One of the many speculations we've held dating back to the second half of last season, is the future at defensive end. With Carlos Dunlap surging as a legitimate pass rusher during his rookie season, and Michael Johnson providing quality run support, the Bengals seem close to making a transition from over-paid veteran defensive ends to a younger core of players (named the Fisher Price package) that the team could build their front-seven foundation around. Johnson ranked second behind Robert Geathers in quarterback pressures, often pushing unsuspecting victims into Dunlap's sweet loving arms. For his part, Dunlap set a franchise record 9.5 quarterback sacks by a rookie and was the first rookie to lead the team in quarterback sacks in 20 years.
As for the veterans, the issue is cost against production. Geathers and Antwan Odom made $6.65 million in base salary in 2010. They combined for one quarterback sack in 20 games played. According to Pro Football Focus, Geathers graded out as the worst defensive player on the roster, receiving a grade of -15.3, with a pass rush grade of -11.2. Additionally, according to the same grading scale, Geathers was rated as the league's third-worst defensive in 4-3 base defenses against the rush and second-worst overall. Odom and Geathers are expected to make $8.45 million combined in 2011 and $9.5 million in 2012.
On the surface, it makes sense that the Bengals replace the veterans with their rising rookies for two reasons. Production. Cost.
During his interview with the local media, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was asked if Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap are ready to become the team's defensive ends.
The guys have to earn the opportunity to start. I think Carlos finished the season very, very strong, but you'd like to get them when they're not playing 60 snaps a game, so I think Frostee (Rucker), who was injured and Robert Geathers, who was splitting time with those guys and Antwan (Odom), who was injured, and Jon, who is a free agent. …We've a group of guys we'd like to get back and working.
Lewis continued, saying that while they played well enough, defensive ends as a whole needs to get better at rushing the passer.
When pressed to give a comment on the future of Geathers and Odom, Lewis deflected the question.
Right now they have contracts on the team and we're just going to keep going forward and see what works out best for the team.
As for the future of the position, we're fairly certain that Johnson has earned a spot as a defensive end. However, the team has six defensive ends under contract (Johnson, Dunlap, Geathers, Odom, Frostee Rucker, Victor Adeyanju). The team will likely make an effort to sign Jonathan Fanene back because his versatility allows him to play every position on the defensive line. And don't count the team out from drafting one of the premiere pass rushers in this year's NFL Draft. All that being said, the team will have to make moves to dump a couple of defensive ends when the regular season starts. And we're fairly certain that Odom or Geathers (or both) could be gone by then.