Taylor's Opening Day Lineup Sends A Message

WR Damion Willis
Damion Willis: Bengals' first Opening Day rookie starting wide receiver in seven years.

Everyone thought Bengals rookie head coach Zac Taylor was making a statement about culture on Thursday night when he went for a tie in the last two minutes and change of a pre-season game. They should have waited a couple of days because he delivered an even stronger message on Sunday, two weeks before his first game in Seattle.

Forget, "Next Man Up." It's 'Man Up.' Period.

He announced that not only has undrafted rookie wide receiver Damion Willis replaced injured franchise player A.J. Green in the Sept. 8 Decibel Derby starting lineup at CenturyLink Field, but that Trey Hopkins has supplanted first-rounder Billy Price at center and he'll be next to the team's youngest player when rookie Michael Jordan makes his first NFL start at left guard.

"The way that injuries have hit us has forced younger players, young men, to get more opportunities and play with more confidence," said Taylor, who doesn't like the term "kids." "Those guys are football players. You're around some guys in this league that you wouldn't necessarily say that about. I know that's a weird thing to say. These moments aren't too big for them. They're always competitive. They're always hungry. They love practicing. You see that from both of those rookies. They love the process of going out there and competing. They don't look for a way out of it—they look for a way in. That's what those guys have done, and they've taken those (starting) spots."

The Bengals have had rookies start before. Last year, their first two picks did in Price and safety Jessie Bates. And Jordan becomes the fifth rookie offensive linemen to start on Opening Day in the last nine years, joining right guard Clint Boling (2011), right guard Kevin Zeitler (2012), center Russell Bodine (2014) and Price (2018)

But later on in head coach Marvin Lewis's 16-year tenure they were few and far between. Bates was the first rookie to start on an Opening Day defense since linebacker Rey Maualuga nine years before. Early on in the Green-Dalton Era, Lewis did what he had to do to re-boot and in the 2011 opener he started three rookies on offense in Green, quarterback Andy Dalton and Clint Boling.

The last time two rookies started on an Opening Day on offense was five years ago in Baltimore, when the Bengals beat the Ravens on a Green Go ball with less than five minutes in a game fourth-rounder Russell Bodine started at center and the undrafted Ryan Hewitt started at H-back.

That's how it lines up in Seattle, too. A fourth-rounder in Jordan and the first undrafted Bengals rookie to start since Hewitt in Willis. Plus, Hopkins beat out the guy he backed up last year, something else that doesn't always happen around the league.

They're the kind of moves that get noticed in a locker room.

"It shows that every guy has a chance no matter where you're at in your career or where you're at here. He's shown he can play, he deserves the opportunity. Happy for (them)," said veteran wide receiver Alex Erickson. "No matter what age you are, if you come in here and show that you can play and you prove it on the practice field and in preseason, you get the opportunity to play and start."

Wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell, who had been turned on to Troy's Willis during the draft by southeast scout Mike Potts, noticed, too.

"I really believe that everywhere, especially here with coach, the best players are going to play and you're going to get your shot," said Bicknell, working with his fifth NFL team. "I do think that we give these guys opportunities early on that maybe some places it's harder to do that. But we allow them to go out there and practice and not worry about who's in with who. I've been with places where it was 'Oh, my gosh, this guy was in with that guy.' You know, who cares? I think that's been beneficial for all these guys."

Hopkins, an undrafted free agent himself in Hewitt's class, is another example of how the Bengals have gone everywhere to find hidden gems. Hopkins just didn't stumble in. He started at right guard in the 2017 opener, started nine games in three different spots last season when he drew raves for his six starts in place of the injured Price and has 21 NFL starts already. For as much grief as Lewis got for not playing young guys, reality is he teamed with director of player personnel Duke Tobin's staff to give undrafted guys like Hopkins, Hewitt and linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Vincent Rey not only key roles, but second contracts and in Burfict's and Rey's case third contracts.

"Our scouts do as good as job as any place. I've been with five teams in this league and our scouts do as good a job as anybody identifying all the different people that we should look at," Bicknell said. "Mike Potts had seen Damion and really if you look around at a lot of the guys in this league that are kind of surprising people, to be honest we were on every one of them because of those guys."

But still, Taylor had to pull the trigger. To both guys' credit, neither Taylor nor Price blamed the move on Price's sore foot that kept him out of training camp for the first part of the first week.

Taylor: "If someone comes in and steps their game up, they earn that spot. It gives more opportunity. There's nothing anybody could have done to control that other than Trey Hopkins. He took advantage of it."

Price: "If you are not there day one at your job somebody else is going to step in, right? It is what it is. Again, that is not the reason Trey got the starting job. He's an excellent athlete who is going to continue to perform very, very well. The competition is going to continue to push him, push myself wherever I fit in this equation, whether it's left guard, right guard or center, whatever it is, I'm here for the team, ready for the long run as coach said and do whatever I can to get back in the starting lineup."

Hopkins admitted he didn't see this coming until the last couple of weeks. He started in Price's place in the second pre-season game and then Price came back last Thursday to get the start while Hopkins worked with the second unit.

"He's in the business of winning," Hopkins said of Taylor. "It's not about politics so much or what is perceived as politics. It's about competing and winning and giving us the best opportunity to win, no matter who that is with week to week, game to game. He's in the business of trying to get us where we want to be, which is the Super Bowl."

A starting rookie wide receiver on Opening Day for the Bengals is even rarer. Willis becomes the first one since the undrafted Armon Binns in 2012. Here's the thing, though. Binns came out of the University of Cincinnati. Willis had his visit to UC pulled at the last minute when he was coming out of Meridian, Miss., and he ended up going to Eastern Mississippi Community College.

It just shows the unbelievable journey that Willis has been on. Taylor announced the news at Sunday's news conference, but apparently didn't tell Willis. On Thursday night, after launching himself over whom he called one of the best cornerbacks in the league in the Giants' Janoris Jenkins for a 33-yard catch, he said he was worried about making the team. Even after the media let him in on the news Sunday that he was starting for a guy he grew up watching in Green, Willis said he'd prefer to wait until the cuts are announced on Saturday before he contacted family and friends.

"It's just football at the end of the day," Willis said. "Since y'all just told me the news, I'm kind of excited now. I haven't been thinking about Seattle. I've just been thinking about this game coming up this week. It's a great opportunity."

Veteran wide receiver Tyler Boyd felt the move showed a couple of things about the offense and culture Taylor has brought to the Bengals.

"It just shows that any guy can kill in the scheme that he's coaching. Not any guy, but any guy that comes in that's ready to work, that's hungry, that pays attention to details," Boyd said. "Just stays sharp on his craft, just watches film, soaking all the knowledge that Zac is giving. Because everybody has their fair chance of opportunities to showcase what they can do."

For Taylor, it just seemed like it was another day of evaluation. Another day of grinding the tape and scanning the laptop.

"We don't want these guys to go out there with any fear of failing. They've got to go out there and attack, so we don't even approach that with them, nor do we think that way," Taylor said. "We're going to put them in position where they can go out there and play with full confidence. I don't anticipate any of those guys having the 'deer in the headlights' moment because they haven't shown it, and we don't expect it to happen."

Taylor's record is still 0-0. But two weeks to go until the first one may have been his biggest day yet.

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