As we pointed out Thursday morning, we're configuring the best Bengals lineup since Cincinnati last appeared in the Super Bowl (1988 season, 1989 calendar year). We'll go through each position, provide the candidates, give you my pick, and then you guys debate/poll the winners.
We've completed the offensive side of the ball (which we'll announce on Monday). Now let's get started with the defensive side of the ball at defensive end. We'll present a handful of players as the best defensive end, and then follow that up with the second-best, using both players within our starting lineup. Like specific wide receiver positions, we're not exactly worried about RDE and LDE. It's not like you'd disregard a great player because he played RDE instead of LDE (that would be ridiculous).
One final note for defense before we get started. The Bengals primarily played a base 3-4 defense under Ron Lynn ('92, '93) before Larry Peccatiello's base 4-3 was introduced in 1994. After a two-year stint in Pittsburgh, Dick LeBeau returned in 1997 as the team's defensive coordinator and returned Cincinnati to a base 3-4. Mark Duffner was hired as the defensive coordinator in '01 and '02, applying more 4-3 until Leslie Frazier was hired in 2003 under Marvin Lewis, solidifying a base 4-3 that exists today. Also, instead of mixing and matching players based on their roles, we're defining players at their respective positions (aka, James Francis being a pass rushing OLB in a 3-4). On the other hand, players that actually made the conversion from linebacker to defensive end are considered (aka, Alfred Williams).
Justin Smith (one playoff appearance: A former first-round draft pick, selected fourth overall during the 2001 NFL draft, Smith endeared himself to fans and coaches with an unrelenting motor that helped him generate 43.5 quarterback sacks, six forced fumbles and two interceptions. After seven seasons (franchised during his seventh and last), he left Cincinnati for San Francisco, where his popularity has taken off with four consecutive Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team.
Carlos Dunlap (two playoff appearances): Broke Justin Smith's rookie record (8.5 quarterback sacks) with 9.5 sacks in 2010, falling one shy of the league leader (Ndamukong Suh) among rookies. In three seasons with the Bengals, Dunlap has generated 20 quarterback sacks, four forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, one fumble returned for a touchdown and a pick-six. Provided he can stay on the field, Dunlap has Pro Bowl potential written all over his career. But that story has yet to be written.
Michael Johnson (three playoff appearances): Like Dunlap, Johnson is finally coming into his own. Has posted career numbers during every season since his sophomore year in 2010. Johnson posted 11.5 quarterback sacks in 2012, which is second-most by a Bengals player since 1983 -- predictably topped by defensive tackle Geno Atkins (12.5) that same year. Turning into a balanced defensive end against the run with a good pass rush, Johnson has all the potential. But like Dunlap, that story has yet to be written.
Alfred Williams: Began his career as an outside linebacker that eased into a defensive end role late during his Bengals career. Another former first round pick, Williams spent four seasons with the Bengals, generating 26.5 quarterback sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two safeties.
Robert Geathers (four playoff appearances): Geathers posted 10.5 quarterback sacks in 2006, becoming the first Bengals player to generate double-digit quarterback sacks since Alfred Williams (10.0) in 1992. Rock solid locker-room presence but frustrating to fans, who believed that he under-performed relative to the value of the six-year extension that he signed after 2006. In nine seasons with the Bengals, Geathers has generated 33 career sacks, two interceptions, seven forced fumbles, five recoveries and two touchdowns (one pick-six, the other a fumble recovery).
John Copeland: A former fifth overall draft pick that was taken during the 1993 NFL draft, Copeland played eight seasons with the Bengals and generated 24 quarterback sacks in 107 games played. Primarily played left defensive end, Copeland also posted three interceptions and forced nine fumbles.
Duane Clemons (one playoff appearance): Part of the Marvin Lewis roster revitalization in 2003 that signed rock-solid veteran players to help jump-start the team's rebuilding project. Was a solid addition, generating at least six quarterback sacks in each of his first two seasons ('03, '04) with four forced fumbles, two recoveries, in 27 starts with the Bengals.