The Cincinnati Bengals Zero-Snap Spotlight series continues, this time looking at defensive end Ryan Brown.
The Zero-Snap Spotlight series is underway, diving into the Cincinnati Bengals roster with looks at the players that aren’t familiar to many fans. As this series indicates, the trait that all of these players share is that they have yet to play a down in the NFL. Thus, they are unknown — but that doesn’t mean it will be that way for long.
College is, among other things, meant to be a place for growth and improvement. As a player that appeared to ring true for Brown, with him showing both on a year-to-year basis throughout his four years at Mississippi State from 2012-15. He began as a small piece of the rotation, picking up 15 tackles, one tackle for loss and 0.5 sacks as a freshman. He capped his college days with 39 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and five pass knockdowns in his senior season.
That improvement was nice, but not all that noteworthy. A large portion of it is directly tied to his role expanding over the years, rather than him becoming more complete and impactful in his snaps. That thought is confirmed by his draft profiles. His listed strengths tended to be basic and muted; the NFL.com version is littered with ordinary phrases like “hard worker”, “decent”, and “good”.
Meanwhile, his list of negatives appears to go on for days. Every sentence seems to come with startling absolution. “No functional play strength”. “Can’t generate penetration or push”. “Once blockers latch on, he’s finished“.
It’s no wonder he ended up undrafted. Working in his favor, though: the depth on the edge for Cincinnati has become abysmal.
Carlos Dunlap is a pass rushing stud who knocks down throws with aplomb, but there are no proven, quality options to put with him anymore. Michael Johnson’s play has fallen off a cliff and remained in the gutter since leaving the team 2014. According to Pro Football Focus’ metrics, he posted an 86.0 overall grade that year, but has posted no better than a 47.2 in the three seasons since.
Wallace Gilberry is a once-decent backup who has been in steep decline for years. Will Clarke has been as bad as Johnson the past three years, but unlike Johnson those are his only three professional years (Meaning: He’s only been this bad).
Obviously something needs to change, and early in the offseason it wouldn’t have been a stretch to think this would seem to portend to opportunity for Brown. The draft probably stacked the odds against him again, however. Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson were added during the middle rounds, and each brings clear strengths Brown will never have.
Just look at the draft profiles. Where the strengths in Brown were tepid, they are much more pronounced for both Willis and Lawson on NFL.com. Phrases like “explosive”, “well-built”, and “burst” are prominent for Lawson; “excellent”, “proficient”, and “will not stop” show up for Willis.
Those guys have weaknesses as well, but those don’t deal in absolutes the way Brown’s do. Instead of “no” or “can’t”, we see “could”, “might”, or “needs work”. Those are still valid concerns, but there is a possibility of improvement left open. With Brown, that just isn’t the case, and when also considering the strengths in the equation, both Lawson and Willis have a clear advantage for picking up a roster spot.
Then, consider Cincinnati’s propensity for holding onto their players longer than they should. There are numerous examples during Marvin Lewis’ tenure where the team has stuck with guys well past their usefulness, and we don’t have to look far. The defensive end spot is littered with prime culprits of that.
Johnson, Gilberry, Clarke, and Chris Smith all have been rated as below average or worse in each of the past three seasons by PFF. Yet, they’ve all kept roster spots throughout. With that precedent in place, it’s hard to see much of anything beyond a contract ending naturally actually removing one of these players from their roster spots.
The only real way to break through that seems to be some combination of being brought in as a high-value asset (a mid-to-high draft pick or a big free agent signing) and blowing the team away with their talent. Willis and Lawson have their draft position to help them. Brown, as an undrafted free agent, does not.
Based on the state of Cincinnati’s defensive end depth at this point, I do believe he should be given a good shot for a spot. But that’s not what is being determined here. Rather than a question of “should”, it is more of “will”.
While the Johnson/Gilberry/Clarke/Smith grouping hasn’t performed to a level that should warrant keeping around, just having roles in the first place seems to give them an edge to continuing to enjoying a place on the roster. At the least, it will give them an edge over Brown.
He may not be given a chance to overtake them, and he may be a decidedly limited option by all accounts. Based on what those others have continued to show, however, it wouldn’t exactly hurt to try something different.