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NFL Draft 2016: Should Bengals draft a defensive end early?

There are plenty of needs for the Bengals in the draft, but defensive end is climbing up the list of importance.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive end is quickly becoming one of the more important needs for the Cincinnati Bengals. Granted, the starting tandem of Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson is one of the better tandems in the NFL. Combined, they posted a total of 66 tackles, 18.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries in 2015 alone. With both players locked up through 2018, the idea that the Bengals might be considering a defensive end early in the draft looks crazy at first glance.

However, is the idea really all that crazy? Just yesterday, the Bengals saw Wallace Gillberry leave for the Lions. He was arguably the third best defensive end on the team. Combine that with the fact that Margus Hunt and Will Clarke don't look ready to start and you've got a serious problem with depth at the position.

At this point, the Bengals could really justify taking a defensive end at any point in the draft. Most of the talk in the first round has been involving the team taking a top wide receiver. However, there has also been talk that they might not be thinking about that.

"I believe they will draft at least one, maybe two", Dave Lapham recently told James Rapien, "but I agree with you, not necessarily in the first round."

Does that mean that defensive end is in play in the first round? As long as it's the right player and the right fit, there's no reason to think the Bengals wouldn't consider it. They also might want to wait until one of the later rounds, depending on how their board shapes up throughout the process. Here's a list of players they might want to target:

Shaq Lawson

If the Bengals are thinking about taking a really high-end defensive end prospect at No. 24, potentially to brace for losing Johnson or Dunlap in 2018, Shaq Lawson seems like the ideal pick. He is the perfect edge rusher in that he doesn't really have too many down sides when it comes to rushing the quarterback or chasing down a running back cutting outside. He's also a little undersized and struggles against runs up the middle. But, give him a couple of years to adjust to the NFL and you could have one of the best defensive ends in the league ready to start taking over for a 31-year-old Michael Johnson in 2018.

Jihad Ward

If the Bengals are willing to wait until the late third or fourth round for a development project who could be a viable backup until he is ready, Jihad Ward fits that role like a glove. He has the ideal size and build for an NFL defensive lineman with the confidence, versatility, and athleticism to really tempt any team. However, he's a bit too spread out in his skill set to start right away. He didn't quite have the production you'd expect with his build, so he'll need to be developed before he's really ready to make an impact. If they're getting tired of waiting for Margus Hunt to develop, Ward could easily steal the Bengals' attention and Hunt's job.

Ronald Blair

If the Bengals are looking for some bargain depth at the defensive end position, Ronald Blair out of Appalachian State is a name to watch. He's a violent player who would fit in well in the AFC North, but is well versed in controlling his play so as not to draw many penalties. He simply disrupts the play by getting in your face and forcing you to pay attention to him, freeing up the rest of the defensive line to sneak past and get to the ball carrier. He's also built to play the position, so the only down side to his game is really how much time he's missed on the field.

A thumb injury in 2013 as well as multiple legal incidents involving alcohol and/or driving have hurt his stock. Given the success of Carlos Dunlap in the NFL, despite also having a DUI on his record in college, you can hope that there's plenty of potential to be had for Blair. Given the right team and the right supporting cast, this guy could really be a great pickup in the fourth round and could eventually become a viable starter in the league.