(Editor's note: This is the another installment in which we will be breaking down each position before the Bengals head into Training Camp. It's a benefit that we didn't have last year because of the lockout, so we're taking advantage of it this year with the full offseason. Enjoy.)
In what has become arguably the deepest position on the Bengals roster, there is a lot to sort out in the Bengals' defensive tackle position. Traditionally, the team keeps four players at the position and before the 2012 Draft, one would have assumed that the team would go this route once again. A debate is brewing on how many players the team will keep because of three offseason acquisitions.
Starter, Geno Atkins, third season: Going into this offseason, the team had four defensive tackles on their roster. The best place to start would likely be with Pro Bowler, Geno Atkins. In his second season in the NFL and just his first as a starter, Atkins made himself one of the best players at his position in the league. His stout performances against both the pass and the run have earned him the honors of being selected on numerous top players lists, namely FOX Sports' recent one where he came in at No.44.
We expect Atkins to continue his dominating ways, even though he will likely see himself get double-teamed almost every down. His stats could suffer a little bit because of this, but we still think he will make his fair share of plays and wreak some havoc with his never-ending motor. It's also very possible that with Atkins being double-teamed, many other defensive linemen will reap the benefits of getting one-on-one match ups.
Now going into his third season, the big question is if and/or when the Bengals will extend Atkins off of his rookie contract. It's been largely assumed that with the team's big cap space, they are looking to stockpile money for some of their young studs like Atkins. We'll see if that is truly the case, but the young man has certainly proved that he's worth it in two short seasons.
Starter, Domata Peko, eighth season: Though he hasn't been privy to the limelight that he reveled in while organizing and conducting players-only practices as he did during the lockout last season, Domata Peko is still a very valuable member of this football team. He brings leadership, fire, and a great motor at the defensive tackle position. Though he isn't the three-down player that Atkins is, he still is on the field quite a bit and we see him make his fair share of plays, week-in and week-out.
Some fans have voiced their feelings on Peko being overrated. While this argument may or may not be valid, Peko could be looking over his shoulder a bit at a couple of youngsters. The team drafted Brandon Thomson out of Clemson in the third round of the draft this year and he's currently slated to back up the wild-haired veteran. While it's unlikely that Thompson will supplant Peko in his first season with the team, he could be breathing down his neck in the coming years, especially when the veteran gets a bit long in the tooth.
Regardless, Peko is a good player on and off of the football field and he isn't going anywhere. He will likely remain the starter at tackle this season, unless something unforeseen happens. And, if they need another fullback in a pinch, Peko does a pretty sweet job at that gig too.
Backup, Devon Still, Rookie: Many of us were surprised when the team took Penn State's Devon Still in the second round of the NFL Draft. It wasn't perceived as being as glaring of a need like wide receiver or running back were. But, the team obviously stayed true to their board and took who they felt was the best player available. Still was once thought of as a fringe first round player, but slipped because of supposed motor concerns and some "feast of famine" performances on his college tape.
Though he's backing up the Pro Bowler Atkins at the tackle position, Still will find his way on the field in numerous packages. On obvious passing downs, we could see him line up next to Atkins, or even see either of them line up at end (Still played end in certain packages at Penn State). What the Bengals have done so well under Mike Zimmer is use a committee in a lot of positions and defensive tackle will likely embody that notion once again this year. Still will be a big part of that. And, thanks to the new CBA, Still signed his four-year contract back in early May to the tune of $3.77 million and a $1.18 million signing bonus.
Backup, Brandon Thompson, Rookie: While the Still pick was a bit surprising, the Brandon Thompson pick at the end of the third was a shocker. That's not to say it was a reach because it wasn't--in fact, it was great value where they ended up taking him. In fact, the National Football Post called Thompson and fellow third-rounder, Mohamed Sanu, as two of the draft's best values in the third round. The surprise came that the Bengals used two high picks at a position that didn't appear as a need going into the draft. As we dissect it today, the two defensive tackle picks appear brilliant.
Thompson's specialty is as a penetrator and run-stopper. He's a thicker build than Still or Atkins and is currently backing up Peko at his spot. Though he seems to have a bright future with the club, Thompson has had some issues to deal with this offseason. Aside from being nicked up in rookie minicamp, Thompson remains the only Bengals rookie to sign his contract. He switched agents in late May and many held out hope that that was a signal that a contract would be coming soon. It hasn't. Even though all of this has gone on, Thompson has held a "team first attitude":
"It was a blessing to be drafted by a great organization such as the Bengals," Thompson said Thursday. "I plan on coming in and doing what’s required of me. Whatever they ask of me, I’ll do. I’ll do whatever it takes for this team to win. I want my new teammates to know they can depend on me to get the job done. I’m excited and ready to jump on ship and get this thing started."
"It was amazing meeting Coach (Marvin) Lewis at the combine," he said. "I knew then I wanted to play in Cincinnati. He’s a great coach and I’m ready to start playing for him. I’m just happy to be a Bengal."
Even though he doesn't have a contract signed yet, his attitude is a good place to start. Like his fellow draftee Still, Thompson will likely rotate his way in on special packages.
Backup, Pat Sims, fifth season: As we've said before, the Bengals don't have another player built like Pat Sims on the roster. He's an enormous guy who eats up space and clogs lanes, giving either himself or a teammate an opportunity to make plays. Though he hasn't been a true starter since his arrival in Cincinnati back in 2008, Sims has contributed heavily and has been a member of a Mike Zimmer defense with two top-ten finishes in his tenure here.
He had an unfortunate ankle injury that landed him on injured reserve towards the end of 2012 and is just beginning to come back as a full-go right now. He signed a one-year deal with the club towards the end of March, which was a pleasant surprise. Many felt that Sims would be a hot commodity on the free agent market, but it seems that teams shied away from him because of that ankle issue. The Bengals benefitted and are now absolutely stacked at the position.
Some wonder if Sims will be the odd man out with the arrival of Still and Thompson, but the consensus opinion (and hope) is that the team will keep all five. With the other AFC North teams investing in offensive linemen and running backs this offseason, as well as the penchant for players to acquire injuries at this position, the team would be wise to keep all five players.
Roster scrum: Nick Hayden, fifth season; Vaughn Meatoga, Rookie: You hate to give players the designation of "not likely to make the 53-man roster", and/or "Practice Squad material", but in all honesty, both of these players fit the bill. Nick Hayden was acquired late last season after Sims' injury and played in two games with two tackles. While he did an admirable job coming over and doing what he could late in the year, he was merely a replacement body at a then-thin position. With the slew of talented players ahead of him, Hayden's best shot of making the team is if Sims was placed on the PUP List because of a setback with his ankle, and/or if another tackle was injured in camp.
Vaughn Meatoga is a little bit of a different story. The team showed interest in him early on, by sending defensive line coach, Jay Hayes, to Hawaii to scout him at his Pro Day (tough gig for Hayes, eh?). He was initially picked up by the Washington Redskins as an undrafted free agent and was released shortly after. The Bengals scooped him up and he'll be attending Training Camp this month. He, too, is a long shot to make the roster, but he could surprise some and sneak his way on if injuries or something else unforeseen occurs. His most likely destination is the team's Practice Squad. Marvin Lewis' staff loves pet projects and Meatoga could be one in the mold former Bengal, Jonathan Fanene.