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2015 Bengals Position Preview: Defensive End

Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap will look to lead the Bengals' defensive ends in 2015.

Tyler Barrick/Getty Images

The Bengals' defensive ends became a weak spot on the team last year after being a consistent strength during the team's rise to perennial playoff team. Cincinnati's defensive ends combined for just 11.5 sacks last year, but there's reason to expect that number to significantly increase this year.

Comings and Goings:

Departures: Robert Geathers (cut)

Additions: Michael Johnson (FA)

Cincinnati made two significant moves at defensive end this offseason. The first of which was cutting a long-time Bengal in Robert Geathers. That ended an 11-year career, which began when the Bengals selected Geathers with a fourth-round pick during the 2004 NFL Draft.

Geathers recorded 34 sacks in his career, including six forced fumbles and 183 tackles -- all with Cincinnati. After suffering a season-ending elbow injury during the second week of the season in 2013, Geathers went on to have a disappointing year in 2014 with 21 tackles, a sack and three batted passes.

A two-time Bengals team leader in sacks, Geathers is one of eight Cincinnati players to have logged double-digit sacks in a season, registering 10.5 in 2006. His Bengals career totals include 473 tackles, 34.0 sacks, three INTs, 16 pass defenses, six forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. The one defensive end Cincinnati did sign this offseason turns out to be one of the best pass-rushers they've had in recent memory. That's Michael Johnson, who returns to the Queen City after a one-year hiatus in Tampa Bay. Johnson signed a five-year deal worth $43.75 million with the Bucs last year, but was released this offseason after a disappointing first season.

After registering 21 sacks from 2010-2013 in Cincinnati, Johnson posted four sacks and two forced fumbles while managing a high-ankle sprain that never fully healed during the 2014 season in addition to a hand injury. If Johnson, only 28-years of age, can reclaim his pre-2014 form, he and the rest of the Bengals defensive line should get back to terrorizing opposing quarterbacks again this year.

The Cast:

Starters: Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap

Role Players: Wallace Gilberry, Will Clarke

Special Teamers and Fringe Roster Players: Sam Montgomery, Margus Hunt

Assuming Johnson gets his starting gig back, he'll start alongside Carlos Dunlap, now entering his sixth NFL season. Dunlap was arguably the MVP of the 2014 Bengals defense. He racked up eight sacks and now has 35.5 sacks in his first five NFL seasons.

Dunlap was especially impressive down the stretch last year. From Weeks 11-to-17, Dunlap was PFF's No. 2 defensive end in a stretch of games where Cincinnati went 5-2 and narrowly made it to the playoffs. He also notched a career-high 66 tackles.

The duo will get the bulk of the snaps at end, but Wallace Gilberry will get a significant amount of snaps this year. Now in his eighth NFL season, Gilberry should have enough left in the tank for one or two more quality years. While his performance did drop off last year, that was more due to his role on the team changing.

From 2012-13, Gilberry was a situational pass-rusher who gave Johnson and/or Dunlap a breather while also occasionally lining up at defensive tackle on obvious passing downs. That was a role Gilberry thrived in while racking up 15 sacks during his first 31 games with the Bengals. However, Johnson left in free agency last offseason, forcing Gilberry into a full-time role he wasn't suited for in 2014. More snaps wore Gilberry down, to the point he didn't have as much gas to rush the passer. He also didn't get to rush from the inside as much with two quality pass-rushers drawing attention on the outside. With Johnson now back, Gilberry could go back to his situational role, which allowed him to save most of his energy for pass-rushing.

Who will be that fourth pass-rusher this season remains to be seen. Will Clarke, a 2014 third-round pick, didn't play much last year, but has drawn rave reviews this offseason. Even if he can't crack the rotation this year, it's unlikely he'd be cut from the team just one year after being a third-round draft selection.

Fighting Clarke for that fourth spot will be Margus Hunt, who has yet to make his mark in the NFL after being a second-round pick out of SMU in 2013. Unfortunately, he's already off to a rough start this year. After missing four games last year while dealing with an ankle injury, Hunt suffered a back injury that put him on the sidelines for OTAs.

In two years, Hunt has yet to find a niche on the Bengals’ defense, despite the unit having one of their worst pass rushes in recent memory last year. Hunt only played 187 snaps and generated eight QB pressures. This, after getting nine hurries in 165 snaps as a rookie in 10 games.

If Hunt can't show improvement during training camp, there may be no room for him on the 53-man roster. Also fighting for a spot at end will be Sam Montgomery. A 2013 third-round pick out of LSU, Montgomery has had a rough first two NFL seasons. He was cut after just five months with the Houston Texans before signing a future deal with Cincinnati.

Montgomery spent last year on the practice squad and was re-signed to the offseason roster after the Bengals' 2014 season ended. He's shown flashes of being a decent NFL player, but not enough that he's expected to make the 53-man roster in 2015.

2015 Outlook:

This position went from being one of the team's weaknesses in 2014 to possibly becoming a strength in 2015. The return of Johnson is that big, but don't underestimate Clarke's and/or Hunt's potential impact either. The Bengals have done well at developing their defensive ends since Marvin Lewis became head coach in 2003. Sometimes guys don't flip the switch until a few years into their careers, which hopefully is the case with Hunt and Clarke.

That said, a top-three rotation of Dunlap, Johnson and Gilberry should keep this unit producing at a high level in 2015. How well those fourth and possibly fifth guys step up when one of the top guys goes down will determine if this unit is one of the team's true strengths in 2015.