The Bengals came out of the first two nights of the NFL Draft emboldened with three players they targeted in the first three rounds and they did it by not budging an inch from their virtual big board.
Head coach Zac Taylor and Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin were surrounded by their families when Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins tumbled out of first round to start the second Friday night. When the board rewarded their patience, it was all relative when it yielded Wyoming inside linebacker Logan Wilson to start the third round at No. 65.
"Best-case scenario. Truthfully. I think this was the best-case scenario," Taylor said. "As we came into today, if you said that we were going to go get a receiver and a linebacker that we had at the top of our board, we were going to get both of them, I would have thought that you were crazy. I would have thought you probably had to trade back and then trade up. For the way that it happened for us today, just standing firm at 33 and 65, is surprising that it worked out for us."
Everybody knew they were going to take LSU quarterback Joe Burrow No. 1 on Thursday night. Everyone knew they were looking to get him another outside weapon from one of the deepest wide receiver crops ever. Everyone knew they desperately needed a three-down linebacker for the NFL's last-ranked run defense.
Done even before the final day starts Saturday after getting out of Thursday and Friday with what could have been three picks from as high as their top 30. And with a flourish in the person of the 6-2, 241-pound Wilson, a guy that the scouts and senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner had been stalking even before the Bengals played against him in the Senior Bowl. The wait between No. 33 and No. 65 seemed almost as long as the three months since the Senior Bowl.
"Holding our breath," is the way Taylor put it.
Duffner had been filling in because new linebackers coach Al Golden's first day on the job wasn't until the Senior Bowl and after watching tape prepping for the all-star game in Mobile, Ala., Duffner, coaching NFL linebackers for the last 24 seasons, conferred with scouting director Mike Potts to tell him how much he loved two guys. Texas Tech's Jordyn Brooks and Wilson, a converted 195-pound cornerback and wide receiver who didn't start playing linebacker until he got to Casper. Which didn't surprise the scouts because they had been watching these guys all season and Golden became all in, too.
"He had the right mentality every step of the way. I know that's one of the things that Al Golden loves about him," Taylor said of Wilson. "As he's gotten to know him over this process with (defensive coordinator) Lou Anarumo) and all those guys on the defensive side of the ball."
When Seattle foiled them with the 27th pick to take Brooks, Wilson was probably talked about in the second round since they believe he'll provide an immediate impact on defense. But Higgins' dripping first-round talent of 27 touchdowns in 37 games couldn't be ignored.
"If you walked into the first day of the draft," Taylor said, '"and said, 'Somehow, someway, we're going to end up with Logan Wilson on our team,' you don't really care where you take him because you're planning on that guy coming in and playing a big role for you. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what round you got him in."
The Bengals knew at some point coaching the Senior Bowl would pay dividends even if they didn't actually coach a guy. They saw Wilson enough on and off the practice field during the week and when Friday came they were able to interview players from the North in exclusive sessions that make coaching in Mobile worth it.
But Duffner wanted to talk to Wilson a little longer and asked him if he'd be available before the game the next day. Wilson said sure and after he went to chapel and Duffner went to Mass they talked for about 40 minutes.
"I wanted to kidnap him and drive him back to Cincinnati right then," Duffner said. "Hard not to love a guy like that. A three-year captain. You don't see many of those guys."
When Duffner coached the Jaguars linebackers, he always said Paul Posluszny should have his picture in the dictionary next to the term "middle linebacker." Duffner coached the 6-2, 232-pound Posluszny, a second-rounder, to the 2013 Pro Bowl and he thinks Wilson has the potential to join Posluszny in the dictionary and he "may be faster."
Wilson ran 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine and while his measurables didn't jump off the page, except for his vertical jump they were all in or close to upper half of the other backers. He checks three of the four measurables backers supposedly need: a three-cone drill time of 7.2 second or faster, a broad jump of at least 112 inches and a 40 faster than 4.8.
But forget all that. He started 52 games and piled up production like this:
Among active players in 2019, he ranked: No. 1 among FBS players in the nation in career defensive TDs (4), No. 1 among active FBS players in career solo tackles (253), No. 2 in career total tackles (421), No. 4 in career interception return touchdowns ( 2), No. 6 in career interceptions (10), No. 6 in career solo tackles per game (4.87) and No. 8 among active FBS players in career total tackles per game (8.10). Plus, the man had 34.5 tackles for loss. If the athleticism doesn't jump out, the instincts do.
His NFL comp appears to be San Francisco's Fred Warner, the 70th pick in 2018 with 242 career tackles already to go with last season's November NFC Defensive Player of the Month.
"I definitely have instincts. I think I read and react to plays very well, and that's why I have those stats," Wilson said.
And all this is very huge. Instincts. Those are the first things Anarumo talked about at the combine in what he was seeking in a rookie linebacker. And he checks the box big time with Wilson.
Since 2015, Wilson is the fifth linebacker they've taken in the third round. Only he and Germaine Pratt are left and the instincts are to say they had everything but instincts. Wilson is listed as a MIKE, but he can play SAM and the same can probably be said of free-agent Josh Bynes. You'd have to feel they want to find a way to get both on the field, given what they've invested. They see him as a stack backer with no edge work.
"He can run, and he's done a lot of things. You like the guys that have done some of those things, and then they move over and play their final position," Taylor said. "He was in a passing conference, so this guy's had to drop back in coverage, be able to cover guys in space, and then be able to go tackle guys in space. There's some pretty good space players in our division right now, so you need a linebacker like this."
Translation: Lamar Jackson, Lamar Jackson, Lamar Jackson. The Bengals were one of the poorest tackling teams last season and Wilson is one of the nation's surest tacklers, according to profootballfocus.com.
"You like to find a guy that can play all three downs for you. Sometimes you get later in the draft and those guys aren't available, but Logan is a guy that fits that profile," Taylor said. "We identified him as a three-down player right from the get-go, and so we expect him to play multiple roles for us in that regard. Yeah, of course you want them. There's not a ton of guys that can do that, but you're always looking for those guys that can be just as good defending the run as they do the pass, and Logan is one of those guys that we feel good about."
PFF's numbers this season suggest the versatility: a 90.6 run-defense grade, an 87.3 pass-rushing grade and an 81.9 coverage grade.
"I know they needed a linebacker, and I'm very (much) looking forward to the opportunity of coming in, earning the respect of the guys in the locker room, and then just being able to fly around and make some plays," Wilson said. "I'm going to play at a very high (level of) effort. Bengals fans can count on that. I'm going to give Cincinnati everything I have."