Why Joe Mixon, John Ross and the '17 draft class are so important to the Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals may have shown a glimpse of the future at FedEx Field on Sunday afternoon.

Rookie third-round pick Jordan Willis was lined up at left defensive end. Rookie fourth-round pick Carl Lawson was at right defensive end. As Lawson was blocking one Redskins lineman into Colt McCoy, Willis was shedding his own block to sneak up behind the quarterback. The ball popped out and the Bengals pounced on it for the recovery.

Even former Bengals tackle Willie Anderson was impressed.

"Who is #99?" he tweeted, referring to Willis.

The Bengals are at a crossroads with Marvin Lewis heading into the season with no new contract. It could be a make-or-break season for Lewis and many around the organization, which is coming off a 6-9-1 season and still searching for an elusive playoff win.

That means the 11-man draft class could be one of the franchise's most important since Andy Dalton and A.J. Green arrived in 2011. It's almost certain the first four picks could see significant playing time.

Here's how the rookies have looked through three games:

First-round pick John Ross made his preseason debut, gaining 8 yards on a jet sweep. He was targeted twice, including one where Dalton overthrew him deep.

The team will find a role for Ross provided he stays healthy. Ross can overwhelm defenses with his speed, but his shoulder injury probably set him back. He'll continue to be eased in and the Bengals will pick their spots with him.

Second-round pick Joe Mixon continued his stellar play in preseason, rushing eight times for 31 yards. Mixon's best play was a 6-yard run when he juked starting cornerback Josh Norman, who fell on the ground trying to make the tackle. Mixon almost fell himself, but reached out his arm to steady himself and gained a few more yards.

However, he made a rookie mistake when he was responsible for a botched handoff from Dalton. Mixon was not looking for the ball and never secured it, which resulted in a turnover.

Mixon has now rushed 20 times for 78 yards and averaged 3.9 yards-per-carry in addition to catching three passes for 32 yards. Mixon is undoubtedly going to push Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard for playing time.

Third-round pick Jordan Willis has impressed with his quietly consistent play all preseason. The question is: where does Willis fit in? The Bengals' base lineup will probably be Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Pat Sims or Andrew Billings and Michael Johnson. That leaves Willis as a rotational player in certain packages.

Johnson has looked better when the Bengals have placed him inside at defensive tackle instead of at edge rusher. They could perhaps inject some life into the pass rush by moving Johnson inside in some situations and replacing him with Willis.

Fourth-rounder Carl Lawson has been a one-man wrecking ball during training camp, but the biggest question is whether he can stay healthy. Lawson's injury history caused him to fall to the fourth round and he didn't play in the second preseason game while nursing a new injury. He also raises questions as to where he fits best.

Lawson played defensive end in college, but the Bengals have been trying him at outside linebacker as well as defensive end. Lawson's coverage skills are still developing and he's looked best at defensive end so far. A lot of his playing time has come at nickel defensive end, so he might find his niche there to start the season. The Bengals are going to have to figure out how to get him on the field, as he's proved to be very disruptive when given the chance.

Fourth-rounder Josh Malone has impressed throughout camp. His large frame aides him in making contested catches, but he has good speed, too. It's going to be hard for him to find playing time early though. The Bengals will likely go with Green, Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd when lined up in their three-wide sets. Ross is going to see a lot of snaps early as the vertical threat to stretch the field. There's no question Malone makes the team. But he could be the odd man out on game days with so much talent ahead of him.

Fourth-rounder Ryan Glasgow came unblocked up the middle to blow up a run on fourth down. Glasgow has talent and ability, but he's also playing a deep position right now. He might not see much use right away.

Fifth-rounder Jake Elliott missed a 45-yard field goal on Sunday. Elliott has had a decent camp and showed impressive leg strength, but he hasn't been consistent on a daily basis compared to Randy Bullock. Bullock has had the better camp, but Elliott could get the job based on his draft status. It would be hard for the Bengals to part with one of their draft picks.

Fifth-rounder J.J. Dielman has spent most of his time with backups and is the third center behind Russell Bodine and T.J. Johnson. He's either a practice-squad candidate or will be inactive on game days, similar to Christian Westerman last year.

Sixth-rounder Jordan Evans hasn't stood out much in camp with some of the other players shining, but it isn't for lack of talent. He just hasn't seen much time with the first-team unit to show what he can do. Evans is in an interesting spot depending on what happens with Vontaze Burfict's suspension. If Burfict is suspended, Evan's potential for playing time suddenly shoots up.

Sixth-rounder Brandon Wilson hasn't taken a snap in the preseason and will likely start the season on the non-football injury list, despite the team's thin safety depth.

Seventh-rounder Mason Schreck left the game on Sunday with an injury. Schreck has improved a lot in camp after overcoming some early drops, but his place on the 53-man roster will probably depend on how long they plan to be without C.J. Uzomah. If Uzomah can come back within the next few weeks, Schreck would likely be a practice-squad candidate.