Cincinnati Bengals Training Camp Preview: Defensive End

CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 13: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers gets sacked by Robert Geathers #91 and Michael Johnson #93 of the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on November 13, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Steelers won 24-17. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The defensive end position was a bright spot for the 2011 Bengals, but with two departures and two acquisitions, the offseason proved to be tumultuous. Frostee Rucker signed with the Cleveland Browns, and Jonathan Fanene signed with the New England Patriots. Their replacements: former 8th overall draft picks Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey.

Heading into training camp, many questions look to be answered. Who will start? Who will make the roster? And can this unit manage to top the production of the 2011 unit?

Let's take a look at defensive end position of the Cincinnati Bengals...

The Bengals bring back three defensive ends from the 2011 squad (Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Robert Geathers), and although Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker were lost to free agency, free agents Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey were signed to fill the void, bringing the total to five defensive ends. Here is the breakdown of those five players.

CARLOS DUNLAP

2011 Stats: 12 games, 4.5 sacks, 35 total tackles, 0 int, 0 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery

Carlos Dunlap is the future of the defensive end position in Cincinnati. The numbers say a lot to this point, but there's no stat that can quantity the noticeable difference in the Bengals defense with Dunlap on the field. They pressure the quarterback. They make plays. They ride Dunlap to success.

He has answered the call regarding his supposed attitude issues coming out of the University of Florida as well. Slipping out of the first round in the 2010 NFL Draft due to a poorly timed DUI and the subsequent questions about his "motor", the Bengals gleefully snatched him up at pick No. 54. That pick turned into a steal. Instead of a problem child, they got a leader. So far this offseason he has stated his intention to be the starting defensive end, have more than ten sacks, and be a part of a top 5 NFL defense. Doesn't sound like there is much of an attitude issue.

Physically, at 6'6" 290lbs with lightning speed, he's a freak. Production wise, with 40 QB pressures in two seasons, he's a monster. But health wise, yet to play more than 12 games a season, he's a bit shaky. He has devoted himself this offseason to maintaining his health throughout 2012, so hopefully the "if he can stay healthy..." description doesn't turn into a bigger "if" than it already is. Because there sure isn't any concern about production.

PREDICTION: Starter, LDE

MICHAEL JOHNSON

2011 Stats: 16 games, 6 sacks, 57 total tackles, 1 int, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery

Per statistics, Michael Johnson was the most productive defensive end in 2011 still on the roster. But he is no sure thing. His supposed strength is pass rushing, yet Pro Football Focus justifiably places Johnson as the 6th worst pass rushing defensive end in 2011 and the 4th worst over the past three seasons. In his 402 pass rushing snaps in 2011, he created any sort of quarterback pressure whatsoever only 28 times. He couldn't hold down his starting job in 2011, losing it to Frostee Rucker after five games. Presumably, he'll move back into that starter role with Rucker gone, but how long before he loses it again? Johnson has all the tools to be a force, but if he cannot put it all together in 2012--his fourth season--then hope of him reaching his potential may fade away.

Despite the disappointment, however, Johnson has still been serviceable, and six sacks is nothing to scoff at. Maintaining his current level of production wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but its tough to accept knowing that there could be so much more. Marvin Lewis supported Johnson recently saying that a slight decrease in playing time may allow him to maintain "that high level all the time". 2012 is a contract year for Johnson, and he is a human being and enjoys money. So if there is ever a time to produce, it is now.

PREDICTION: Starter, RDE

ROBERT GEATHERS

2011 Stats: 14 games, 2.5 sacks, 48 total tackles, 0 int, 0 forced fumbles, 0 fumble recoveries

Robert Geathers is a two-sided coin. Ask one Bengal fan what they think of Geathers, and you could walk away thinking he's the most crucial defensive aspect of Cincinnati since Barry Larkin patrolled shortstop. Ask another fan, and you could walk away wondering how in the world that man has maintained an NFL roster spot for the past five season (two extremist Bengal fans, I know). Geathers is a walking list of pros and cons:

Pro: Geathers is a run stopper. He plays the obvious running downs, giving Carlos Dunlap a breather and holding his own on the edge against opposing offenses.

Con: For someone who is known as a "run stopper", he is hardly dominant. Pro Football Focus graded him at -2.1 as a rush defender. For what he's paid ($4.2 million in 2012), and for how poor he is as a pass rusher (second least efficient pass rusher in the NFL over the past three seasons), is -2.1 against the run good enough?

Pro: Geathers is a leader, he does what he's asked, and he has a great attitude. His production exists in that he does his job the right way, not worrying about himself and unselfishly allowing other members of the defense to thrive on statistics. His intangible effect on the Bengals cannot be duplicated and is necessary to the defense's success. Marvin Lewis went on record before the 2011 season in support of Geathers for these exact reasons.

Con: This is where you must weigh leadership against production, and intangibles against $4.2 million. Dunlap and Johnson have shown a positive attitude this offseason. Perhaps it is their turn to step up as leaders. And perhaps Geathers' leadership is being overestimated. Unless he's a Ray Lewis type motivator, why spend $4.2 million on a defensive end who is incapable of rushing the quarterback?

Pro: He had 10.5 sacks in 2006!

Con: Flash in the pan.

Pro: Money shouldn't be an issue. The Bengals have plenty of cap room to spare, and Geathers provides depth. Cutting him saves money, but what's the point? Instead of cutting him, spend the money to keep him, keep depth, and keep leadership.

That is the crucial point. Cap room is not an issue, yet depth very much could be, so why cut him? And ultimately, that will likely be the reason Geathers sticks around in 2012 for the final year of his contract. A decent run stopper, an anemic pass rusher, but if nothing else, a healthy body if and when an injury occurs or Derrick Harvey and Jamaal Anderson continue their careers as busts.

PREDICTION: Backup, Run Specialist

JAMAAL ANDERSON

2011 Stats: 15 games, 3 sacks, 36 total tackles, 0 int, 0 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery

One of the Bengals offseason signings, Anderson was brought into Cincinnati for $6 million over two seasons as a high reward/low risk player and one of the replacements for the departing Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker. Anderson was the 8th overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 but never actualized in the NFL. He'll come into Cincinnati as a backup, and another hopeful case as a Mike Zimmer redemption project. He's already received endorsements from Domata Peko who sees Anderson as a good fit in the Cincinnati defense. Anderson plans on producing at both defensive end and defensive tackle, and is actively wishing for more snaps at tackle.

Best case scenario: Anderson finally realizes his 8th overall pick potential and turns into a productive defensive lineman in Cincinnati for years to come. Worst case scenario: Anderson continues to be a bust, does very little to help the Bengals in 2012, and is released after the season.

PREDICTION (Realistic case scenario): Anderson is a serviceable backup.His talent is utilized masterfully by Zimmer, and he produces as a situational defender while also providing valuable depth.

DERRICK HARVEY

2011 Stats: 5 games, 0 sacks, 6 total tackles, 0 int, 0 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery

Derrick Harvey was the other free agent acquisition brought in to replace the departing defensive ends. Like Anderson, he too was an 8th overall pick and amounted to a draft bust. Unlike Anderson, however, Harvey signed a contract worth only $765,000 for one season. He is literally a no-risk player.

PREDICTION: Backup

THINGS TO WATCH THIS TRAINING CAMP

  • Who will make the team? Geathers is at risk due to his recent lack of production and $4.2 million contract. Derrick Harvey is also at risk given his cheap, one year contract and, as shown by his previous NFL seasons, the likelihood that he isn't any good. Jamaal Anderson is presumably safe as his 2 year/$6 million contract points to the organization thinking highly of him. Michael Johnson is completely safe given his relatively cheap $1.4 million contract and his high ceiling. Carlos Dunlap is completely safe given he's awesome.
  • Who will win the starting job? Geathers is the only incumbent starter, so despite questions regarding his roster spot, it is still technically his job to lose. Dunlap is on the record that he is out to win the starting job, and Michael Johnson has made it clear he believes he and Dunlap can become one of the best defensive end tandems in the league, which implies a starting job. Anderson and Harvey are unlikely to factor into the equation, but it is possible that one or both can outplay the competition and win significant playing time
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