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NFL breakout players 2018: Bengals big man Andrew Billings is primed for big things this year

He earned the starting nose tackle job last season. This year, expect the stats to start jumping off the page.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

If you remember my draft profile of Andrew Billings back in 2016, I cautioned that while I loved watching his tape, he would probably only be successful as a 4-3 nose tackle in the NFL because of his size and style of play. Fortunately for Billings, he ended up being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals, who have been running a 4-3 forever.

Unfortunately for Billings, he ended up missing all of his rookie season with a torn meniscus suffered during training camp.

Going down with an injury like that had to suck for a guy like Billings who worked so damn hard just to make it to the league in the first place. To his credit, he bounced back last year and looked none too shabby. In fact he ended up playing well enough that he started the last seven games of the season.

He finished the year with just 13 tackles, but statistics weren’t the most important thing for Billings last year. Getting game reps was.

With 15 games under his belt Billings can take what he learned last season and really grow this year.

His film showed a guy who held his ground well at the point of attack and was able to regularly push blockers back in the backfield when they tried to take him one-on-one. Getting that penetration was key in helping to affect the runners before they could get started, even on plays where he didn’t get in on the tackle.

Playing the run is often a thankless job in the first place, but that is especially true for nose tackles, who often occupy two blockers to ensure one of their teammates can make the play. The important thing for Billings was showing he could make a positive impact against the run, whether he made the tackle or not, and he accomplished that quite a bit last year.

He also displayed some of those same characteristics on the field that impressed me when he was coming out of college, including his hustle and how he liked to finish plays. I also came away impressed with how quickly Billings started to recognize blocking schemes and react accordingly to them.

One of the hardest things for young defensive linemen is to be able to tell what a team is trying to do to you and why in that instant after the snap so that you don’t run yourself out of the play. Billings, however, was out there looking like a wily vet.

Billings still has good wiggle for a big man too, and I expect the more he plays, the more he will be able to generate pressure on early downs. On a play action pass offensive linemen usually don’t take their normal pass set, and that can allow big men like Billings with good lateral quickness to take advantage of them, if they can recognize that it’s a pass and quickly get to a move.

If nothing else, Billings’ relentless effort should help him get to the quarterback quite a bit this year. I definitely expect him to get on the board with his first career sack this year. He should have at least a handful by the end of the season.

Andrew Billings ended up being drafted into the perfect situation. Now in his third season, he is going to really flourish as the starting nose tackle for the Bengals. With only 13 career tackles to his name so far, Billings’ stat sheet should start matching his film a little bit more this season. I expect his production to go way up by the end of the year.

Confidence level: High