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Bengals Mailbag: Depth at defensive end and P.J. Dawson's chances at starting

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We have received a number of quality questions recently and this mailbag includes questions about a promising young linebacker and the depth at a position group that seems to be in good shape.

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Kudos to you Bengals fans and loyal Cincy Jungle readers, as this week gave us some of the best series of questions we have received in a long time for our weekly mailbag. We even had to break up the mailbag into two parts this week, so if you missed part one which focussed on new NFL rules, a Reggie Nelson update and late round wide receiver prospects, check that out here! Aside from the usual questions about wide receivers, free agency and other draft options, some fans are worried about who is currently on the roster.

The Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers reminded us that defense still plays a huge part in winning a championship and the Bengals have built something great on that side of the ball. But, do they need to shake things up on a unit that has largely carried them over the past half-decade?

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Though the tweet has since been deleted, we receiver a question this week on the odds of second year linebacker P.J. Dawson starting for the Bengals in 2016. Even with Vontaze Burfict's three-game suspension to start the season, it seems as if Dawson will have an uphill battle to climb to crack the starting lineup. Vincent Rey was re-signed this offseason and you have to wonder if he'd be such a high priority if Burfict wasn't suspended to start the season.

That isn't to say that Rey isn't valuable, as his high football I.Q., solid locker room position and versatility to play multiple spots gets him in the coaches' good graces. But, there are some relatively high expectations for Dawson. He was a productive player at TCU, but immaturity issues turned teams off in the draft and disallowed him to have extensive playing time as a rookie.

Dawson and Josh Shaw were my favorite picks in the 2015 draft because of their skill set, collegiate production and value at where they were selected. But, as Marvin Lewis and his staff has shown over the years, veteran steadiness and the exemplifying of what it means to be a pro usually wins the day.

Remember Carlos Dunlap's rookie year? Not many seem to because of his five productive years since, but big No. 96 was in Lewis' doghouse as a rookie. Viewed as a first round talent, Dunlap slipped because of concerns on his effort level and a college DUI. He only played in 12 games as a rookie because of rumblings of his effort level in practice, but exploded in the second half of the season and finished with 9.5 sacks.

Burfict was another guy with even more major concerns, but he showed enough in practice and in other facets to allow Lewis to give him a prominent role after an untimely injury to Thomas Howard (RIP). Still, these are more of the outliers than the norm, and with Lewis getting burned by "character concern guys" in the past, it might be why Dawson is biding his time.

While the Rey re-signing plays against Dawson starting in 2016, the allowance of Emmanuel Lamur, one of their better coverage linebackers, to leave in free agency plays in his corner. The nickel and coverage packages might be where we see a lot more of Dawson in 2016. After all, he did have three interceptions in 2014 with TCU.

I wouldn't give the odds of him starting very high, especially with the team potentially looking at a linebacker early in the draft. I do think we see a lot more of the second-year player, especially when he flashed in the 2015 preseason and in extremely limited time on defense. He'll also undoubtedly be contributing on special teams in 2016.

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This is one of the most insightful questions I've received in a while, and it's because it's one that doesn't appear to be pressing on the surface. Michael Johnson returned after a one-year hiatus, and his presence, along with a fully healthy Geno Atkins, helped to greatly boost the Bengals' pass rush from 2014 to 2015. Remember when Johnson went down with a knee injury in Training Camp fresh off of signing a new deal with the club last year? Many felt the quarterback sack drought of 2014 would continue had it been something that was long-term.

With Johnson and Dunlap, Bengals fans are spoiled--particularly from a durability standpoint. In six years with Cincinnati, Dunlap has only missed 10 games, with some coming from his four-game inactivity as a rookie. In Johnson's own six Bengals seasons, he's missed one game (plus another mid-game in 2014 versus the Patriots). So, while they don't always light up the sack column, they make up for it with durability, batted passes and stout run defense.

Behind them is disappointing second round pick, Margus Hunt, and Johnson's supposed replacement in the 2014 draft in Will Clarke. The two have a combined two sacks in their careers, while effective rotational lineman, Wallace Gilberry, has yet to be re-signed. Let's also not forget that effective preseason speed-rusher, Chris Carter, was cut following Andy Dalton's injury to make room for another quarterback, and the cupboard has seemed relatively empty behind the starters since.

For those who have read or listened to my Bengals ramblings over the years, you would know about my desire for Lewis to tap his Baltimore Ravens roots and get one of those "'tweener" type of edge players to bring in at certain passing situations. Cincinnati prefers to employ a traditional 4-3 defense, so those types lose a little bit of value here, but it would be a nice supplement.

It's not like Lewis hasn't tried that route, though. David Pollack, Dontay Moch and Carter didn't work out for various reasons, and they didn't use James Harrison to his respective strengths in their defense. They have either missed out or passed on the likes of Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree in the draft recently, but getting a speed rusher to complement the standard big guys up front could be effective.

The 2016 season is critical for depth at the position. Dunlap and Johnson are signed for the next few years and rarely seem to need consistent spells, but rotation up front has been the key to the Bengals' defensive success in recent history. And, as the two Super Bowl 50 teams showed us, pass-rushers are always at a premium.

Some guys Cincinnati could look at in this year's draft, particularly in the early rounds, include Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence, Georgia's Leonard Floyd, Clemson's Shaq Lawson and Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun. If none of them strike their fancy and/or land to them at a spot which is valuable, they might look at another rental agreement with Gilberry, post-draft.

I agree with you though, Nichelle. The depth is scary and if an historically-unlikely injury occurs to the starters on the ends, it could greatly disrupt what they do best on defense. When in doubt, get a pass-rusher.