There's no question about it, the biggest strength of the 2015 Cincinnati Bengals was the defensive line.
Between Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Domata Peko, Brandon Thompson, Pat Sims and Wallace Gilberry, there simply wasn't another NFL team with as much talent and depth on their d-line than what the Bengals featured. Those guys combined for 34.5 sacks last season, which alone would have had them tied for the 17th-most of any NFL team.
That explains how a talented lineman like Marcus Hardison never sniffed the field as a rookie. In the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft with pick No. 135, the Bengals added one of the draft's most intriguing prospects in Hardison, a one-year wonder who did wonders along Arizona State's d-line.
The former Sun Devil had just one productive season of D-1 football under his belt after a stint in junior college began his college career. It was one to remember though as Hardison racked up a team-leading 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss to go with 53 tackles, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
At his Pro Day, Hardison clocked in 4.8s in the 40-yard dash, and ran the short shuttle in 4.65 seconds and 3 cone drill in 7.29 seconds. That's amazing quickness for a lineman, and it explained why Hardison has the ability to play both defensive end and tackle, and the expectation was he would do so with the Bengals.
A solid showing in training camp and the preseason gave off glimpses of Hardison developing into a quality NFL lineman. In the preseason opener against the New York Giants, Hardison actually dropped back into coverage before nearly ending Ryan Nassib:
Marcus Hardison at LDE, drops into coverage and then hits the scrambling QB. https://t.co/KCGxgEhDTq— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) August 15, 2015
He also picked up his lone sack of the preseason:
Marcus Hardison's fourth quarter sack against the Giants. pic.twitter.com/2BctkSP2so— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) August 15, 2015
But was what really impressive was how often he was penetrating into the backfield, just as he did in college.
Bears.0.0.gif" alt="Hardison_Bears.0.0.gif" data-chorus-asset-id="5929553" />
Even during plays like the one when he didn't make the tackle, Hardison affected plays by forcing the running back to change his path. Hardison finished the preseason with nine tackles, one sack and one pass deflection.
But as mentioned above, the Bengals had a stacked d-line, and that led to Hardison being inactive for every game as a rookie. Between that and the team having a host of free agents along the d-line, there may not be a rookie whose 2016 sophomore campaign will be harder to project than that of Hardison.
Sims, Thompson and Gilberry become free agents. If none of them are re-signed, Hardison quickly becomes one of the more versatile lineman on this team and could get significant playing time next season playing both end and tackle. There's also no certainty that Margus Hunt makes the team next season, which could pave the way for even more playing time at end.
I expect Hardison to be on the 53-man roster next season, but free agency and the draft will determine how big of a role he has on next year's Bengals roster.