The Cincinnati Bengals were expecting big things for the defensive side of the ball out of their 2016 NFL Draft class, but that didn’t come to fruition in their first season. But it looks as though the delayed gratification might come in 2017, in which two of their early-mid-round defensive draft choices are expected to win starting jobs leading into the season opener.
In the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Bengals used their draft pick on linebacker Nick Vigil. There was some belief that he was a player who would be able to play early in his career, but he did not lock down a starting job, and playing time only became an option for him late in the year.
The fourth-round selection ended up going for defensive tackle Andrew Billings, whose draft value according to the draft experts and the actual decision-makers on NFL teams saw the largest discrepancy that I can recall in recent years. Some felt he would go in the first round, rather than in the 100s.
Be that as it may, he did not contribute at all during his rookie season for one very simple reason: he was injured. He tore a meniscus during training camp, so he spent the season on injured reserve, rather than on the field, or even on the bench.
With Domata Peko along the defensive line and Karlos Dansby at the linebacker position both no longer on the team (Rey Maualuga was replaced in free agency by Kevin Minter), it is the opinion of Bengals writer Geoff Hobson that Vigil and Billings are in the driver’s seat for those jobs, as he wrote in response to fan questions on the team’s website.
That, of course, just leads one to wonder about Cincinnati’s other significant defensive draft pick from the 2016 NFL Draft class, that being cornerback William Jackson III, whom they selected right before the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s defensive backs coach told a group privately that the team would have taken Jackson had he been available.
The aforementioned cornerback, however, tore a pectoral muscle in September, and joined Billings on injured reserve. So the Bengals had two significant defensive draft picks not even able to participate in practices during their rookie year, let alone contribute on the field.
But while there are clear paths toward playing time for Vigil and Billings, it is not so clear for Jackson, who is already behind starting outside cornerbacks Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick, both of whom are highly-compensated. Given the current pecking order, one would have to think that he will have to contribute in the slot in order to see the field, barring injury.
The Steelers’ cornerback selection following Jackson, of course, ended up starting nine games during his rookie season, coming away with three interceptions and 13 passes defensed. Artie Burns and Jackson will likely remain linked throughout their career as division rivals who could have been playing in opposite colors.