Emboldened by his encouraging rehab, the addition of his college defensive line coach and the potential return of something near NFL normalcy for a team that had so many close calls, Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader has the same snap-crackle-and-pop optimism he brought with him last season in free agency.
"I'm in good spirits. I'm excited to come back and have a good year," said Reader Tuesday afternoon as he left his daily rehab in Houston. "We've got talent (on defense). Young talent at that. Those guys are in a great age group on that side of the ball. I'm one of the older guys on the defense going into year six. You don't really see that around the NFL."
First things first. Reader, rehabbing a torn quad that ended his superb season in the fifth week, says he has no doubts he'll be on the field at the beginning of training camp.
"Things are going well. It's not like something that is going to hold me back," Reader said. "It's a different day every day. It's a mental battle every day. That makes it fun. It's probably the most serious injury I've ever dealt with, but things are going as well as they can."
After that breakout year in 2019 with the Texans convinced the Bengals to make him the NFL's highest-paid nose tackle, Reader promptly took the next step even though he played just a handful of snaps with Geno Atkins in the middle.
After dropping about 20 pounds last offseason so he could play at about 320 pounds and get in more snaps, Reader responded to the offseason call to play the most downs of his career. In his previous 61 games in Houston, he had played more than 50 snaps in a game five times, topping out at 55 twice. In all four full games last season, he played at least 50 and that included a career-high 68 in Philly and 56 twice.
"I thought I was strong at the point. I played a lot plays. I felt like it worked out for me," Reader said. "I got off to a good start with a new team, but ultimately I wasn't satisfied. I don't think I ever will be.
"I felt like I started to get more pressure on the quarterback. I was making plays on the ball. I was tipping some passes. It was getting to be a lot more fun. I thought I played the run well. But that book is closed, so it's on to next year and I'm excited to see what happens."
Last week the Bengals signed new defensive line coach Marion Hobby, Reader's position coach at Clemson, a move he called "a great add."
"Guys are going to come back healthy, we'll add some guys, let's see what happens," he said of the defense.
A major reason the Bengals set their sights on Reader during that first day of the NFL year they gave him their biggest free-agent deal ever (reportedly four years for $53 million) is his locker room influence. It was obvious they had it and then missed it. He likes helping lead the mix that head coach Zac Taylor has gathered in the opening of the Joe (Burrow)-Tee (Higgins) Era.
"I think we're in a really good place," Reader said. "We've got a good leader who handles the ball for us. I think he makes really, really good decisions out there and he's got some great pieces around him. I think we've got a good coach who is for his players. He's going to make sure those guys, especially on (offense), believe in what they've got going on and he's going to make the team believe in what we've got going on.
"I think ultimately it's on the guys. Defensively, we've got a lot of good guys that can play ball and they know that. That's why it's frustrating. It's not just knowing sometimes. It's just not doing sometimes. When it comes to winning, there are ways you have to go about it and you see it every Sunday from certain teams and certain guys."
Reader may be all of just 27 when he reports to training camp, but he started five playoff games in three different postseasons for the Texans and knows how to get there.
"I've told you guys it's an 8-8 league. That's how it's set up. It's the teams that do the right things over and over that have success," Reader said. "It's not rocket science. It's tough. It's not an easy thing to do. I don't know why people have this notion winning in the NFL is easy. It's not."
But Reader thinks last year's near-wins show something is there despite the stunning amount of injuries at the start of an already truncated season. They could have won three of his first five Bengals games if not for a touchdown taken off the board in the last seven seconds in the opener and a win evaporating in the last 21 seconds in Philly.
"Two of the games we won are with our backup quarterbacks. That says a lot in a team," Reader said. "You're in that game in Washington. Who knows what happens in that game Joe goes down? There's a bunch of games you can point to like that. If we get a little more done in Philly, we don't come out with a tie. That first game of the season, some stuff goes our way and we get that win. Just the games that were close that way.
"Losing to Cleveland at home. Hell, losing to Cleveland there," Reader said. "It's just encouraging knowing you were right there in the game and could see what you did wrong. We're not like a team searching for what we're doing wrong … It just takes a little bit more focus from everybody."
Another reason he's upbeat is that he can't imagine a season more disheveled. The first time he met his teammates was the first workout of training camp. Atkins, the perennial Pro Bowler supposed to be his running mate inside, hurt his shoulder right before the opener and his first game back in Baltimore was the one Reader got hurt.
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Plus, in the first week of training camp, one of Reader's backups, Renell Wren, suffered the same injury Reader would suffer. The other backup, Josh Tupou, opted out. Instead of installing their $120 million defensive overhaul on the field in OTAs, they had to pay the price of Zoom.
"Zoom calls are fine, but you don't get to know that person," Reader said. "It was weird. It wasn't any excuses. We just couldn't get the mix of guys together at one time. Never got any consistency with who you were playing with.
"It happened at a really, really bad time. Not having OTAs and all that stuff happening at one time. 'We just got here.' The timing wasn't great. You didn't get to get in there with guys like you used to be able to do and now guys are already in there hurt and they're even more separated. It was a weird feeling. Just trying to get to know people during COVID was very tough."
But, like Reader says, he has closed that surreal book called 2020. His next chapter is very definite in his manuscript and it's not about that Pro Bowl that seems to be within his grasp.
"I thought about it earlier in my career, now not so much," Reader said. "I've just placed winning in my life as very important and growing as a person and helping my teammates grow. That type of stuff happens, but I'm not going out of my way to get any extra accolades because I don't need that affirmation from anybody. As long as my teammates respect me and those guys respect me, I'm excited and I feel good."
He's got that. All he needs is some normalcy. It sounds like he's getting the health part of that.
"I'll be ready to go,' he said, "when it's time to go."