When the NFL suspended Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict four games for violating the policy on performance-enhancing substances, the assumption was that Jordan Evans would be the player called upon to slide in as the starter.
And the first four days of training camp have confirmed that.
With Burfict on the Non-Football Injury list and watching from the sideline, Evans has been taking the first-team reps despite coming off a rookie season he admits fell short of expectations, especially his own.
“After a couple of the games you could see that I probably didn’t know the defense as well as I thought I did,” said Evans, who started four of the final games after SAM linebacker Nick Vigil went out with back and ankle injuries.
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The sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma logged 311 defensive snaps last year and struggled in pass coverage despite the fact that his speed was a big reason the Bengals drafted him.
“It was definitely a blessing to get some opportunity to play, especially as much as I did,” Evans said. “Obviously, I’m not content with it all. I definitely want to make strides to get better for the team.”
Linebackers coach Jim Haslett told the team website he’s already seen improvement in the first week of camp.
“He’s been very good for four days,” Haslett said.
Evans used his better understanding of the playbook and his athleticism to break up two passes Saturday and two more Sunday.
“I just think I have a natural knack for that,” said Evans, whose 16 pass breakups at Oklahoma rank second in school history among linebackers.
“I was a corner before I got moved to linebacker toward the end of my high school career, so maybe it’s just like I have a natural thing,” he added. “That’s probably one of my strengths.”
Like Haslett, Vigil – who had his own rookie struggles before getting more comfortable in his second season – said he’s noticed a difference Evans
“The hardest thing as a rookie is the attention to detail you have to have in this league,” Vigil said. “If you take one bad step or or one missed cue, you’re out of position and you’re going to get beat.
“You can’t rep experience in practice. You can’t rep it watching film,” Vigil continued. “So any time you can get reps in a game, it’s a big deal. He got a lot of playing time last year, which was awesome for him. I think everybody in here has all the confidence in the world in him to come in and fill in for Tez.”
Evans said he spent the offseason focusing on adding strength without detracting from his speed, which is something that will help shed and throw blockers.
He played in the middle at Oklahoma and said he would be comfortable playing there for the Bengals should the need arise. But for now, he’s focused on doing everything he can to minimize Burfict’s absence for the first month of the season.
“I’ve worked hard to try to make everything more second nature for me,” Evans said. “I’m excited to get back out there and make a name for myself.”
Eifert, Hewitt cleared: The Bengals announced prior to Monday’s practice that tight end Tyler Eifert and H-back Ryan Hewitt passed their physicals and were expected to return to practice.
Eifert had been on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform list after tweaking his back during OTAs, while Hewitt was on the Active/Non-Football Injury list.