Fay: John Ross injury aside, Bengals' draft class is looking like a big success

Defense has gotten a huge boost from rookies

CINCINNATI -- The Bengals' 2017 draft is shaping up as one that falls somewhere between very good and great based on the first five games of the season.

That’s saying something when so far the most notable thing No. 1 pick John Ross has done is lose a key fumble.

But the draft has been key to turning around the defense, which currently ranks second in the NFL in points per game and yards per game.

Last year, the defense looked old and slow at times. No one is saying that about this year’s unit. Carl Lawson looks like he could be a star.

“They’ve done a really good job,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “There was a time (against Buffalo) when we had three rookies on the defensive line, one in the secondary, and whatever you want to call (second-year linebacker Nick Vigil) on the field together. That’s huge that you’re getting such positive plays. We aren’t missing a beat.”

Depth is key to good drafts and this one is deep, particularly on the defensive side.

“I give credit to our coaches and our scouts,” third-round pick Jordan Willis said. “They did a good job in the draft of finding guys who were overlooked. Carl obviously got overlooked in my opinion. Ryan Glasgow, I didn’t know who Ryan was, I got here and started watching him. He’s an overlooked guy. Jordan Evans. There’s a lot guys who were good players in college who didn’t have the hype of everyone else. But our coaches and scouts saw something out of us.”

Let’s look at the draft pick-by-pick:

Round 1 -- John Ross: A knee injury in the final exhibition game has kept him inactive for all but one game. More importantly, it’s kept him out of practice.

“He’s not been out with the football team enough,” Lewis said.  “He needs a lot of time and a lot of practice. That’s important. That’s probably as important than getting back healthy where he can begin to practice football again. He needs that. We have to get back to that point first.”

It’s too early to call Ross a bust, but it’s not too early to wonder how much better this season could be if the Bengals had drafted tackle Garret Bolles of Utah with the their first pick. Bolles is the starting left tackle for the Broncos. Pro Football Focus rates him at 67.1. The Bengals' left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi rates 40.6.

Round 2 -- Joe Mixon: He’s taken over as the lead running back. He shows that burst, that power you want. His numbers -- 187 yards and one touchdown on 67 carries -- aren’t great. Well, actually a 2.8-yard-per-carry average is woeful. But a lot of that is on the offensive line.

Mixon did make a great run against the Bills for a his first touchdown, bouncing outside on a 5-yard run.

“He has the ability to do that. Not every back, when it's designed to go inside, can go outside and win,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “You don't want a back trying to do that all the time. But it's going to happen at times. He's able to accelerate when that situation comes up and get around the corner and it paid off.”

Round 3 -- Jordan Willis: He got his first sack against Buffalo. He’s getting regular time at defensive end. He’s very sound fundamentally.

Round 4 -- Carl Lawson: The outside linebacker already has 3 1/2 sacks. PFF rates him as a seventh-best edge rusher in the NFL. He’s only 6-foot-2, 260 pounds, but he has the ability to overpower offensive tackles.

He and Willis have been so good on the edge that the Bengals have begun using veteran Michael Johnson inside, alongside Geno Atkins. That gives the Bengals four very good pass rushers.

Round 4b -- Josh Malone: He’s a little like Ross, although he’s healthy. He hasn’t been active yet. He’s a bigger receiver with good speed. His chance may come with Tyler Boyd’s injury.

Round 4c -- Ryan Glasgow: He’s getting regular time at defensive tackle. At 6-3, 302 pounds, he’s that big-bodied inside defender Lewis loves to use.

Willis, Lawson and Glasgow rely on each other.

“It is good that we’re all getting to play,” Willis said. “We can all lean on one another. It’s not just one rookie playing. I can go to talk to Ryan or Carl about the game plan. We’re all going through it. We have are own kind of pack."

Round 5 -- Jake Elliot: He’s one player in the class of 11 no longer with the team. Randy Bullock beat him out in the kicking competition, and the Eagles picked him up off the practice squad.

He's been very good for the Eagles. He’s 12-for-14 on field goal attempts and kicked a 61-yard game-winner to beat the New York Giants.

Round 5b -- J.J. Dielman: He’s the only offensive lineman the Bengals took. He’s on the practice squad. It’s a little troubling that he couldn’t crack the roster, given the struggles of the line.

Round 6 -- Jordan Evans: He’s getting a few snaps at linebacker. The Bengals tend to go slowly with young players at this position. Vigil barely played as a rookie. He’s now playing almost every snap.

Round 6b -- Brandon Wilson: A practice squad running back.

Round 7 -- Mason Scheck: A preseason injury put the tight end on Injured Reserve.

John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at johnfayman@aol.com.

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