Over the next two seasons, the Bengals have a pretty sizable task of retaining a group of young, core players. Depending on how you look at it, there are roughly seven of these core players on both sides of the ball that the team will want to retain for the long term. Some of them have already been locked up, be it by the franchise tag or an extension. The latest core player to be signed long-term by the club is defensive end, Carlos Dunlap.
As a rookie entering the 2010 draft, Dunlap had some red flags. Aside from a DUI he was pegged with at the University of Florida, he also had murmurs surrounding him about his effort on the field. Labeled as a first round talent that was a "boom or bust" player, the Bengals stole him in the second round that year.
Dunlap exploded on the scene as a rookie, racking up 9.5 sacks in limited opportunities. Though he hasn't matched that total in the other two accrued seasons, Dunlap has excelled at pressuring the quarterback and making big plays. Though other defensive linemen have had higher numbers in the sack column, Dunlap is viewed as an integral part of what the Bengals do on defense.
WHY HE RANKED HERE:
The Bengals obviously see the value in a player like Dunlap, as they unexpectedly singed him to a five-year extension worth $40 million on Tuesday (in total, a six-year deal). In his three seasons as a Bengal, Dunlap has 20 sacks--and that's in a role where he wasn't truly a starting defensive end. He has teamed with Michael Johnson to be one of the most productive defensive end duos in the NFL.
Though he didn't have as many sacks in 2012 (six) as he did as a rookie in 2010 (9.5), he had career highs in games played (14), tackles (40), forced fumbles (four), fumble recoveries (three), and interceptions (one). With his new contract, Dunlap should be propelled into a true starting role and we will likely see big numbers from him this year. Keep in mind that Dunlap is only 24 years old.
WHY HE SHOULDN'T BE RANKED HERE:
One could argue that, based on the amount of sacks, that Dunlap hasn't earned the big-time contract yet. Though it's wise that the team signed him before he was set to hit free agency next year, some of that amount is based on his potential going forward. He's also a streaky player that has a handful of HUGE games each year and then will disappear for some stretches. There's also a "chicken or the egg" type of argument with Dunlap as well--does he help create opportunities for Johnson and Geno Atkins, or is he the beneficiary of those two players' abilities?
Beyond that, Dunlap hasn't played a full 16-game season in his three years as a pro. Be it from injuries or being in Marvin Lewis' doghouse, he has missed time. With the new big contract to his name, missing a handful of games every year won't fly.
It's great that the Bengals locked up Dunlap long-term and have made the commitment to him in their long-term plans. However, with that contract comes high expectations. If the Bengals are unable to keep Johnson beyond 2013, Dunlap will have some major slack to pick up during those subsequent five years. The future looks bright for Dunlap though, especially since he is just entering the prime of his career. If he can stay healthy and gain a bit of consistency, he could become one of the better defensive ends in the NFL.