The 2015 NFL season can't come soon enough.
To pass the time, we're taking a look at what the Bengals' starting defensive lineup would look if a game was played today. For the most part, the defense is going to look the same as it has in years past, especially with former Bengals like Pat Sims and Michael Johnson back on the roster.
At this point, it's possible the opening-day starting lineup features 11 players who've started games for the Bengals at some point in their career. There are only a few spots where a rookie and/or newly-acquired free agent could possibly start. With that said, here's our first crack at projecting the Week 1 starting defensive lineup:
Defensive Ends: Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap
This is the easiest position on the roster to project in terms of starters. Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson were one of the better DE tandems before Johnson left to sign with the Buccaneers. The duo combined for 51 sacks from 2010-2013, including 28.5 from 2012-2013.
Now, Johnson is back after a lackluster year in Tampa Bay. He may be the missing piece that makes this defense a top-10 unit again. This pushes Wallace Gilberry back to the bench, where he's better suited as a situational pass-rusher instead of a full-time starter.
Defensive Tackle: Geno Atkins
Once considered the best three-technique tackle in football, Geno Atkins looked like a shell of himself in 2014 coming off an ACL tear the previous year. Atkins was still arguably the best defensive lineman the Bengals had, but more is needed of him of for the Bengals defense to improve. He's in for a bounce-back season in 2015, and won't face any challenge to his starting spot.
Nose Tackle: Domata Peko
Domata Peko wins this position by default after the Bengals once again did not sign or draft a player capable of pushing him for his spot. The coaches love Peko, who mostly just occupies space and keeps blockers off the linebackers.
Strongside Linebacker: Emmanuel Lamur
Emmanuel Lamur retains his starting spot after finishing third on the team in tackles (91) and stops (29) to go with two interceptions. Unless the Bengals try and play Paul Dawson here as a rookie, Lamur won't face much opposition for his starting role.
Middle Linebacker: Rey Maualuga
I'm only projecting Maualuga as the starter because he's being paid $7.1 million in 2015. That, and Vontaze Burfict likely opens the year on PUP, forcing Vinny Rey into his spot at WLB.
Weakside Linebacker: Vincent Rey/Paul Dawson
I believe the Bengals stick to their ways and favor the veteran in a close competition in terms of who starts. That will be the case with Vinny Rey and Paul Dawson, who figure to battle for the starting WLB spot with Vontaze Burfict likely missing the first month of the season.
That said, I think Dawson gets a heavy amount of snaps to the point he and Vinny are basically co-starters. He's too good to keep off the field, and he'll find a way to make a positive impact on this defense.
Cornerbacks: Leon Hall and Adam Jones
The Bengals like using the nickle defense to keep three CBs in the game as often as possible, but for now, I'm projecting Adam Jones and Leon Hall as the two primary starters. I'm not sure how the Bengals will utilize their CBs this year with so many talented players here and possible combinations.
Do you take Jones' starting spot away and use him more on special teams? Do you keep Hall in the slot full time and let Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick fight for a starting boundary spot? Do you do both and have Kirkpatrick and Dennard as the boundary CBs and Hall in the slot?
In the end, I see Hall and Jones getting the most snaps of the all the CBs, so I'm going with them as the two starters.
Free Safety: George Iloka
Despite the struggles of the front seven, the Bengals had one of the best safety duos in football last year. That was in large part because of George Iloka's ascension from average starter to Pro Bowl-caliber safety in Year 3. He should only continue to get better in 2015, and may be in for a big contract once he becomes a free agent next offseason.
Strong Safety: Reggie Nelson
One of the wiley old veterans of the Bengals defense, Reggie Nelson holds on to his starting spot in what may be his final year in stripes. He's a free agent next year and will turn 32 in September; there's several young and talented guys behind him fighting for playing time.