"Mutation: It is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single cell organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process normally takes thousands of years, but every few hundred millennia, evolutions leaps forward." -- Professor Charles Xavier
Think about evolution in football terms. You either adapt and use the available resources to help strengthen your team, or you keep trying to survive with a limited resource. How do we foresee the next step in football evolution before the rest of the league? I think the answer on defense lies in the Nickel Defense and the EDGE rusher and the Cincinnati Bengals are in position to be ahead of the curve.
This offseason, the Bengals have decisions to make at linebacker with Rey Maualuga, health concerns with Vontaze Burfict and development questions with Emanuel Lamur.
The defensive line is also in need of youth and talent. Robert Geathers is almost a lock to be a cap casualty, Domata Peko has been steadily declining for years, Geno Atkins may never regain his elite form. Throw in developmental picks at DE that have been short on development and actual game reps, and we're looking at a potential remake of the Bengals front-7.
But forget about 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. They're the old species. The NFL is all about the Nickel personnel (5 DB) and it has evolved into the base defense in order to survive against passing offenses. Nickel only describes the secondary personnel, so what about the defensive front-6? The Bengals employ a more traditional 4-2-5 Nickel Defense. That's four defensive lineman - Geathers (RDE), Atkins (DT), Gilberry (DT), Dunlap (LDE) and two linebackers Burfict (MLB) and Lamur (OLB). When you consider the Nickel Defense as the base defense, your perspective changes on many of these players and the state of the defense doesn't look as weak.
You may ask about Maualuga and Peko, but they're role players now. Their job is to stop the run in the Bengals base 4-3 defense. This is similar to Adam Jones as the Bengals' third CB. They're all valuable "backups" but without injury, they'll only see 500 snaps in a season. This is part of the evolution. More athletes and less 'big bodies'. Consider these specialized players as backups from now on.
Now, the obvious weakness in the Bengals Nickel defense is at Right Defensive End. This was occupied by Robert Geathers in 2014 after the departure of Michael Johnson and the lack of development with Margus Hunt. This is where most would like to see the Bengals make a free agent signing or high draft pick. In order to survive, this defense will need pressure from this spot. This is where your best rusher usually lines up.
Here is also where the resources are drying up. The typical long and strong Defensive Ends are now endangered. The Bengals have a mold; they like their DEs tall, athletic and strong. They've had success with this type and look to continue this idea with the recent picks of Margus Hunt and Will Clarke. Both are project prospects that were arguably overdrafted because of their size and athleticism. Now, they are forced to take another shot at DE in the draft, but now their ideal mold isn't available. The resource has dried up.
Looking at my current top 10 defensive end prospects I only see ONE over 6'4" and only THREE prospects that weigh more than 260 lbs. They're not your father's defensive ends, they're the new EDGE position. Think of Clay Matthews, Von Miller and Khalil Mack. They're not necessarily OLBs or DEs. They're a hybrid type and fit in any defense. Of my current top 10 DEs, I have SEVEN that are considered EDGE types.
They are - Eli Harold (Virginia), Dante Fowler (Florida), Shane Ray (Missouri), Vic Beasley (Clemson), Hau'oli Kikaha (Washington), Bud Dupree (Kentucky) and Markus Golden (Missouri)
So what is an EDGE type? It's not just about size or the lack of it, these types have to be able to move in space, rush the passer and drop into coverage. While smaller, they also need to defend the run and contain the edge. These guys are what we used to call "tweaners".
If this sounds like David Pollack you'd be right. It's not necessarily a new position, but it has become a position of necessity instead of a luxury because the college game has evolved and is now churning these types out more than traditional 4-3 types. With the lack of value in run-stopping LBs and the increased value of speed rushers, the EDGE position is now a premium player. With more Nickel Defense than ever before, these types have become every-down players.
So what does this mean for the Bengals? It means they must be willing to change their defensive philosophy and DE mold. Their next pass rusher will have the ability to fill two positions at once. EDGE types play SAM LB in base defense and RDE in Nickel. Or a 3-3-5 Defense, if you will. The EDGE player creates disguise, mismatches and flexibility for your defense.
Take a look at where Matthews, Mack and Miller line up.