We were all relieved when the one-technique defensive tackle Andrew Billings, projected as a first-round pick, slipped all the way to the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft and the Bengals picked him. The former Baylor standout could be the man the Bengals pair with Geno Atkins for years to come and that had been on every fan's wish list for this offseason.
But what about the defensive end position? So far Cincinnati has not brought in anyone beyond undrafted players, and also lost versatile fan favorite Wallace Gilberry to the Detroit Lions, who played almost 60% of the snaps as an edge rusher and inside rusher in multiple subpackages last season. The depth behind Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson is questionable and Johnson isn't even the same man who left for greener pastures in Tampa Bay anymore.
It seems at this point that defensive end is clearly the Bengals' biggest weakness after the Draft and ESPN agrees in their article of the biggest holes on every team:
On defense, the Bengals lack a dominant pass-rusher in the vein of J.J. Watt, Von Miller or Justin Houston. Their best player is Geno Atkins at defensive tackle, and he will eventually pair up with rookie Andrew Billings, a run-stopper. Carlos Dunlap did have a career season with 13.5 sacks, but when it comes to taking down a Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady in January with the game on the line, the Bengals still stack up short against their AFC rivals.
Both the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers proved last season, both in the regular season and the playoffs, that football is still played in the trenches. If you are able to get good pressure on the opposing quarterback, only good things can happen. And you can also hide a so-so secondary with less time to make reads and throw the football, something that the Bengals could use as their unit has lost a couple of starters, too. It is important not only to have good starters at the defensive end position, but to have a stout rotation as Denver did with Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett. Thus you can always keep a high level pressure and also give rest to your primary players. Carolina seems to agree with this as, apparently, they let one of the better cornerbacks in football, Josh Norman, go because they were unwilling to commit so many millions to him, which would prevent them from resigning some of their defensive linemen next season.
Of course, good inside pressure helps mightily too, and the Bengals have Atkins back to full strength so they will avoid the 2014 situation when the Bengals had the least sacks in the NFL, from repeating itself. That season saw Johnson gone and Gilberry had to slide into a starter position. Billings is a clear sign that Cincinnati is at least trying to improve the defensive line, but behind Dunlap - a really good player, by the way - they don't have anybody able to turn the corner on offensive tackles - which opens up every other pass rush move.
Some believe the Bengals have a couple of young guys waiting in the wings, but the big 6-foot-8 Estonian, Margus 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 abusing third-string and undrafted free-agent offensive tackles in the preseason, Hunt has been a disappointment and it would be really surprising for him to turn his career around close to the wrong side of thirty.
Will 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, but at least he's still young and should have a chance this season to show what he can do.
These two players, who were reaches at the time they were drafted, are the ones the Bengals would have to go to should anything happen to Dunlap. But, what about Marcus Hardison? Is he the answer as the new swing defensive lineman?
The 2015 fourth-round pick from Arizona State showed last preseason that he is at least an intriguing prospect who could play both tackle and end. But he is more of an inside rusher and an occasional edge guy than a possible replacement for Dunlap, even if he outplays Hunt, which I think he could. A valuable player to have on the roster, but not quite what a Super Bowl contender needs as a third defensive end. Hardison might become that player, though, and there is also the possibility that the Bengals find a gem among the undrafted free agents signed or someone another team cuts, like former Colt Björn Werner, who after failing to develop as 3-4 outside linebacker could be better as 4-3 end.
Is it too early to be concerned then? I'd say yes; but I hope Cincinnati addresses the position in the summer because Hunt and Clarke haven't proven they can be the answer as next men up.