Jordan Evans has been carrying a chip on his shoulder since he was snubbed of an NFL Combine invite last February.
The Cincinnati Bengals rookie linebacker channeled that pent-up emotion into his training and is reaping the rewards with increased playing time as injuries have depleted the defense in recent weeks.
Evans, a sixth-round draft pick out of Oklahoma, earned his first career start Monday against the Steelers, a 23-20 loss in which he played every defensive snap.
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“Going to the combine is a dream for a lot of players to just get that chance to perform on that stage, and I didn’t get the invite,” Evans said Wednesday before the team’s first practice in preparation for Sunday’s home game against the Bears. “Yeah, I was hurt by it. I wanted to go and compete, but at the end of the day, it didn’t stop me from achieving my goals and I guess it gave me a little chip on my shoulder throughout training and throughout the whole draft process, which definitely helped me to this point. I just need to bring back that same edge I had before.”
If Evans was losing his edge at all, he gained it back Monday night after a crucial mistake that led to Le’Veon Bell’s 35-yard touchdown catch early in the third quarter, as the Steelers cut their deficit to 17-10.
Evans unsuccessfully attempted to push Bell out of bounds on the play and fellow first-year player William Jackson III also missed a chance to make a tackle.
“That’s embarrassing,” Evans said. “I put it on me. I should have made the play. I should have gave more effort, dove out or something, made sure he got out of bounds instead of just giving him a little push. That wasn’t fun to see. I was definitely disappointed in that play.
“I just feel like I let the team down with that. I gave them a touchdown, and it motivates me to go harder and finish the play all the way through.”
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther called it a rookie mistake but said “that can’t happen.” He was otherwise pleased with Evans’ performance Monday, he said, and has been impressed with the Norman, Oklahoma, native since he first scouted Evans on film before the draft.
Evans was a captain at Oklahoma, where he led the Sooners with 98 tackles and finished second in school history in pass breakups by a linebacker with 16 for his career.
The Bengals might not have gotten Evans had he been to the combine or had any linebackers coaches attended his Pro Day, though. He ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash with special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons and defensive backs coach Robert Livingston in attendance.
“We’re glad he’s here,” Guenther said. “… Maybe he would have gotten more exposure (at the Combine), but that’s why you do your homework and find stuff out about guys and study the tape and trust what you see. He’s a real good cover linebacker. He played a lot there at Oklahoma at a high level. It’s kind of like believing everything you read sometimes. You’ve just got to trust your evaluation and stay true to it.”
The 6-foot-2, 233-pound outside linebacker led the Bengals in tackles this preseason but only played defense in one of the Bengals’ first seven games, while mainly limited to special teams. He got in for six snaps at linebacker in Week 9 at Jacksonville and gradually has increased his playing time before getting thrust into the starting lineup Monday with injuries sidelining Nick Vigil (ankle) and Vincent Rey (hamstring).
Evans’ role will likely only increase as the Bengals near playoff elimination and remain thin on defense. He filled Vigil’s SAM linebacker spot Monday and said he is preparing to step in wherever needed going forward.
Vigil is still in a boot, Rey was a limited participant in practice Wednesday, and the Bengals could be without Vontaze Burfict, who is in concussion protocol after JuJu Smith-Schuster knocked him out of Monday’s game with a blindside block the NFL called “unnecessarily violent” in its suspension report.
“When I first came out here, I wanted to play,” Evans said. “I knew I would be a help on special teams because that’s what most rookies do, especially linebackers, so I just wanted to work for as much playing time as I could because I didn’t want to come here just to sit the bench. Whatever minutes I’ve gotten to this point I’m grateful for.”
“I just have to use what I’ve learned this past year and past games and just try to continue to grow off it,” Evans added. “Experience definitely helps. There’s growing pains with experience, but I’ll get there.”