When the Cincinnati Bengals made D.J. Reader the highest-paid nose tackle in football this offseason, many fans scratched their head and asked ‘D.J. who?’
At first glance it was hard to blame them. Nothing about Reader’s career totals of 6.5 sacks and 154 tackles over four years jump off the page. Fortunately for the Bengals, stats don't come close to telling the full story on a player who has slimmed down this offseason and is ready for an expanded role.
It's a lot easier to show how impactful Reader can be than to explain that impact through grades and numbers, so let's take a look at some of his battles from 2019.
Reader might technically be a nose tackle by position, but he has been a disruptive player at 1-tech and 3-tech. His impact could grow since he lost weight, which will help him stay on the field during passing downs.
Watch the burst Reader (#98) displays against all three interior linemen on the Falcons last season:
Reader gets caught in a double team at the snap, but never takes his eyes off of Matt Ryan. Recognizing the passing lane, Reader throws up his arms, forcing Ryan to tuck and abandon the play. After fighting through the double team, Reader outhustles James Carpenter to finish what he started.
Here is another great example of Reader's power and speed off the line of scrimmage. Reader slots in as a 1-tech between the center and guard then baptizes Dan Feeney (#66) with a quick slap and side-step off the left foot.
Reader finished with a career high 35 total pressures last season. Pro Football Focus gave him a 72.5 grade as a pass rusher and a 10.7% pressure rate, which was the highest of his career.
He did this without Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt, who missed half the season due to injury.
Following his weight loss this offseason, Reader now tips the scale at around 320 pounds after playing at 340 pounds in 2019. That should give him even more burst on passing downs as he hits his athletic prime at 26-years-old.
This is where the zeroes on that contract were really earned and the main reason he ranked seventh among qualified defensive lineman with an 86.7 overall grade from PFF.
When someone searches "brick house" on Google, a picture of Reader taking on a double team might be the first result. This guy is extremely hard to move off the line as evident here against the Falcons.
Reader junks up the play immediately, giving no leverage to the double team before splitting it which allows Benardrick McKinney to knife in and clean things up. Some yellow laundry was probably warranted for the holding Reader endured here, but his leverage made sure it didn't matter.
Next is a bout with Colts guard Quenton Nelson, who is arguably the best offensive lineman in the NFL.
Reader is initially stunned at the snap, but what happens next is magical. Driving that left leg into the ground, he regains the leverage on Nelson and uses one arm to blow up the hole and drive the All-Pro guard back into his running back.
The same thing happens on this cutback pull play from late in the game. Reader never loses leverage this time and by maintaining that ground at the line of scrimmage, Marlon Mack trips behind Nelson and the play is dead.
This is why the numbers rarely tell the full story for a defensive lineman like Reader. We only get one tackle out of these five clips, but the impact jumps through the screen.
Replacing Andrew Billings
Redundancy has been the only negative vibe surrounding the signing of Reader because he's replacing a similar player in Andrew Billings. Billings signed with the Cleveland Browns after making 30 starts for the Bengals over the past two seasons. He had 67 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and received a 69.3 overall grade from PFF.
If his first four seasons are any indication, then Reader should continue to get better as he progresses through this contract. He should be an immediate upgrade over Billings. That being said, Reader is being paid to be a game-wrecker, not just an upgrade. The Clemson product has an average annual salary of $13.25 million, which is the highest yearly salary the Bengals have spent on a free agent in years.
Cincinnati's defense has played more snaps than any other NFL team over the past three years. That takes a toll on older guys like Geno Atkins who has logged 750 or more snaps in each of the past three seasons.
For context, Reader has never played more than 640 snaps in a season. Atkins can still be an elite player, but it needs to be channeled in shorter bursts.
The jolt of Reader's talent along with other defensive additions should pay big dividends this season and help keep legends like Atkins and Carlos Dunlap on the field for years to come.