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Bengals hope Hardy Nickerson will live up to his family name

Nickerson has the smarts and passion to make it in the NFL, but maybe not the athleticism.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no questioning Hardy Nickerson Jr.’s football lineage. His father was a four-time All-Pro and member of the NFL’s All-1990s team.

What NFL scouts — and now the Bengals — are more worried about is whether his football IQ and on-field intensity can overcome his lack of size and elite athleticism.

Cincinnati signed Nickerson as an undrafted free agent following the 2017 NFL Draft, according to Illini HQ’s Bob Asmussen. The All-Big Ten and All-Pac-12 honoree is no lock to make the roster, but his history of making an impact everywhere he’s been suggests he’ll stick around no matter what concerns scouts may have.

Can Hardy Nickerson be an NFL linebacker?

As expected, Nickerson plays the role of an All-Pro’s son to a T. His tackling form and leadership qualities bring immediate value. He began his college career at California and made an impact after his redshirt freshman year, recording 133 tackles his first two seasons with the team. That built to a breakout 2015, where he made 111 stops and led the Golden Bears to their first bowl game in four years.

He spent a postgraduate season at Illinois, where he his father was named defensive coordinator in 2016. He notched another three-digit tackle number and set career highs in tackles for loss (5.5) and interceptions (two) in an otherwise forgettable year for the Illini.

Nickerson wraps up well and finishes his tackles, making the most of every opportunity. He’s not afraid of contact and puts his body on the line to make plays.

What could hold him back from filling his father’s shoes?

Nickerson doesn’t have ideal size, even for a player limited to an inside linebacker role. At 6’0 and 232 pounds, he’ll be smaller than several NFL running backs. What’s worse — he’ll be slower than them, too. His 4.78 second 40-yard dash time was below average in this year’s crop of linebackers.

Bigger blockers can swallow him up, and smaller tailbacks can simply run away from him. He doesn’t offer much in coverage, but could turn into an average defender over the middle with some more work. However, he’s 23, and after playing football his whole life, the flawed prospect scouts saw at the Combine and on his Illinois tape may be the best player he can be.

Where does he fit on the Bengals roster?

Nickerson may not be destined to be the All-Pro his father was, but he’s a sturdy player who has never failed to contribute throughout his football career. As an undrafted player, Nickerson is a long shot to make the roster, but at least he’ll get an opportunity.