Finding the Fits: Malik Jefferson a future star for Bengals

LB Malik Jefferson should play fast and loose in coach Marvin Lewis' scheme.University of Texas Athletics

By Rob Rang,

This is part of a series -- Finding the Fits -- in which will review the more intriguing picks made during the 2018 NFL Draft. The goal is to identify one relatively unheralded player per team who appears to be a good schematic fit and, therefore, more likely to be a surprise contributor early in his pro career.

Cincinnati Bengals' best fit: Malik Jefferson, ILB, Texas, selected No. 78 overall (third round)

Although it has not translated into consistent victories, Cincinnati often earns high grades on draft day in large part because owner Mike Brown, director of player personnel Duke Tobin and head coach Marvin Lewis understand each other so well after working together for 15 years and because the club is so aggressive and transparent in addressing team needs.

Take the case of Jefferson, for example.

With starting weakside linebacker Vontaze Burfict out for the first four games of the 2018 season for his latest suspension, the Bengals needed help at linebacker despite signing the NFL's current tackle king, Preston Brown, who led the league with 144 stops last year in Buffalo.

Jefferson does not just possess the experience, size and athleticism to step in right away, he boasts the untapped potential that Lewis -- patient and always defensive-minded -- should be able to unlock, just as he has done with other former middle- and late-round picks. Those include players such as defensive linemen Geno Atkins (fourth round, 2010), Michael Johnson (third round, 2009) and fourth-rounder Carl Lawson (who led all NFL rookies with 8.5 sacks last season), safety George Iloka (fifth round, 2012) and undrafted free agents like Burfict and linebacker Vincent Rey.

Of the prior hidden gems the Bengals have unearthed with the current regime, Jefferson is perhaps most like current sack king Carlos Dunlap, who lasted until the 54th pick of the 2010 draft despite gaudy production at a big-time program (19.5 sacks in 15 starts at Florida), as well as a prototypical combination of size (6-6, 277 at the Combine) and athleticism (4.61 second 40-yard dash time at his March 17, 2010, Pro Day).

Like Dunlap (who often earned comparisons to former No. 1 overall pick Julius Peppers during his time in Gainesville), Jefferson generated plenty of attention prior to joining Cincinnati. The Texas native was a five-star recruit who won the Dick Butkus Award as the nation's top high school linebacker even before stepping onto the field for then-Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong, another patient, defensive-minded head coach.

Jefferson proved an immediate standout, earning Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year accolades at inside linebacker in 2015 before switching to more of a rover role under Tom Herman last season, when he earned first-team All-Big 12 honors and was named the co-Defensive Player of the Year for the conference.

Question his instincts or consistency all you'd like, regardless of where he lined up, Jefferson's rare speed (4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the Combine) and explosiveness (36-inch vertical jump, 27 repetitions of 225 pounds) made him a standout.

Longtime Bengals' beat reporter, Geoff Hobson, now a writer for the team's official website, asked Tobin after the draft to explain Jefferson's fit in Cincinnati.

"Yeah, you know he's an ascending player, he has great traits, measurables, he's a tough physical kid and we think he's versatile," Tobin said. "He was able to rush in earlier years, so he's played a number of different spots, which we like and we think he's got great traits and football demeanor and character ... there's versatility and upside with him we're happy to get."

Lewis' scheme is not overly complicated, which should allow Jefferson to play loose and take full advantage of his remarkable athletic gifts, potentially leading to a splashy start to his NFL career. Burfict's return could put a damper on Jefferson's overall rookie statistics, but in terms of his overall career arc, don't be surprised when the Bengals' top brass is proven to have discovered yet another defensive gem hidden in plain sight.

Other thoughts on the Bengals' 2018 draft class:

Perhaps no one but the Bengals' inner circle knows for sure whether the Detroit Lions truly did "steal" Arkansas center Frank Ragnow one pick ahead of Cincinnati in the first round, but if Ohio State stalwart Billy Price was indeed a consolation prize, we should all be so lucky.

The four-year starter was a rock inside at guard and center for the Buckeyes and was ranked 27th overall on my final Big Board, so I certainly agree with the sentiment that he was worth a first-round selection. With former starter Russell Bodine moving on, the Bengals needed a plug-and-play center and, if you'll excuse the pun, the Price was right.

Before long, Cincinnati's refurbished offensive line could have starting quarterback Andy Dalton and the Bengals' bevy of backs celebrating like game show contestants.

Whereas the offensive line play was disappointing last season, the secondary was a relative strength, which is why the selection of Jessie Bates in the second round was surprising. That said, Bates' awareness and ball-skills should boost a deep patrol that was much better in coverage last season than in creating turnovers.

After ranking in the top five in the NFL with an average of 20 interceptions a season from 2013-2016, the Bengals slipped to 16th with just 14 picks last season. Bates showed a knack for the big play in two starting seasons at Wake Forest, intercepting six passes over that span and returning two of them for touchdowns.

While I am generally a fan of the Bengals' longstanding draft strategy of filling holes via the draft and using middle- and later-round picks on toolsy athletes with untapped potential, the selection of Miami running back Mark Walton was surprising.

It isn't that I do not like Walton. The opposite, in fact, is true as I saw him as one of this year's best pure runners. He plays much faster than his 4.60 second time in the 40-yard dash at the Combine suggests, darting to and through the hole and leaving would-be tacklers grasping at air because of his vision and agility.

Walton faces a steep depth chart, however, with the Bengals already boasting similar make-you-miss mavens like former second-round picks Giovanni Bernard (2013) and Joe Mixon (2017).

Cincinnati's 2018 draft class:

1st Round, No. 21 overall: C Billy Price, Ohio State

2nd Round, No. 54 overall: S Jessie Bates III, Wake Forest

3rd Round, No. 77 overall: DE Sam Hubbard, Ohio State

3rd Round, No. 78 overall: LB Malik Jefferson, Texas

3rd Round, No. 100 overall: LB Dorian O'Daniel, Clemson

4th Round, No. 112 overall: RB Mark Walton, Miami

5th Round, No. 151 overall: DB Davontae Harris, Illinois State

5th Round, No. 158 overall: DT Andrew Brown, Virginia

5th Round, No. 170 overall: CB Darius Phillips, Western Michigan

7th Round, No. 249 overall: QB Logan Woodside, Toledo

7th Round, No. 252 overall: OG Rod Taylor, Mississippi

7th Round, No. 253 overall: WR Auden Tate, Florida State

Key Undrafted Free Agents Signed:

Quinton Flowers, RB/QB, South Florida

Trayvon Harris, S, Hawaii

Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, DE/OLB, Arkansas State


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