D.J. Reader was intrigued by how aggressive the Cincinnati Bengals pursued him as a free agent following four years with the Houston Texans.
It helped they were providing the best offer, monetarily speaking, but at the time, it just felt good to be so wanted, especially as a former fifth-round draft pick. A little later in the process, it dawned on Reader how big of a deal it was that the Bengals were willing to make him the NFL’s highest paid player at the nose tackle position.
Cincinnati hasn’t traditionally gone outside the organization to shell out cash on the free agent market. However, those in the front office and coaching staff that he spoke to assured him they were doing things differently. Reader comes on a four-year, $53 million deal that he agreed to March 17, marking the beginning of a busy free-agent period for the Bengals, who officially announced Reader’s signing Wednesday along with seven others.
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“Not really knowing much about the organization prior to this, I didn’t really think about it being unusual,” Reader said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I just came to the realization afterward, like kind of just thinking about it and thinking about my recent years playing. I was like, ‘Dang, you know, they really haven’t (been active in free agency). I couldn’t think of too many people they had signed, so I was like, ‘Aw, man, I guess times are different.’
“They are sticking true to their word. They said they want to do things differently. They’ve been doing it a certain way, so now they are going about it a little different way. The whole plan might not be different, but they are switching up some things, still true to what they said they were going to do when they made that phone call.”
Reader, the Texans’ fifth-round draft pick out of Clemson in 2016, was feeling like it was time to try something new. After serving mostly as a rotational defensive lineman as a rookie, he emerged as a full-time starter in 2017 and totaled 154 tackles and 6.5 sacks over the last four seasons, including a career year in 2019 when he amassed 52 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
An elite interior lineman who applies more pressure than the statistics show, Reader was ready to take the next step toward being a better leader. Cincinnati provides that opportunity, he said.
“It’s a young team with some good pieces, and it just gives me a chance to really expand my ability as a player, to go somewhere and get a chance to be a leader and be a part of something special and just be in a good place,” Reader said. “I knew I was in a good locker room, just going to another good locker room with young staff. I was excited. I was excited to see what new journey would take off in my life. I felt like I kind of needed that.”
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The 6-foot-3, 347-pound defensive tackle wasn’t put off by the Bengals’ 2-14 finish last year in Zac Taylor’s first season at the helm. He had watched film and saw enough to believe they could be better, especially with the help of the top pick in the draft and what they said they wanted to do in free agency.
Now after seeing who else the Bengals brought in, guys like Saints safety Vonn Bell and Vikings cornerback and fellow Clemson product Mackensie Alexander, Reader is even more excited.
“They were recruiting in free agency, and I think they told all of us recruits the same thing — they want to go out and get guys who could come in and make a difference,” Reader said. “I feel like they did it right by going out and getting guys, and I know they are still doing that, but I feel like watching the film, you saw they had flashes and could be a good team, whether it was the injury bug or things just didn’t go their way. We know how this game goes. They weren’t what the record showed exactly.”
With travel restrictions and the NFL prohibiting in-person meetings because of COVID-19 concerns, Reader leaned mostly on what the Bengals had to say and his own research. He was familiar with defensive line coach Nick Eason because of his ties to Clemson as a former player there; however, he didn’t personally know many of the players aside from 2019 draftee Germaine Pratt and 2018 fifth-round pick Andrew Brown.
Reader said he looks forward to playing alongside Geno Atkins, as someone he’s followed throughout his career, but the first time he meets a lot of his teammates could end up being on FaceTime or Zoom.
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“It was weird,” Reader said. “It was a bunch of back and forth phone calls between a good amount of people, just thinking about it and just taking pros and cons from each place. … It was kind of like, you can’t really say no. Sometimes the man upstairs speaks to you and tells you to go somewhere, and that might not be exactly like what you thought it was at first, but you start buying in, and you’re like, ‘Dang, this is a really cool experience.’ That’s what it turned into for me. It was just weird because I’ve never been there or spent time there, so it’s hard to lean on something you haven’t been able to put your hands on and grab and see and make your own fair judgement on.”
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