Cincinnati Bengals Zero-Snap Spotlight: Andrew Billings

As Part 1 in a multi-part series, Zero-Snap Spotlight takes a look at Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Andrew Billings

When it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals, there have been over a dozen intriguing names added to their talent pool through free agency and the draft. Those guys, as well as their incumbent stars, will garner much of the outside attention in the leadup to the season.

There are plenty of other players who could be poised to make an impact who aren’t included in those groups, however. These guys may not get the headlines of their bigger-name teammates, but many of them have an opportunity to perform in key roles for the team this season.

With that in mind, it’s the perfect time to roll out what I call Zero-Snap Spotlight.

These players are spread across practically every position on the roster, but each of these guys have at least two things in common: they’ve already spent time with the team, but have never taken a snap in the NFL. This means that despite already accruing time in the league, they are essentially blank slates in terms of how they may perform and what they could become.

To begin this series, I’m taking a look at a player who could quickly become a key cog on this Cincinnati defense: Andrew Billings.

Billings was drafted by the Bengals prior to last season in what could surely be considered a steal. This was a guy who had gotten some buzz as a first-round selection, but ended up dropping all the way to the fourth round with seemingly little warning.

Even now it’s worth looking back and questioning the thinking behind that. Based on what people like Ryan McCrystal of Bleacher Report could diagnose, there were three major theories to consider. Either there was a lingering knee injury that wasn’t widely discussed, his weight was thought to be a dire issue, or his skill-set just wasn’t valued despite his obvious strengths.

The first part appears unfounded, but the latter two make sense to a degree. The NFL.com analysis after he was picked mentioned how he is a two-down nose tackle, further stating that those players tend to get pinned as not as valuable in a league weighted so heavily towards the passing game. This wouldn’t be the first time weight concerns with linemen caused teams to shy away, either.

Still, to fall into being a Day 3 selection was pretty steep for someone with his abilities. Cincinnati won’t complain though; they got a guy who seemed immediately poised to have a major role with the team. The 6-1, 311-pound Billings brought a startling degree of power and speed (relative to his position) to the field in college, using it effectively to pick up 26 tackles for loss and eight sacks in his final two years at Baylor. Put that next to Geno Atkins, and your interior could be practically impenetrable.

Going into last year, he still would have had to fight through veteran Bengals Domata Peko and Pat Sims for rotational snaps on the interior, but he could have been penciled in for a decent share of field time before taking over for at least one of those guys long-term. Unfortunately, he then got hurt in the preseason, missing all of 2016.

With him (and other pieces) missing the year, the depth on the defensive line cratered, and the outcome was faltering overall production. Atkins and Carlos Dunlap were stellar individually, but nobody around them could manage to play with any positive consistency; because of that, the Bengals defensive line dipped significantly in many of Football Outsiders’ run defense metrics to have their second-worst season in the Andy Dalton era (only the abysmal 2014 showing was worse — but not by all that much):

DL Rankings (FO) Adj. Line Yards Power Success Stuff Percentage 2nd Level Open Field
2011 5th 23rd 17th 4th 21st
2012 16th 32nd 21st 17th 6th
2013 15th 10th 29th 5th 3rd
2014 27th 23rd 24th 27th 12th
2015 14th 10th 11th 16th 26th
2016 19th 23rd 22nd 24th 20th

Though last season didn’t work out for Billings or his team, things appear to be on the right track in terms of the long-term goal regarding his spot on the team.

Peko was allowed to leave. Sims is still around, but has one year remaining on a cheap deal and could find himself on the chopping block. Besides Atkins, there aren’t any interior players who’ve locked themselves into starter or key rotational roles as of yet either. Of those who are fighting for time, Billings appears to be the best choice to take on Peko’s rescinded role.

All signs point to the predraft size and weight concerns with Billings being vastly overstated, so that immediately helps his standing. Even better: this guy is still just 22 years old while already having a full year in the Bengals defensive system. He’s got plenty of time to grow and improve while having the talent to make significant contributions right now.

In my eyes, this spells out a starting role next to Atkins, handling the running downs for now. Should he improve as a pass rusher and reach his ceiling, we’re talking Pro Bowl (and maybe even All-Pro) possibilities down the road, and a decent chance to become Cincinnati’s best defensive lineman as Atkins (29) and Dunlap (28) enter their 30s.

Possibly getting that from a fourth-round pick? Quite a steal, indeed.

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