There's one competition going into Training Camp that is being overlooked at defensive tackle. Most of the focus has been placed on the cornerback and wide receiver positions, but with two unexpected additions to the defensive line via the draft, there's now a logjam at the defensive tackle position.
Traditionally, the team keeps four true defensive tackles on the roster and with Devon Still and Brandon Thompson appearing to be roster locks because of their draft positions (if Thompson would ever sign his contract, that is), some are looking at Pat Sims as the odd man out. There's also the issue of players acting as "swing guys" on the defensive line. A player like Robert Geathers and/or Jamaal Anderson are listed as defensive ends, but are known to kick inside on passing downs to let other pass rushing ends get on the field as well.
I recently disagreed with the sentiment regarding Sims in one of my weekly mailbags almost two months ago. My main point of contention revolved around the decline of the defense without Sims in the lineup, as well as the fact that the team doesn't have a space-eater on the roster like Sims. While a player like Thompson is effective against the run, a guy like Sims excels at defending it and also creates openings for his teammates because of the double teams he commands. I've always felt that he was a vastly undervalued player here and was surprised when he didn't get many opportunities as a free agent, though I suspect that had more to do with his injury than anything else.
I looked further into my theory on SIms. He went down for the season early in the Week 12 matchup against the Cleveland Browns and I noticed an obvious decline in the defense since that game. In the final six regular season games of the 2011 season that the Bengals played without Sims (including that Browns game), the defense allowed teams to rush for 100 or more yards, four times. One of these four performances was the season-worst 221-yard rushing performance by the Ravens. Additionally, in the playoff drubbing at the hands of the Houston Texans, the defense gave up their second-worst performance of the entire season, allowing 188 rushing yards. So, if you include that playoff game, the team allowed the opposition to run for more than 100 yards in five of the seven games without Sims.
By contrast, in the ten previous games when they had SIms' services, the Bengals allowed just three 100-yard rushing performances from their opponents. One could argue that the team played better overall talent in those final seven games and I'd be inclined to agree with you. But, there were elite backs that the Bengals faced early on, including Maurice Jones-Drew, Frank Gore, Fred Jackson, Ray Rice and Rashard Mendenhall. It wasn't a cake walk early on and the Bengals relied on forcing teams to become one-dimensional by stopping the run. Sims was a key component of that formula.
Kudos to the Bengals staff for recognizing a need that no one else really saw at defensive tackle. While most chalked it up to the team taking the best player available at the time (which I think is true in these cases), I believe it to also be a proper reaction to a couple of things. First, I believe that the team saw the defensive erosion at the end of the year and wanted to address it, even though they had Sims in the fold on a one-year deal.
More importantly, I believe that the team saw what the other AFC North teams did in the draft and reacted to those moves. For instance, the Pittsburgh Steelers took two offensive linemen with their first two picks (David DeCastro and Mike Adams), as well as a Swiss Army knife of a player in Chris Rainey. The Ravens took offensive guard Kelechi Osemele and running back Bernard Pierce in the second and third rounds, respectively. Not to be outdone by the others, the Browns took the best running back in the draft in Trent Richardson, as well as a solid guard/tackle in Mitchell Schwartz in the second round.
In summation, the Bengals need as many able bodies up front that they can get their hands on. They currently have five, and I believe that they'll hang on to all of them. We're not likely to see the team hang on to a third quarterback on the roster, and they probably won't carry six safeties like they did last season. What is great about each of the five that are vying for a roster spot is that they each bring a different element. Many are likening Thompson to Domata Peko because of his position and body type, but he's lighter than Peko and is more of a one-move player. Peko is a "motor" guy who gets double-teamed frequently and keeps fighting to make plays. Still is more of a pass-rusher like Geno Atkins, but also has a bit more size than Atkins. Sims is the big boy of the group who eats space and clogs lanes.
NFL battles are won up front--the New York Giants are a testament to that. As long as Sims' ankle is deemed healthy and he's a full-go, I expect the team to keep all five of the big guys to combat potential injuries and make sure that their good at the position as the season wears on. Who gets on the field on which downs and packages will be sorted out through Training Camp, but I expect to see all five of these defensive tackles (Peko, Atkins, Sims, Still and Thompson) on the final 53-man roster in 2012.