The No. 94 jersey Cincinnati Bengals fans have grown used to seeing over the last decade is considerably smaller this season.
And noticeably quicker.
Chris Smith, the 6-foot-1, 266-pound defensive end the Bengals acquired in a trade with Jacksonville this offseason, has inherited the number worn by the 6-3, 325-pound Domata Peko for 11 seasons. But unlike Peko, who was a massive, run-stopping presence in the middle of the line, Smith has been using his speed to spend a lot of time in the backfield through the first week of camp.
“He’s working his tail off to make the football team,” said coach Marvin Lewis, who added that Smith was a player who stuck out on film last year when the Bengals were preparing to play the Jaguars in the third preseason game.
“Once you’ve been somewhere else, you end up with a different perspective when you come to a new team,” Lewis said. “He understands the competitive part of it. He was out of a 4-3 scheme (in Jacksonville), so it’s an easy transition for him up here. Terminology might be slightly different, but most of the fundamentals are easy to do. He’s been able to make the transition very easily.”
Jacksonville selected Smith in the fifth round of the 2014 draft out of Arkansas, and he appeared in 19 games the last three seasons with three sacks. But the Jaguars dealt him to the Bengals in April for a conditional 2018 draft pick.
“There was stuff that went down in Jacksonville I couldn’t control,” Smith said. “I thought they were releasing me at first the way (Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell’s) tone was, but he said the Bengals are trading for you.”
Three weeks later, the Bengals drafted back-to-back defensive ends, taking Jordan Willis in the third round and Carl Lawson in the fourth to add to a group that already includes two-time Pro Bowler Carlos Dunlap, veterans Michael Johnson and Wallace Gilberry and 2014 third-round pick Will Clarke.
But Smith said he isn’t concerned with trying to figure out the numbers game at his crowded position.
“I just play with the cards I’m dealt,” he said. “I control what I can control. The one thing I can control is me getting off the ball, pass rushing. Do what they brought me here to do, and that’s get after the quarterback.”
Smith takes pride in his quick get off, and he’s working to use his quickness to help him develop the move he watched a couple of his idols, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, use to build Hall of Fame resumes.
“I’m not Freeney, but I love the spin move,” Smith said. “I watched him since high school. I love that spin, that outside move. That’s one thing I try to perfect each and every day.”
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Smith played what he called the “Leo” position in Jacksonville, which at times required him to line up as an outside linebacker, but with his hand in the grass. He added some weight to help in the run game, but he’s trimmed down since arriving in Cincinnati to help his speed off the edge.
“I’m glad to be in the situation I’m in,” Smith said. “That’s the one thing, this is a true 4-3 defense. I like playing with guys like Pacman (Jones) and Dre (Kirkpatrick) and Vontaze (Burfict), guys who play with a bunch of heart it makes me go faster.
“I’m happy to be a Bengal.”