When it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals defensive ends, Carlos Dunlap is clearly the leader after becoming one of the game's best last year.
After finishing dead last in sacks during the 2014 season, the Bengals' defense once again became a unit that terrorized opposing quarterbacks in 2015. That was thanks in large part to Dunlap's continued ascension into becoming one of the league's best pass-rushers.
After being drafted in the second round out of Florida in the 2010 NFL Draft, Dunlap has slowly grown into a star for the Bengals and someone who played at a Pro Bowl level in 2015. Now entering his seventh NFL season, Dunlap finished 2015 with a career-high 13.5 sacks to go with 55 total tackles and two forced fumbles.
Dunlap also officially passed Eddie Edwards as the team's single-season sack leader. Edwards set the franchise mark back in 1983 with 13. Dunlap also passed Edwards as the franchise's all-time leader in sacks at 49. Coy Bacon's single-season mark of 22 sacks is actually the record, but came before sacks were an officially tracked NFL stat.
Those 13.5 QB sacks were also the fourth most of any NFL player in 2015. This was the first time Dunlap reached double-digit sacks after getting 15.5 from 2013-14 combined.
The good times hopefully won't be ending soon for Dunlap, who turned 27 in February and is still under contract with the Bengals through the 2018 season, meaning there are many more sacks to come during his career in Bengal stripes
But while Dunlap's ascension helped the Bengals' pass rush improve, you can't discount the return of Michael Johnson also being a big reason why it improved so much.
Johnson returned to the Queen City after a one-year hiatus of sorts in Tampa Bay back in 2014 before becoming a cap casualty in 2015, leading the Bengals to quickly re-sign him. A big reason why is because Johnson, now entering his eighth NFL season, racked up 21 sacks from 2011-13 before signing a big free-agent deal with the Bucs.
Once Johnson left, the Bengals finished dead last in sacks for the 2014 season, so getting him back was viewed as a huge addition to the defense. While his numbers in 2015 weren't anything to boast about, Johnson did register five sacks, 42 tackles and a career-high three forced fumbles.
Johnson's presence also helped the Bengals rack up 42 sacks after getting just 20 in 2014. That came while Johnson spent much of the 2015 season battling through nagging injuries, including an MCL sprain in training camp and back issues during the season.
The good news is, Johnson is now fully healthy and feeling good this offseason as he looks to have a big season in what should be the prime of the 29-year-old's career.
While Dunlap and Johnson form as good of a defensive end tandem as you can ask for, the Bengals don't exactly have any real depth behind them. A big reason why is due to the Bengals allowing veteran Wallace Gilberry to leave for the Detroit Lions this offseason. He was easily the third best defensive end on the team and someone who could even play defensive tackle on passing downs.
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. Those two have shown nothing to suggest they'll be even serviceable backups, so even one injury at this position could quickly make it a weakness for Cincinnati.
That's why some believed Cincy would target a defensive end early in this year's draft, but they ended up not taking one at any point during the Draft. They did work out Dwight Freeney recently, but he would only be a situational rusher who at 36-years-old wouldn't play the majority of snaps.
Hunt, a former second-round pick, will be 29 by the time the preseason starts and he's shown nothing in three years in the league. He's been working with Hall of Fame defensive end Kevin Greene recently, but besides looking like a star against third-string and undrafted free-agent offensive tackles in the preseason, Hunt has been a major disappointment. It would be really surprising for him to turn his career around as he inches closer to the wrong side of 30.
Clarke, another developmental player who was drafted in the third round of the 2014 Draft, was thought of as the replacement for Johnson in the long-term. So far, he hasn't been able to show much in limited snaps, especially with Johnson now back, but at least Clarke is still young and should have a chance this season to prove his worth.
The real key to Cincinnati's depth at this position could come from a player who has played no snaps at the NFL. That's Marcus Hardison who Cincy selected in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft with pick No. 135.
Hardison, a one-year wonder who was impressive along Arizona State's d-line, had just one productive season of D-1 football under his belt after a stint in junior college began his college career. It was one to remember though as Hardison racked up a team-leading 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss to go with 53 tackles, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
At his Pro Day, Hardison clocked in 4.8s in the 40-yard dash, and ran the short shuttle in 4.65 seconds and 3 cone drill in 7.29 seconds. That's amazing quickness for a lineman, and it explained why Hardison has the ability to play both defensive end and tackle, and the expectation was he would do so with the Bengals.
A solid showing in training camp and the preseason gave glimpses of Hardison developing into a quality NFL lineman, but not enough to ever get him on the field as a rookie. It also didn't help that he injured his knee in the week leading up to Week 1 of the 2015 season, which greatly hindered his development to start the season. He's a big question mark entering this season, but the Bengals appear to be optimistic he'll contribute.
Here's a look at how the Bengals' depth chart projects at defensive end this year:
Starters: Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap
Backups: Will Clarke, Margus Hunt
Practice Squad Candidates: Ryan Brown, Dezmond Johnson,
Wildcards: How do the Bengals use Marcus Hardison? There's a lot more playing time to be had at defensive end, not to mention, Hardison has a far better shot at making the 53-man roster at defensive end with defensive tackle being so loaded.