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Bengals Mailbag: Forgotten defensive ends and Steelers scheduling

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We analyze the burning questions on the minds of Bengals fans this week, including the status of a former high pick on defense and one about the recently-released NFL schedule.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Activity around the league has been ramping up over the past month, starting with free agency and then the schedule release this past Thursday. Both preface the biggest offseason event -- the NFL Draft, which is less than two weeks away, so more questions are bubbling to the surface.

This week we received a bunch of Bengals questions through a variety of means, many of which were topics that have been covered here at Cincy Jungle recently. The impact of Reggie Nelson's leaving in free agency for the Raiders as well as draft prospects like the enigmatic German wide receiver Moritz Boehringer, and Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith have all been common ones directed at us, so this week, we'll answer a few new topics. Be sure send us your questions via Twitter, email or our Facebook page to have them answered in this weekly feature!

The obvious answer here is that it's up to Hunt himself. The Estonian giant has been a disappointment since being selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, and has yet to even make a name for himself as a rotational defensive lineman. Many thought he was one of the last guys to make the roster last season, especially with the return of Michael Johnson in free agency, and the 2015 result of the big project lineman was only active for seven games and netted two total tackles.

In 2014, the Bengals decided to rely on their draft process and saw Johnson bolt for big money with Tampa Bay, while rolling the dice on Hunt. The move was mutually disadvantageous, as the Bengals finished dead last in quarterback sacks for 2014 and Johnson was cut by the Buccaneers just a year later. Hunt produced just seven total tackles and one sack in 12 games, giving pause to the club on their thoughts of him being a viable long-term solution at defensive end.

Truth be told, there was a "boom or bust" label on Hunt coming out of the draft, and to this point it's looking more like the latter than the former. He hadn't played the sport until coming to America and suiting up for SMU, and though he's just entering the fourth season of his pro career, he'll be 29-years-old this summer. But, as Marvin Lewis noted in Hunt's rookie year on HBO's "Hard Knocks", Hunt has more than prototypical size for the position (6'8", 290 pounds), it's just the waiting process for the series of breakout moments to make him an NFL contributor.

Aside from Hunt's own possible development to get more playing time this year, his situation resides in roster additions and subtractions. So far in free agency, the team lost one productive rotational lineman in Wallace Gilberry and have yet to add any other true defensive ends, aside from Dezmond Johnson, a second-year player with an uphill roster battle ahead of him.

In the draft, it's quite possible the Bengals draft some sort of edge rusher threat, whether it's in the Hunt mold or a "'tweener" type, and in doing so, it could stunt Hunt's playing time and even his chances to make the roster. It isn't the deepest draft at the position, but there still a number of solid-looking prospects that could be had in rounds 2-4.

The other player nobody is talking along with Hunt is 2014 third round selection, Will Clarke. Supposedly, Clarke underwent a bit of a body transformation this past offseason with intensive workouts, but it didn't translate to on-field production, with just four tackles and 0.5 sacks in 12 games played. While Hunt hasn't produced at the level everyone hoped, Clarke needs to be looked at in the same light as well.

An interesting debate the coaching staff may have this year is a final roster spot battle between Clarke and Hunt. Who would you go with at that point?

But, that wasn't Tom's question. Hunt not only needs to show the coaches he has made giant leaps in development, but also reliability to be counted on as a rotational guy like Gilberry was behind Carlos Dunlap and Johnson. The other unfortunate way Hunt could get more time is with injuries to either one of the two starters. But, as I noted in a previous mailbag, Bengals fans take advantage of the durability of the defensive end duo. So, keep knocking on wood there.

I'd like to see Hunt succeed and become a neat story for the Bengals. As of today, it just seems like a lot of chips are stacked against him in achieving said story. Maybe things will click for him in year four and he can be a rotational backup who can secure a small handful of sacks a year going forward. One way to find out is to give him a more significant chance than they have throughout most of young career.

*****

This week, I've received a number of different questions revolving around my thoughts around the Bengals' schedule--particularly in the NFL's decision to schedule the first go-round of the Bengals/Steelers bi-annual matchups during in Week 2. In case you've been living under a rock, Burfict is suspended the first three games of 2016, so he won't be available in a critical Week 2 clash.

"Unfair" and "convenient" are two words that have been thrown my way when describing Week 2, and in a recent CJ Facebook Live post, I broke down the schedule and touched quite a bit on the scheduling of this particular game. While it might seem "unfair", it's hard to believe that this was anything other than a deliberate move by the league to attempt to control the type of play in the game. And, in case you have been living under that aforementioned rock for quite some time, the officiating in the playoff game four and a half months ago was downright atrocious, though players on both sides were out of control.

Obviously, Bengals fans are quick to rush to the Pro Bowl linebacker's defense, because, well, he's a good player and he plays for their favorite team. However, even the most biased fan can't overlook some of the questionable after-the-whistle antics Burfict has displayed in his young career. As fun as football games containing harsh rivals can be to watch, many aspects of the most recent two games between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh more closely resembled cage matches with extremely limited officiating.

If there is one aspect of the scheduling that should irk Bengals fans, it's the subtle favoring of one of the most popular fan bases in the NFL (the Steelers) over the Bengals, who have been painted as villains since January--ironic because of the mean streak the Steelers covet on their often-dominant defense.

Aside from a seemingly intentional move by the league, there is one silver lining for The Queen City, and one I forgot to initially mention--his name is Karlos Dansby. Though the Bengals couldn't predict how the schedule would fall this year, they knew they needed some sort of contingency plan in Burfict's absence, whether those three games in the suspension included the Steelers or not.

In signing Dansby, the Bengals not only get a guy who has played in a Super Bowl, but also one who understands the ruggedness of the AFC North, even if it was with the struggling Browns for the past two years. Dansby might not have a ton of years left in the league, but he played at a high level last year and should provide a more-than-capable band-aid, at the very least.

So while I and many other Bengals fans complained about the scheduling verdict, there are positives to be seen. Dansby is one, and the opportunity to win a big game while not having one of the team's best players is another. Heck, the Steelers achieved the same thing against Cincinnati without Le'Veon Bell last December (even though the Bengals lost their starting quarterback in the game), so Cincinnati could do the very same thing for an early season win. While Burfict won't be helping the cause, Dansby should.