Two plans – one set in motion with an off-the-cuff remark five years ago, the other a more concrete blueprint formulated just a few days ago – came to fruition Friday night when the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Cincinnati native and Ohio State defensive end Sam Hubbard as part of three-pick haul for new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
After calling Hubbard to tell him the Bengals had selected him in the third round, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis told a story about the first time his first phone conversation with Hubbard, which came four years ago while Lewis was visiting with OSU coach Urban Meyer.
“It was before he enrolled,” Lewis said. “He happened to call Urban on the phone and I was on the field with Urban and he said, ‘Guess who I’m standing here talking to?’ You’re going to come play for the Buckeyes, and then you’re going to have a chance to play for your hometown Bengals.
“Urban reminded us of the conversation this year when I was up there, and I reminded Sam about it on the phone,” Lewis continued. “You talk about full circle.”
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Hubbard, a lifelong Bengals fan, said he remembers that first conversation well.
“That was a great recruiting tool,” he said. “I thought ‘Coach Meyer, man, he’s got connections. He just put Marvin Lewis on the phone, a guy that’s been the coach in Cincinnati pretty much my whole life. It’s hard to believe things work out like that sometimes. It’s incredible.”
The pick the Bengals used to land Hubbard, the 77th overall, belonged to them before the draft started. The other two they used to draft Wake Forest safety Jessie Bates III in the second round (54th) and Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson in the third (78th) did not.
They were the result of a trade with Kansas City, in which the Bengals moved back from 46 to 54 and up from 100 to 78, something Lewis and director of player personnel Duke Tobin began discussing a few days ago.
“We talked about it on Wednesday evening and again Thursday depending on how the round goes,” Lewis said. “Obviously there are certain players that were more appealing to us than others, and depending on if those guys that don’t quite fit us go off the board and more guys are getting pushed back to you, you’re more apt to make that move.”
With three selections in a 25-pick span, the Bengals addressed each level of their defense.
“That was our focus,” Lewis said. “We did a lot in the early part of the offseason with the offense with the trade for (tackle Cordy Glenn), the re-signing (tight end Tyler Eifert), acquiring the quarterback (Matt Barkley). So we wanted to address the defense today. That was our plan going in, and we were able to stick to it.”
Hubbard said the defense he played at Ohio State is similar to what the Bengals run, down to the rotation both squads use on the defensive line.
But defensive line coach Jacob Burney said there is something else, something that can’t be measured, that makes Hubbard an ideal fit.
“Everybody’s big, strong and fast in this NFL, so there’s got to be some elements that kind of makes you a little bit different,” Burney said. “Nothing to do with ability, it’s all to do with the passion to play his hardest. He jumps off the film with his passion, how hard he plays. Every play. Start to finish. And that makes a difference.”
The Hubbard selection, coupled with the first-round pick of Ohio State center Billy Price on Thursday, marks the first time the Bengals have picked two Buckeyes in the same draft since 1994 when they took Dan Wilkinson in the first round and Jeff Cothran in the third.
If they add another Buckeye with one of their three picks Saturday (one in the fourth round, three in the fifth and three in the seventh), it will be the first time they’ve drafted at least three since 1976, when the draft lasted 17 rounds and they took Archie Griffin (first round), Ken Kuhn (seventh), Tom Klaban (10th) and Scott Dannelley (17th).
Second round: Safety Jessie Bates, Wake Forest
The Bengals have been looking for a play-making safety, making a run at free agent Kurt Coleman at the Combine and bringing in Eric Reid for a visit a few weeks ago, but they think they finally found one with the addition of Bates.
An early entrant in the draft after playing just two seasons at Wake, Bates recorded six interceptions with 15 passes defended. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder also averaged 15.8 yards per punt return.
Bates said “I feel like I can do everything,” and Bengals defensive back Robert Livingston agreed.
“He was in a system that puts some pressure on safeties when they were covering slots, when it was man-to-man and covering ‘two-way goes,’ and he was holding up,” Livingston said. “If you watch the Louisville game, if you watch the Florida State game, those were the ones that really stuck out for me. He plays Louisville, they’re playing soft quarters, and he’s tackling Lamar Jackson. He’s playing Florida State, and he’s probably the fastest guy on defense and showed up.
“At a school like that, when they play their big games and he shows up, that sticks out to you. Your biggest game of the year, when your best player is playing well, it’s what you want to see.”
As the 54th overall pick, Bates is the highest-drafted safety of the Lewis era, going two picks earlier than Madieu Williams in 2004.
Third round: Linebacker Malik Jefferson, Texas
Third-round pick Malik Jefferson was the No. 1 linebacker recruit in the country coming out of high school. He recorded 12 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss in three seasons as a starter for the Longhorns.
The Bengals believe he can have an impact on both defense and special teams right away.
“He can play all three linebacker spots,” Lewis said. “Malik Jefferson is one of the first guys I saw, and I feel good about him. I could see his progression from when they opened the season vs. Southern California to how he played against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State later in the season. They saw him grow as a player and he started to get it. Now we have to get him to really get it, because he has all of the athleticism we can’t coach him to do.
“He possesses the tools to be a fine linebacker as he continues to grow and develop as a man,” Lewis added. “The one thing we can’t coach is running speed, and he has that.”