Rookie gives Bengals versatility in backfield

Cincinnati Bengals running back Chris Evans (25) makes catch between Miami Dolphins cornerback Jamal Perry (33) and middle linebacker Duke Riley (45) for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL exhibition football game in Cincinnati, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
Caption
Cincinnati Bengals running back Chris Evans (25) makes catch between Miami Dolphins cornerback Jamal Perry (33) and middle linebacker Duke Riley (45) for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL exhibition football game in Cincinnati, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Credit: Aaron Doster

Credit: Aaron Doster

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals are back to six wide receivers on the roster after re-signing Mike Thomas to fill a spot opened Thursday when defensive end Khalid Kareem going on the reserve/injured list.

But the Bengals might also have another option in the slot with rookie running back Chris Evans if needed.

Evans had been making plays in the passing game on the outside and over the top throughout training camp. On Sunday in the preseason finale against the Dolphins, he caught a 29-yard touchdown on a slot fade and perhaps opened even more eyes to his potential.

The rookie sixth-round pick out of Michigan said he would have no problem lining up in the slot against a cornerback if asked to do so.

“If it comes down to it and coach needs to do that, I got full confidence in myself and I’m ready to roll,” he said.

Cincinnati not surprisingly went heavier on linemen with this roster, while keeping just three running backs and initially five wide receivers after the waiver process cleared. Thomas was released, along with Trenton Irwin getting waived, to make room for two player claims Wednesday; however, it was expected one of those players would be back as Kareem suffered an injury Sunday in the preseason finale.

By keeping Kareem on the initial 53-man roster and then putting him on IR, the Bengals only have to sideline him for three games.

Evans was a bit of a darkhorse candidate for a running back spot with Jacques Patrick and Trayveon Williams also in the mix. . The Bengals returned Samaje Perine as their second back behind Joe Mixon but needed a strong replacement for Gio Bernard in terms of what he brought in pass protection and pass-catching ability.

It was clear when the Bengals drafted Evans they thought he could be that replacement but Evans still had much to prove after getting limited snaps last year with the Wolverines. Evans spent five years at Michigan, where he averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored 15 rushing touchdowns and caught 49 passes for 479 yards and two touchdowns, but the bulk of those stats came between 2016 and 2018, before he sat out the 2019 campaign because of suspension for academic reasons.

Evans worked hard to get back to where he needed to be academically and physically, while working multiple jobs as well, and he earned his chance through the Senior Bowl.

“Coach (Zac Taylor) said during the Senior Bowl, he watched me running routes,” Evans said. “It’s pretty much the same routes I’ve been running here, honestly, a couple new ones. I don’t think I’d say surprised. They got the tape and more.”

Evans realized in high school he could be a good receiver out of the backfield. He played quarterback up until his freshman year, then switched to slot receiver, but as he got to his junior and senior seasons, his coaches started putting him in the backfield to run routes and Evans found his role.

“I just thought it was easier going against a linebacker rather than going against a corner or safety,” Evans said. “I just found that niche. As soon as I got to Michigan, they put weight on me. I had already the fundamentals of receiver, so I just took whatever opportunity came and made the most of it.”

Evans said running backs coach Justin Hill sat him down after the first preseason game to let him know how crucial pass protection would be for him.

He had followed Mixon throughout college, considering him one of the best backs in the league, but knowing his best chances for playing time will come if he can do what Bernard could, he began watching film of Bernard. Evans said he watched all of his clips from last year to learn what he needs to do in the Bengals offense to be successful.

“He was just natural,” Evans said of Bernard. “He’s been doing it forever, so I’ve just got to get to that point where he doesn’t have to take that extra look. First couple of games I had to take that extra look, that extra peek just in case. It’s just knowing and being confident and just taking what he does and trying to make it part of my game.”

Now having that opportunity as the third running back, and potentially a backup slot receiver, Evans feels some vindication for the adversity he overcame at Michigan.

“All the stuff I went through at Michigan, I just feel like that was part of my story,” he said. “I knew as soon as I got the opportunity to do what I do, be valued the way like this, it’s just surreal.”

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