always had an open-door policy, so it's just that kind of vet that you need to be able to always count on, was a good guy and still is a good guy. He did a good job of taking me in under his arm. "
Watt's message to his friend was direct that day in March Reader flew the nest for Paul Brown Stadium.
"He was proud of me. (He said) I deserved it. He's always been a big fan and always hyping me up," Reader said. "He was just proud of me and happy. And then I got to spend the whole offseason training with him. So it's just a great opportunity to push each other and know that I have that friendship for life. "
He can't seem to get away from the family with brothers T.J. and Derek Watt lining up the Steelers this season.
"I'm excited. I get to see the two little brothers twice a year," Reader said.
With reports that the Bengals are planning to put wide receiver John Ross on the Covid list, it appears rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins is no longer going to be eased into training camp.
Higgins, the first pick in the second round, figures to be a frequent option in replacing Ross' Z position in the starting lineup opposite A.J. Green at the X and Tyler Boyd in the slot.
Higgins, who holds the Clemson touchdown receiving record with Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, has been wondering what it is going to be like to be on the field with Green, his boyhood idol. With helmets coming out Thursday and the pads going on Tuesday, Higgins figures to get a lot more chances playing with Green now that Ross is out for an indefinite length of time.
It's a tough break for Ross. Word is that he arrived in camp in the best football shape of his pro career. But things changed quickly, according to reports, when Ross had to get back to Los Angeles, where his son and mother of the child fell victim to Covid.