While the Cincinnati Bengals have opted to move away from Andrew Billings after four seasons, blooming into a starting defensive tackle during the latter half of his rookie contract, by no means has the Pittsburgh Steelers’ division rival forsaken its front four. Replacing Billings to pair up with Geno Atkins in the middle of their defense will be D.J. Reader.
Originally a fifth-round pick out of Clemson in 2016, Reader has blossomed over the course of his career with the Houston Texans, similar to how Javon Hargrave’s career went with the Steelers, also taken in the same draft. While Hargrave signed with the Philadelphia Eagles for three years and $39 million, the Bengals gave Reader a similarly robust contract.
Reported are that the 25-year-old’s deal is worth $53 million over four years, which comes out to slightly more than Hargrave’s contract when going by annual per-year salary. Alongside Carlos Dunlap, Sam Hubbard, and others, the Bengals could legitimately host one of the better 4-3 defensive lines in the NFL going forward.
Reader has been more of a run-stuffer over the course of his career, including 16 tackles for loss over his four years. He has picked up his work as a pass-rusher as well, though it doesn’t always translate into sacks. He has 6.5 for his career, 4.5 of which have come over the past two seasons, but in 2019, his 2.5 sacks were accompanied by 13 quarterback hits—more than in his first three seasons combined.
In addition to the signing of Trae Waynes at cornerback on a contract that pays him an average of $14 million per season, the Bengals have been taking an uncharacteristic approach this offseason in being very active in unrestricted free agency, signing the two largest deals for outside free agents in team history, which included making Reader the highest-paid nose tackle in the history of the NFL.
The Bengals’ run defense has slipped in recent years, though especially in 2018. The addition of a big plugger like Reader should help that, a player whom they clearly view as a significant upgrade over Billings, who has yet to reach a deal with a new team.
Meanwhile, the Steelers may be one of the teams in the market for Billings, who almost surely will not be re-signed at this point. They do not have another player on the roster other than Daniel McCullers who is capable of playing nose tackle, and they have realized long ago that he is not a starter.