Paul Guenther is entering just his third offseason as Bengals defensive coordinator, but this one could see the biggest changes he's seen since coming to Cincinnati.
Ever since Guenther joined the Bengals in 2005 as assistant coach, the Bengals have annually been one of the NFL's best teams in terms of developing and keeping their own players. The former is true of several key names set to hit the open market next week when free agency opens, but we have yet to see the latter happen with any free agents this offseason.
Guenther isn't too worried about it and thinks the Bengals have enough of their core defensive players back that this unit won't look too different if certain players leave this offseason.
"We have a lot of guys back. Our guys play hard and they study," Guenther said, via Bengals.com. "I don’t expect anything differently. A lot of guys are saying we got guys are going to be leaving, a lot of free agents, but I don’t think we’re going to lose as many as people think. It’s a good group. It’s a damn good group. I’d go to war with any of them. We should pick up where we left off."
One player who has shown plenty and could be in for a bigger role next season is Darqueze Dennard. Leon Hall and Adam Jones are both hitting free agency, but Guenther is confident Dennard is a starting-caliber corner. Guenther also thinks P.J. Dawson is someone with the potential to make some noise at linebacker if he has his head on straight.
"Quezzy could have been a starter at corner for us last year. Paul Dawson wasn’t ready to go in there yet from an overall perspective. Not just football, but the whole picture. When he comes back in April he has to be a different guy. And say, hey, I’m ready to compete for a starting linebacker job."
One guy Guenther knows he'll have back next year is Vontaze Burfict, though he will be out the first three games due to suspension. His reputation of being a dirty player may have helped lead to that harsh ruling and subsequent loss of his appeal.
Guenther seems to think so at least.
"I think it’s awful. The way he’s perceived now is terrible," Guenther said, via Bengals.com. "I feel terrible for the kid. There are things after the play that he has to clean up . . . he has to clean up those things . . . He’s got the tag now, but on the play we’re talking about, that’s what I don’t get."
The final straw that led to Burfict's suspension was his illegal hit on Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, a hit Guenther didn't think was worthy of a suspension. It's also something Guenther knows he has to help Burfict correct and avoid to stay on the field now.
"He’s on the back side. He’s opening up. He sees the throw. When you’re playing that fast, you don’t know the ball is complete or incomplete," Guenther said. "He’s trying to end the game. It’s the last play of the game. When he opens up and the ball is right here, if he wanted to kill that guy, he really could have killed him. But he didn’t. He doesn’t know if the ball is in or out. He has to aim lower. I guess I have to start teaching it differently."
Guenther has been a key figure in Burfict's rise from undrafted free agent to 2013 Pro Bowler while being regarded as one of the game's best linebackers. Even with this setback, Guenther is so confident in what Burfict is as a player and as a person that he'll hire Tez as a coach once his playing career is over.
"I’ve said it before. If I’m still coaching I’m going to hire him as a coach after he's done playing because he’s way smarter than he gets credit for," Guenther said. "Everybody thinks he’s a thug, that he doesn’t understand. He’s smart. Every Wednesday he comes into the meetings and gets it right away."
Guenther also offered up a few tidbits on impending free agents and certain players who it's make-or-break time for in 2016. He expressed confidence in Shawn Williams at safety with the Bengals potentially losing Reggie Nelson and/or George Iloka this offseason. Guenther also said he was really high on Dawson during the 2015 NFL Draft and that he's similar to Burfict, but "has to learn to be a pro."
And this nugget on two current Bengals shows that Guenther isn't messing around when it comes to earning a spot on this roster:
He indicated it’s a make-or-break season for a pair of high picks at defensive end, Margus Hunt as he heads into his fourth year and Will Clarke, as he heads into his third year. He also said this draft has the most defensive players he’s ever seen, so he’s going to continue to look for "rushers and cover guys."
Hunt, drafted in the second round of 2013, and Clarke, drafted in the third round in 2014, have both struggled to see the field during their careers, let alone show they can make a positive impact. Guenther seems to be indicating he's looking for guys to replace them if aren't ready to step up in 2016.
"First year you're on scholarship. Second year, you better show me something. Third year, if you don't do anything, I'm looking to replace you. Period. That's with any guy," Guenther said. "We're always going to draft rushers and cover guys. That's what we're going to do. The linebackers and safeties we'll find somewhere. We'll make them fit. If there's a big-time linebacker early in the draft and he's sitting on our board, then we'll discuss it. But we're going to draft rushers and corners. We've got to look at our four rushers right now, on the outside you've got Dunlap, you've got Johnson, you've got Margus and Will Clarke. Wallace is a free agent. Is that package good enough for us going into 2016?
"No. I'm always looking to get better."
That's what we like to hear.