The Bengals defense has been one of the NFL's best on an annual basis dating back to the 2008 season.
Since then, Cincinnati has finished with an average total defense ranking of 10th overall. While stars like Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Leon Hall, Johnathan Joseph and Reggie Nelson have been driving forces behind that, so too have some bargain backups who played like quality starters.
No player may have symbolized this more than defensive end Wallace Gilberry. An eighth-year veteran out of Alabama, Gilberry joined the Bengals midway through the 2012 NFL season after being cut that year by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 14 games, Gilberry would become an impact player on the Bengals defensive line while racking up 6.5 sacks and 24 tackles in his first season with the team.
Gilberry helped the Bengals finish with the sixth-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed before re-signing with the team the ensuing offseason. He went on to record 7.5 sacks and 24 tackles across 16 games (2 starts) in 2013 while helping Cincinnati finish third overall in total defense.
But Gilberry was doing the bulk of his damage as a situational pass-rusher who also would line up at defensive tackle on passing downs. That role faded away when Michael Johnson left in 2014, forcing Gilberry into a starting role in which he mightily struggled. In 16 starts that year, Gilberry had just 1.5 sacks and 48 tackles as the Bengals finished 22nd in total defense.
Once Johnson re-joined the Bengals in 2015, the belief was Gilberry would go back to his old role, but that wasn't the case. In 16 games (1 start) this past season, Gilberry had just two sacks and 23 tackles while struggling to generate pressure via the pass rush.
That probably shouldn't come as a big surprise given his 31-year-old body has clearly worn down over the past two seasons, and his days in Cincinnati may be over. With younger options in Margus Hunt, Will Clarke and Marcus Hardison on the roster behind Dunlap and Johnson, there may be no room on this line for Gilberry going forward.
Then again, there may not be a big market for Gilberry's services and it's possible the Bengals can re-sign him to a cheap deal with little guaranteed money. Then he can compete for a spot on the final roster next year, and if he can't overtake some of those other guys, the Bengals could cut him with minimal ramifications.
Whatever happens, Gilberry has been a big part of the Bengals' defensive success since 2012. Hopefully, he has enough left in the tank to make an impact for a playoff contender in the 2016 season, if it's not with the Bengals.