If the NFL played by college eligibility rules, the Bengals would probably have the best group of “redshirt freshman” in the country.
Due to a knee injury, last year’s top draft pick Dre Kirkpatrick – the 17th overall selection – was limited to 43 defensive snaps at cornerback all season.
Second round pick Devon Still, the former Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year, was inactive for the last eight games of the regular season and the Wild Card playoff game after veteran defensive tackle Pat Sims returned from the injury list. And third round pick Brandon Thompson, one of the most powerful defensive tackles in last year’s draft, only appeared in three games all year due to the team’s depth on the defensive line.
Additionally, fifth round pick Shaun Prater, who flashed NFL potential at cornerback before suffering an August knee injury, missed the entire season.
That means four of the Bengals top seven draft picks last year are almost like additional members of this year’s upcoming rookie crop.
“In a sense it was a redshirt year,” said Still. “It definitely wasn’t what I expected. It definitely humbled me and let me how hard I have to work to stay on the field.”
Still and Thompson will definitely be in the mix for more playing time this year following the departure of Sims as a free agent to the Oakland Raiders.
“Now that Pat is gone, it opens that door wide open for a third man in the rotation on the inside of the defensive line,” Still told me. “I’m going to go as hard as I can to get that spot.”
“Even before Pat left, I came in thinking that I had an opportunity,” said Thompson. “I want to come in, play hard, and work myself into a role.”
Both defensive linemen say their first year with the Bengals was beneficial even though much of it was spent on the sidelines.
“It was tough, but I had to do my role which was to watch and learn,” said Thompson. “Hopefully I can use what I learned last year to have a great year. Having a year under my belt to learn the system and find out where I fit in really helps me out.”
“When you’re going against eight and nine year veterans, they have their technique down pat,” said Still. “You have to hurry up and learn as much as possible. Now we have an understanding of how the season goes and what the coaches expect from us.”
Still spent five years at Penn State (including a redshirt season) and Thompson spent four at Clemson. That meant their first off-seasons as professionals were a welcome break.
“I’ve never had this much time off before – especially coming from college where everything was such a routine,” said Still. “It’s been quite an experience to be able to travel, spend time with family, and do things that I haven’t been able to do during the last five years when I was in school.”
“This has been the most time that I’ve had off in years,” said Thompson. “I really enjoyed it. I got to spend a lot of time with my family and friends and that’s what really matters. I also had a lot of time to train and work on my craft.”
With the Bengals returning to town this week for off-season workouts, the bulk of their vacation time is history, but the second year defensive lineman say they are ready to get back to work.
“There’s a huge opportunity now that Pat left the team,” said Still. “Me and Brandon want to work as hard as possible this off-season to prove to the coaches that we belong on the field and we can make an impact on the defensive line.”
“I’m very eager for my second season,” said Thompson. “I get to show the coaches what I can do and I’m ready.”
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