As he sat at home in Kansas City, Jordan Willis thought there was a chance that he would be drafted in the second half of the first round.
“Me and my agent kept an open mind about what could happen,” said Willis. “He gave me a range of (picks) 19 to 45.”
As it turned out, the Bengals were able to land the Kansas State defensive end in the third round with the 73rd overall pick.
“He was in our conversation all day today,” said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. “Both the coaches and the scouts had him graded above where we took him. We feel like it was great value.”
“I don’t know exactly why I got to the point that I’m at, and why some teams passed on me,” said Willis. “Some of the players that did go ahead of me kind of shocked me.
“I’ve lived in the world of ‘chip on my shoulder.’ I’ve been there at Kansas State, I’ve been there at the high school that I went to – that’s been my whole life so it’s not really any different.”
“We really feel fortunate to be able to pick Jordan Willis here,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “Throughout his career at Kansas State he’s been a big producer for them and then I think he had an outstanding end-of-season bowl game, Senior Bowl, and then what he did at Indianapolis to confirm some of his physical tools.”
At 6’4”, 258 pounds, Willis ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any defensive lineman at the Combine as he was timed at 4.53 seconds. The only player at his position to top his 39-inch vertical jump was the number one overall pick Myles Garrett.
“I try to look at a lot of the guys before I go to the Combine even if it’s just a little snippet,” said Guenther. “But when you go there, three or four guys at each position catch your eye and you come back here and go to the tape and really study the guy. That’s what we did with him.”
Willis earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors as a senior as he led the conference with 11.5 sacks while adding 17.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.
“He plays with good hand placement, a flat back, nice eyes, good leverage, good knee bend – he’s got good fundamentals,” said defensive line coach Jacob Burney.
“The thing that jumps off the tape is just how relentless the guy plays,” said Guenther. “He’s a no-nonsense kid, he comes to work every day, and he takes care of his body. There are no marks on this guy. He’s our kind of guy.”
“Some guys are polished when they get to the NFL and some guys aren’t,” said Willis. “I’m still polishing up my game every day to be the absolute best that I can be.”
The Bengals are hoping that Willis can contribute immediately by moving into the rotation on the opposite side of Carlos Dunlap at right defensive end.
“He’s going to start from the back and work his way in just like all of the guys that come in here,” said Guenther. “But even having an extra guy at defensive end takes some of the snaps off the guys that we have and makes everybody fresh. He’s not just a pass rusher. He can play all downs. He’s a good guy to have in your arsenal.”
“They’re bringing me in obviously to get after the passer so that’s what I need to focus on,” said Willis.
Willis, who turns 22 next Tuesday, played mostly on the left side at Kansas State, but the Bengals say he should have no trouble switching sides.
“He played mostly on the left, but he played up and down the line,” said Burney. “He’s been inside and he’s been on the right side. He’s got some versatility.
“He’s a student of the game. He really studies the tackles and he’s relentless. There’s tremendous upside with this guy.”
And after finishing third in Kansas State history with 26 career sacks, Willis is determined to prove that he should have been drafted higher.
“I do think I’m underrated,” he said. “But sometimes that’s the hand you’re dealt. You can’t change it, you just have to work from here. I’ve been there at Kansas State and I’m used to hard work. That’s what I think I bring to the table.”
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