Pratt welcomes youth movement to Bengals’ linebacking corps

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Germaine Pratt saw the Cincinnati Bengals’ draft as a challenge for the entire linebacker corps.

The Bengals used three of their seven picks on linebackers this year after selecting Pratt in the third round of the 2019 draft. That’s a lot of youth rebuilding the middle of the defense, with 10-year veteran Josh Bynes and fourth-year player Jordan Evans the only other players with more experience than Pratt.

Cincinnati had one of the league’s worst defenses last year, and the linebackers proved to be the biggest weakness. Pratt is the lone returning starter. The Bengals drafted Logan Wilson in the third round, Akeem Davis-Gaither in the fourth and Markus Bailey in the seventh.

The Bengals waived linebacker Brady Sheldon, along with offensive tackle O’Shea Dugas and defensive end Bryce Sterk on Thursday with the roster cutdown to 53 looming Saturday.

“I mean, you gotta do something in the room,” Pratt said. “They say that we’re struggling, you’ve gotta do something. You gotta make some changes. I come in here, I’m blessed, thankful to be in this position I am in today. You draft three linebackers, that’s good, you know what I mean? All of us have to compete. Everybody has to get better. That’s my approach. I’m just thankful to be here.”

Pratt got his biggest opportunity last year when the overhaul began with the surprise release of veteran Preston Brown midseason. To that point, Pratt had seen limited snaps on defense, but he started the final eight games and started settling in the final four games when he recorded double-digit tackles twice and combined for 34 of his 72 tackles during that span.

Now even coach Zac Taylor said Pratt no longer looks like a rookie. Pratt says he is more comfortable and ready to make a big leap in his development in Year 2.

“I think every day I’m just trying to get better at every aspect of the game, taking on blocks, shedding the blocks and my coverage, playing zone, man, just focus on my eyes and being disciplined in coverage, knowing my job but just taking it one day at a time, just to elevate my game,” Pratt said. “And saying I’m playing better than a rookie: I’m not a rookie. I’m in Year 2, so you’ve got to step up and do your job better.”

The young linebackers have all leaned on Bynes as the clear leader of the group, but Pratt is someone the rookies also can easily relate to because he was in their same shoes just last year.

Pratt said he learned watching from the bench through most of the first half of 2019; however, the light didn’t really come on for him until he started getting more game reps, which the rookies could see a lot of coming out of the gate. Pratt turned a corner toward the end of last season and spent time this offseason working with former Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to try to improve his pass coverage.

Asked how much of a voice he has in the locker room now in Year 2, Pratt said he’s still trying to prove himself.

“I’m still working,” Pratt said. “I got a voice. I’m gonna say something if I see something, but me? I’m still chopping wood trying to grow and trying to be a better version of Germaine Pratt.”

This offseason and preseason haven’t been ideal for developing the rookies, especially as they are limited in their ability for live tackling while the team seeks to avoid injury before the season begins. Normally there would be preseason games to help with the adjustment period and for a taste of the NFL competition, but those were canceled this year amid the slow ramp-up to the regularseason during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo also has been moving around the linebackers and trying different combinations for first- and second-team reps in practice. Davis-Gaither said the linebackers already seem to have a good bond, though, so that helps them get comfortable on the field regardless of who is playing together.

For the fourth-round pick out of Appalachian State, it’s just been difficult to judge how well he’s adapting without being able to make a lot of splash plays in practice.

“That’s definitely hard,” Davis-Gaither said. “My dad (Army wide receivers coach Keith Gaither) asks after every practice, ‘How do you feel like you practiced?’ It’s kind of hard to tell because I mean you can practice the whole practice and really not get no plays run to you or no balls thrown at you. It’s really hard to judge how you perform. But besides the splash plays, as long as you are executing and not making as many mental errors as possible, it’s a good day I guess.”

Pratt said the linebackers aren’t viewing their youth as an obstacle but as more of a challenge to step up.

“Coach (Anarumo) said he’ll give us the keys to the defense and we gotta run with them,” Pratt said. “Take ownership of yourself and the defense.”

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