Carlos Dunlap (5th season, 2014: $1 million)
We should point out that while Dunlap will earn $1 million in base salary, he has a $5.7 million roster bonus coming to him on March 31, 2014. His base salary will exponentially increase each season, reaching $6.7 million by 2018 (the final year of his six-year contract).
Let's make this simple.
Dunlap was Cincinnati's most productive pass rusher in 2013. He led the team with 69 pressures, a 9.5 pass rush productivity score and 7.5 quarterback sacks -- the second-most in his career. Along with six batted balls at the line of scrimmage, Dunlap forced a team-high four fumbles and a career-high 58 tackles.
It's not just the pass rushes either. According to Pro Football Focus, Dunlap ranked as the fourth-best run defender as a defensive end in 4-3 alignment -- only New England's Rob Ninkovich, Cincinnati's Michael Johnson and St. Louis' Robert Quinn scored better.
It will be interesting to see how the Bengals reconfigure the defensive line if Michael Johnson leaves. Will Cincinnati move Dunlap to right defensive end or leave him at left defensive and find a replacement for Johnson? And no, we're not promoting the idea of Wallace Gilberry, because he's an effective contributor as an inside rusher (plus there's the Robert Geathers theory, which we'll explain later).
Michael Johnson (6th season, 2014: UFA)
Johnson is the biggest question mark heading into the offseason. Will the Bengals sign Johnson to a long-term deal or allow him to walk in free agency. Will the value that he believes that he's worth compare favorably with the Bengals (or the league in general), or will he be forced to take something less? And if the latter is true, would Cincinnati factor in negotiations now that the market value has generically figured his worth?
Teams like the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings have been mentioned as possible targets.
Johnson will enter free agency as one of the league's top defensive linemen, strong against the run (second-best among all 4-3 defensive ends in the league) but extremely productive against the pass -- he totaled 61 pressures, an 8.5 pass rush productivity score, despite a disappointing 3.5-sack number in 2013.
However, Johnson added two forced fumbles, nine passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage with an interception in three straight seasons.
He's worth it.
Wallace Gilberry (7th season, 2014: $1.5 million)
Even with 200 less passing snaps than Dunlap or Johnson, Wallace Gilberry finished tied for the team-lead with 7.5 quarterback sacks (with Dunlap) and a comparable pass rush productivity score of 8.2. In two years with the Bengals, Gilberry has generated 14 quarterback sacks, two forced fumbles and two passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage.
Wilberry signed a three-year deal last year with $1.5 million due this year and $1.85 million due in 2015. Will he be promoted as a starter when/if Michael Johnson departs for free agency? A question that goes unsolved for now. Opinion? Hopefully not. It's the Robert Geathers theory.
Robert Geathers (11th season, 2014: $2.5 million)
The Robert Geathers theory is this: A role player that made significant contribution, promoted to a starting role, and failing to recover the production that earned him the promotion in the first place. When Robert Geathers generated 10.5 quarterback sacks in 2006, Cincinnati signed him to a long-term deal worth over $30 million. It would take him FOUR seasons to match the sack total from '06... COMBINED.
Of course, calling Geathers a pass rusher is beyond inaccurate -- he was always graded much better against the run. It's why he continued to start over Carlos Dunlap -- because probability suggests that the opposing team's first play will be a run (that's the extent of calling someone a starter).
Geathers suffered an elbow injury in week two against the Pittsburgh Steelers, placing him on season-ending injured reserve. He has 105 career starts with the Bengals, one of eight players in franchise history with double-digit sacks and a two-time team-leader in quarterback sacks.
Margus Hunt (2nd season, 2014: $571,868)
I wish we had seen a little more out of Margus Hunt, who the Bengals selected in the second-round of the 2013 NFL draft. An early development player, perhaps assigned prematurely with the unlikely role as Michael Johnson's eventual replacement, Hunt graded poorly against the run and pass.
Hunt played 165 defensive snaps in 2013 (132 pass rushes, 31 runs, two in coverage). He generated as many tackles as Mike Nugent (3), a shared sack and 11 total pressures against the pass.
We're not writing off Hunt by any means. Only saying that we'd like to have seen more.