CINCINNATI -- The Year of the Rookie appears set to continue in Cincinnati this weekend when Bengals first-year defensive end Margus Hunt finally gets an opportunity to play in front of a regular-season Paul Brown Stadium crowd.
After patiently waiting his turn the past two weeks, the second-round pick out of SMU might be getting ready to bounce off the Bengals' inactives list and into a pregame two-deep depth chart for the first time in his young career. As defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer put it this week: "the redshirt may be over."
Redshirting, of course, does not actually exist in the NFL. But the two-week acclimation period the Bengals just put Hunt through was the closest thing to their version of it. With 10-year veteran end Robert Geathers now done for the season with an elbow injury suffered in Monday night's win against Pittsburgh, Hunt has become the "next man up" coaches so regularly bring into their lexicon.
"I'm ready to go," Hunt said Thursday. "I mean, I've been ready to play."
Specifically, Hunt, from Estonia, has been ready to get on the field since the last week of the preseason when he was finally beginning to understand the nuances of playing his position at the professional level.
"During the preseason, I got better every game and during the Indianapolis game, I was pretty good playing the run and pass," Hunt said. "I played a lot during that game. I can help out this team. I feel comfortable with the plays we have in, and now it's just a matter of being out there and playing."
Hunt's teammates agree, and have been encouraged by his progress even in such limited time.
"He's getting better. That's what we do," defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. "If it's on scout team or on defense, we get better. He's plugging in and making the transition. If his number's called, I'm sure he's going to be there to answer the bell."
Gilberry might have his own bell to answer this week. With Geathers' departure from the rotation, the Bengals likely will be looking for him to cycle in even more in the back end of the depth chart. While starters Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap will be receiving the bulk of the snaps at the end positions, respectively, Gilberry and Hunt anticipate being in the mix behind them.
Both said they feel comfortable playing either end position, although Hunt said he felt better lining up on the left side like he did most of his college career.
Perhaps the most difficult adjustment Hunt has had to make comes in understanding the role of the tight end in an NFL offense. While playing at SMU, Hunt saw very few Conference USA teams that featured tight ends. He mostly was playing spread style teams that employed a single tailback and a slew of shifty receivers. He didn't have to worry much about coverage. His primary objective was to get in the backfield and be a disruptive force in the passing game.
"We rarely saw a tight end," Hunt said. "Here you have two tight ends, two running backs and you have to sort through the personnel groups. It's a different scouting report, and it took me a bit of time to sort through what to look at and get a better feel of what the offense is doing."