When the Cincinnati Bengals selected former N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley in the fourth round of the NFL Draft in April, much was made about what that would mean for Andy Dalton’s future.
But the player who could be most impacted is backup Jeff Driskel.
Driskel spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons as the Bengals’ third-string quarterback before moving up on the depth chart last year and finally making his NFL debut when Dalton’s year ended with thumb surgery. For now, his backup job appears safe but he could end up back in that No. 3 position if Finley turns things around.
Finley is getting third-string snaps and has struggled through Organized Team Activities; however, the organization obviously saw more potential than he’s showing right now and it’s early in his development.
“This is a competitive league,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said when asked what his message to Driskel has been since drafting Finley. “No one ever shows up just expecting to be handed a job, so I think it’s good for everyone to have competition. It’s good for Andy, it’s good for Jeff, it’s good for Ryan, it’s good for (undrafted college free agent signee) Jake (Dolegala). I’m happy with the competitiveness of everyone in that room right now. Everyone has stepped up their game and the attention to detail has been pretty good so far.”
Driskel said he didn’t think much of it when the Bengals drafted Finley, and he will do what he can to help his teammate even if they are competing for a job.
“I didn’t have much of an initial thought,” Driskel said. “I definitely heard of him before. I didn’t watch him in college or anything, but the second he was drafted here, he became my teammate and it’s my job to first and foremost go out there and produce but also bring guys along as well. I will try to help him out as much as possible. He’s a good guy to have in the room, and I’m just excited for him and where he’s at.”
Driskel’s career path already has been pretty jagged, but he remains confident it is straightening out.
He got off to a promising start at the University of Florida, where he was expected to be the next Tim Tebow, but a broken leg during his junior season in 2013 derailed him and the next year he lost his starting job. Driskel transferred to Louisiana Tech in 2015 and threw for 4,033 yards and 27 touchdowns.
The San Francisco 49ers selected him in the sixth round of the 2016 draft but he was cut at the end of the preseason, and the Bengals ended up claiming him off waivers and keeping him behind then-backup AJ McCarron.
In 2017, Driskel broke his hand in the final preseason game and then injured his non-passing arm while playing receiver during a practice late in the season, but when McCarron won a grievance to become a free agent in the following offseason, Driskel finally had his opportunity to move up on the depth chart.
Driskel made his regular-season debut Oct. 21 when Dalton suffered a thumb injury on the first series of the second half in a 35-20 loss to the Browns. He started the final five games and threw for 1,003 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions over nine total appearances.
“I feel like I learned a lot,” Driskel said. “Maybe not one thing in particular, but the more reps you get, the more looks you might get, the more situations you might be put in that you thought through before, but until you’ve lived it, it’s really not the same thing. I definitely gained some valuable experience last year, and I’m still getting valuable experience in these OTAs because a lot of these plays we are running, it’s the first time they’ve been run so it’s good to get it on tape and come back for training camp and the season ready to run it.”
The learning curve is a little easier for Driskel now that he’s played some NFL games, but he remembers sitting in Finley’s shoes not too long ago. Driskel offers advice whenever he can, and Finley has been open and willing to listen, he said.
“Andy and I both have game experience … so we kind of know maybe what he’s thinking,” Driskel said. “We’re just giving him the subtleties and trying to teach him as we go along because at the end of the day, he’s our teammate and we are pulling for him. We just kind of tell him what to look for and what little things can help him be successful. He’s done a really nice job and he has a bright future.”
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