Injuries to the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense last year forced some young linebackers to grow up pretty quickly.
Now those guys are going to be called on even more as the Bengals prepare for the start of the season in about three weeks.
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Veteran Kevin Minter moved on in free agency, Vontaze Burfict is suspended for the first four games and off to a slow start in camp while nursing injuries, and Vinny Rey is hobbling around the locker room with his foot in a boot.
That leaves fifth-year player Preston Brown, who was acquired from Buffalo this offseason, as the most veteran player likely to be available for the team’s second preseason game Saturday at Dallas and possibly closer to the regular season. A group of six rookies or second-year players join Brown and third-year linebacker Nick Vigil in the competition for playing time and roster spots.
“We have a really deep group, so even going into training camp when everyone was healthy, all of us young guys knew we were going to have to step up,” second-year player Hardy Nickerson, Jr. said. “We knew if we were put in a situation where we would have to play more, we were all comfortable. Now it’s just getting those guys healthy and picking up the slack with us.”
Nickerson, an undrafted college free agent last year, is one of three second-year players in the linebacker corps who got playing time at the end of last season because of injuries to other players. After beginning his rookie season on the practice squad, Nickerson played less than 14 percent of the defensive snaps in 2017 but started two of the last three games and now is listed as the back-up middle linebacker behind Brown.
Evans, a 2017 sixth-round draft pick, moved into the starting lineup for the last four games while Vigil and Rey were out, and now is expected to be Burfict’s replacement to open the season. Brandon Bell, another undrafted college free agent last year, was promoted off the practice squad in December and appeared in three games, though he only got in on 36 defensive snaps.
“It was unfortunate we lost a lot of guys, especially late in the year like myself, but I think it was good for what we’re looking at this year,” Vigil said. “You saw some of the growing pains in a couple games where we had a lot of young guys playing and we got pretty beat up but there at the end of the year, they played really well and experience they got in the games is invaluable. You can’t rep that in practice or a walk-through.”
A third-round pick in 2016, Vigil stepped into a starting role at strong outside linebacker last year after Karlos Dansby and Marquis Flowers moved on, and he made big strides from his rookie campaign when he mainly was limited to special teams. He played 11 games and looked promising with 79 tackles before an ankle injury ended his season.
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This year, three rookies are in the mix at linebacker, including third-round pick Malik Jefferson and undrafted college free agents Junior Joseph and former Ohio State Buckeye Chris Worley.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said nothing less is expected of the undrafted players from this year’s rookie class or even the second-year players, particularly in the linebacker group.
Burfict and Rey both went that route and have been solid players as they enter their eighth and ninth seasons, respectively.
“I think because of the history we have with that position, we are able to attract a guy who filters through the draft, that he’s going to get an opportunity here,” Lewis said during his press conference Tuesday. “… We are blessed with guys like Vontaze, Vinny Rey and guys who got here through the undrafted route, and then the guys from a year ago. We have a couple of good guys this year, too, Junior and Chris, who have done a nice job in the first game and on the practice field, so you expect things out of them moving forward.”
Evans said he learned to always be prepared like a starter after last season when he stepped in and had some big mistakes right away. Nickerson said the same and noted he feels more comfortable now after gaining valuable experience a year ago.
With so many young guys this year, youth won’t be an excuse for any shortcomings.
“I don’t see it as pressure on the young guys, but the one thing about our group is even though we are young in terms of experience, we have a lot of mature guys,” Evans said. “My class, like Hardy and B-Bell, we don’t act like young guys as much so we handle our business well. We don’t see it a pressure, just more of a challenge and we like to face challenges head on.”