Why is November 21, 2010 significant in regards to Carlos Dunlap? Well, it's the last time that the rookie defensive end finished a game without recording at least a shared quarterback sack, riding a streak of four straight games with at least 0.5 sacks. Additionally, during three of the past four games, Dunlap has dropped the quarterback multiple times (at least 1.5) and all seven quarterback sacks have been accumulated in the past six games.
Dunlap could become the first Bengals rookie to lead the Bengals in sacks for a full season since James Francis' 8.0 quarterback sacks led the team in 1990. Smith had 8.5 quarterback sacks in 2001, just a shared sack behind Reinard Wilson's 9.0. The only way that Dunlap doesn't lead the team in quarterback sacks is if Pat Sims or Geno Atkins, both of whom are second on the team with 2.5 quarterback sacks, record five sacks in the next two games and Dunlap is shutout.
However, Dunlap's season wasn't the explosion of rookie talent translating into pure production that we've seen lately. Spending four of the first five games on the gameday inactive list, Dunlap's increasing playing time came as a direct result of Antwan's Odom disastrous season. Odom missed the third game of the year against the Carolina Panthers with a wrist injury; the first game of Dunlap's NFL career. Dunlap returned to the active lineup when Odom began serving his four-game suspension against the Atlanta Falcons. Odom never returned after heading to IR with a wrist injury and Dunlap only benefited as a result.
Just before his second career game against the Atlanta Falcons, Mike Zimmer said that he would "like to see more passion" from Dunlap during practice. Head coach Marvin Lewis echoed Zimmer's sentiments a week later saying:
"Hopefully he'll continue to grow a little bit and get better and give us some quality snaps. He has all the ability we expect. Right now he's had more practice than play. He's got to learn how to prepare and practice in the National Football League to play on Sundays."
After recording his first quarterback sack in his NFL career against the Indianapolis Colts, Marvin Lewis changed his tone, but still with that can't show approval to kids fatherly tune.
"I think yesterday was a step forward for Carlos. He was sick all week last week and really didn't get to practice. He stood out there and came to the meetings on Thursday, stood out and watched on Friday, and then got the work in on Saturday. But I thought assignment-wise, he did a good job and obviously had a couple of good plays. He's got to keep taking steps forward: Learning how to practice is the biggest thing with Carlos, and what it takes to be a pro. He’s been spending some extra time here on Tuesdays, which is good. He needs to keep taking the steps."
Dunlap would record 3.5 quarterback sacks against the Jets and Saints in back-to-back weeks, Lewis further expressed satisfaction in Dunlap's progress.
“He’s still catching up. You wish this was the way it had been in August. You wish he would have seen the impact he could’ve had. Nobody’s going to give it to you. You have to prove it and show it play after play. I think his practice habits have improved and he’s been rewarded with playing more, and that’s what we told him from the start. It’s no different from the progression that Andre (Smith) went through. You’ve got to show it here in practice, and then you’ll get an opportunity in the game, and he’s making good on it in passing situations and in base downs.”
With two games left in the season, Dunlap now ranks second among all NFL rookies with seven quarterback sacks, behind Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, who only has 1.5 quarterback sacks in the past seven games. Based on trends, Dunlap could lead all NFL rookies by the end of the season with a very minimal threat from Koa Misi, Jason Pierre-Paul, LaMarr Houston or Frank Zombo, who round out the top five rookies.
|Quarterback sack leaders among NFL rookies.|
So the question is: Is Dunlap a defensive rookie of the year candidate? Presuming that just by being among the rookie sacks leaders gains you enough attention, the league is featuring other highly productive rookies this year. Browns safety T.J. Ward leads all NFL rookies with 114 tackles, along with two interceptions, 10 passes defensed and a forced fumble. The Chiefs' Eric Berry is second with 81 tackles, with three interceptions (ranks fourth among all NFL rookies), 11 passes defensed and a forced fumble to go along two quarterback sacks.
The Patriots' Devin McCourty is fifth among rookies with 77 tackles, but leads all NFL rookies with six interceptions and 21 passes defensed with Browns cornerback Joe Haden, who ranks second with five interceptions. McCourty also has a forced fumble and a quarterback sack.
Note: Bengals rookie linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy is tied for most forced fumbles by NFL rookies this year.
The Bengals have a solid draft class with players like Dunlap, Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley, Geno Atkins and Roddrick Muckelroy. Even Brandon Ghee was tied for third on the team with six special teams tackles at one point. None of them will likely win any rookie awards this year, but it's a fine collection of talent for the future.