Like 2020, free agency in 2021 brought the Cincinnati Bengals new faces on defense. Trey Hendrickson was the Bengals answer to the loss of team sack leader Carl Lawson. Much has been speculated about his ability to get pressure on a line that lost ⅓ of their league-last 17 sacks. Mike Hilton has drawn praise for his embrace of the Bengals and newfound dislike of the Steelers. He also provides the clearest upgrade among the free agency additions. PFF has rated him as one of the best cornerbacks in the slot since 2017.
One of the names that seemingly hasn’t gotten as much attention however, is new starting outside cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. Despite being signed on the same day as Hendrickson, there hasn’t been as much discussion of what he can bring to the team.
A New Face in the Cincinnati Bengals Secondary: Chidobe Awuzie
The Bengals signed Chidobe Awuzie (pronounced Chih-doe-beh Ah-wooz-yeh) to replace the now departed William Jackson III. Jackson was still a free agent when the signing was announced, but it was obvious that the Bengals were opting for the former Dallas Cowboy rather than bringing back Jackson. At 3 years, $21.75 million, he ended up significantly cheaper than Jackson, who later signed a 3 year, $42 million deal with the Washington Football Team. He also ended up with the same jersey number, opting to switch to 22 with Vonn Bell occupying the 24 he wore for the last three years in Dallas.
Chidobe Awuzie’s Career So Far
Awuzie comes to Cincinnati off his worst season as a pro. He managed just a mediocre 51.9 grade from Pro Football Focus. However, it’s important to note that he struggled heavily with injuries last year. A hamstring injury in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys week 2 match against the Falcons kept him out of week three. Shortly after the team placed him on IR. The Cowboys activated him off of IR just before week seven, but he didn’t suit up until week 11. He played in three games before landing on the COVID-19 List, missing Week 14 against the Bengals. All told he finished the season with 38 tackles, one interception and five passes defended in eight games. Quarterbacks seemed to routinely pick on him when on the field.
His first three seasons in the league paint a brighter picture. As a rookie he only played in 10 games (starting six) thanks to a lingering hamstring injury. Nonetheless he showed much promise in racking up 27 tackles, seven passes defended, and one interception. PFF gave him a great overall grade of 78.4, quite impressive for a rookie. In year two he became the full time starting left cornerback, putting up 71 tackles, 11 passes defensed, and one interception. His sophomore year showed a slight bit of regression as the Cowboys brought in Legion of Boom architect Kris Richard as the new secondary coach. He bounced back in his second year in Richard’s system with a 72.2 grade. Year three also saw career bests in tackles and pass defenses with 79 and 14, respectively.
Explaining the Struggles in 2020
Last year’s numbers seem out of place for his career even when factoring in the injury. Some of the regression seen last year, outside of injury, can be attributed to new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Seemingly the entire Cowboys defense suffered a massive step back under the new DC. Nolan’s secondary scheme may not have been the best fit for Awuzie’s skill set. He was often placed in man coverage, where he has historically struggled at tracking the ball and stopping catches. He’s a much more effective zone corner. Per PFF:
“He’s done his best work in zone coverage, ranking in the 61st percentile in PFF grade, but he’s in just the 35th percentile in single coverage. That matches our scouting report of Awuzie coming out of college, where he looked like an excellent fit in a zone scheme, and that’s likely his best bet once again as he hits free agency.”
Now this may be concerning, as Chidobe Awuzie is coming to a defense that played mainly man coverage last year. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit played in Cover 1, which heavily emphasizes man-on-man coverage for outside cornerbacks, at the eighth highest rate in the league last year. Nowadays every team runs some mix of man and zone coverage, so it’s not as though Awuzie will be forced into man coverage every snap. And perhaps this signing is an indication the Bengals will run more zone this year. It’s also likely that “new” starting cornerback Trae Waynes will fill the traditional #1 cornerback role. Waynes has historically been better in man, so having him handle the one-on-one matchups with teams’ top wide receivers leaves the option for Awuzie to see more zone reads.
Hopefully, when fans notice the new #22 on the field it’s because of praise, not criticism. Either way, just make sure to pronounce his name right.
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