How do you improve a defensive unit in the NFL that finished No.3 overall last season? Why, beefing up the pass rush, of course.
The AFC's top defensive unit of 2013 did finish tenth in sacks accrued with 43, but able bodies who excel at getting into the backfield and/or after the quarterback come at a premium. Of all of the sacks by the Bengals defensive squad, no player had more than 7.5 on the year (Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry). It didn't help that the player who is likely the team's top pass rusher, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, missed the final seven games because of a knee injury. Even so, he still finished second on the team with six sacks.
Still, if there was and is a weakness on this unit, it's the lack of a player off of the edge capable of putting up double-digit sack seasons annually. Some may feel other positions take precedence over a "'tweener" defensive end/linebacker type of player and there is truth to that. However, this defense has thrived off of pressure up front, allowing a secondary that has flaws to make plays and look a little bit better than they may actually be.
Marvin Lewis has had this "Joker" type of player when he was with Baltimore. With the Ravens, a defensive end/linebacker hybrid named Peter Boulware had 70 sacks in just eight seasons, including double-digit numbers in three of those eight. He made the Pro Bowl four times and was one of Lewis' favorite players on that squad.
While in Cincinnati, Lewis has unsuccessfully attempted to re-create Boulware in the Draft and free agency. David Pollack, an undersized college defensive end, had his career cut short because of an unfortunate injury. Dontay Moch, a freak of an athlete, couldn't catch on to the NFL game as a niche pass-rusher. Free agents Manny Lawson and James Harrison have had minimal impacts in the sack front.
Now, it was known that Harrison and Lawson weren't coming into this system to rush the passer often and would likely be two-down linebackers. Still, their numbers have been disappointing, given Lawson's ability to sack the quarterback in college and Harrison making a borderline Hall of Fame career out of doing the same with the Steelers.
Currently at defensive end, the Bengals have three big question marks. The first is whether or not Michael Johnson will return to the club as he is an impending free agent. It sounds like both sides would like to get a deal done, but the price would have to be right for the Bengals. The second is last year's second round pick, Margus Hunt. He played sparingly in 2013 and only had half of a quarterback sack. Everyone knew that Hunt was a project, but he'll need to make big strides in his sophomore campaign. Then there's the future of grizzled veteran Robert Geathers. He landed on IR this season and his future could be cloudy.
Did I mention that Harrison will be 36 years old when the 2014 season begins? The need for an exciting player off of the edge who bring pass-rushing prowess and the ability to stop a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage could be glaring, given the above-mentioned situations at defensive end and linebacker.
Some intriguing names, given their size and skill set that pop up are:
Anthony Barr, UCLA: 6'4", 248 Lbs. Senior -- 10 sacks, 22 tackles for loss (projected round 1)
Vic Beasley, Clemson: 6'2", 235 Lbs. (R) Junior -- 13 sacks (projected rounds 1-2)
Ryan Shazier, Ohio State: 6'2, 226 Lbs. Junior -- 143 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss (projected rounds 1-2)
Trent Murphy, Stanford: 6'6", 261 Lbs. Senior -- 14 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss (projected rounds 1-2)
Trevor Reilly, Utah: 6'5", 255 Lbs. Senior -- 100 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 16 tackles for loss (projected rounds 2-3)
Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas: 6'4", 250 Lbs. Senior -- 12 sacks, 21 tackles for loss, 18 QB pressures (projected rounds 2-3)
Morgan Breslin, USC: 6'1, 250 LBs. Senior -- 2012 stats: 13.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss (projected rounds 3-4)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Boise State: 6'3", 245 Lbs. Junior -- 72 tackles, 10.5 sacks (projected rounds 3-4)
Aaron Lynch, South Florida: 6'5", 244 Lbs. Sophomore (R) -- (projected round 4)