Though the Cincinnati Bengals have been a perennially-dominant defense during the past half-decade, they have been been waiting for two other players to emerge as consistent contributors. At one of the more critical positions on the team, defensive ends Margus Hunt and Will Clarke have yet to live up to expectations after being drafted in the second and third rounds, respectively.
As mandatory minicamp kicked off this week, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis specifically noted that it's a big offseason for Hunt and Clarke, both with the team and in their NFL careers. Though he spun it positively, there's no doubt both need to flash throughout camp and the preseason.
Marvin on Clarke and Hunt: looking for them to be productive guys and game changing players. Good situation for them to be in.— Lindsay Patterson (@LndsPatterson) June 14, 2016
Hunt has ramped up his offseason work in a few ways. In terms of a physical response, Hunt re-tooled his offseason workouts to more of what he did in his days as an Olympian in an effort to bulk up for camp. In terms of saying the right things, Hunt recently responded with the notion of a possible make-or-break season via Bengals.com. "You have to have stone-cold nerves. The bigger the stage, the more comfortable I feel," he stated.
The big knock against the two players is their combined two quarterback sacks between them in regular season games. However, what has kept them around, even with the disappointments, is the combination of their draft placement, high upside and flashing in preseason games--as evidenced by Hunt's four sacks in 2014 preseason play. However, when the team relied on both to replace Michael Johnson when he left for Tampa Bay in free agency that year, both totally flopped in the regular season. So much so that the team finished dead last in the NFL in quarterback sacks in 2014 and brought back Johnson a year later.
Aside from year three for Clarke and year four for Hunt being critical in their development, the Bengals might have a contingency plan waiting in the wings. A few weeks back, the Bengals hosted veteran defensive end and future Hall of Fame player Dwight Freeney. Though nothing has yet to come of the visit, he could be waiting in the wings for the Bengals for an all-in championship push.
He's not of the gargantuan mold of almost every other defensive linemen the Bengals employ, but he would still be a welcomed addition. Freeney's quickness and lethal spin move could be a valuable complement to the power of the rest of the line.
The Freeney Factor:
On Wednesday, Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report updated the status of Freeney, noting the veteran has stated there is a "95 percent chance" he plays in 2016. To date, the Bengals and Falcons have shown the most interest in his services, with a small possibility of the Cardinals leaving the door open for a return. Since, the Falcons have said they have no immediate plans to sign Freeney. Yet, in Freeman's piece, he oddly omits Cincinnati as a viable destination for Freeney.
We're not sure if this is based on insider information, as Freeman concedes the four destinations (New England, Arizona, New Orleans and Houston) he chose are guesses, but it is odd that the Bengals aren't listed when they've had him in for a recent visit. Regardless, Freeney made a statement which may have pointed at the situation with the Bengals two young, yet unproven players, Hunt and Clarke.
"Teams are in love with young guys," he said. "I get it, but teams overlook that young guys don't always live up to that promise. How many times have you heard, 'This guy is the next Lawrence Taylor' or something like that? Teams also are in love with numbers and data when sometimes numbers can't take into account the heart of a player. Teams back their draft picks because they don't want their drafts to be wrong."
Freeney was signed by the Cardinals a ways into the 2015 regular season, playing in 11 games, garnering eight sacks and three forced fumbles. The veteran sounds as if he is confident he can do the same in 2016 at the age of 36. Freeney conceded to Freeman that his preference remains to return to Arizona, but with them trading with the Patriots to acquire Chandler Jones, it seems improbable. He also stated that the visits he has had this offseason have all been positive.
Perhaps the Bengals come calling later this offseason or if he remains unsigned, mid-season if ineffectiveness and/or injury hits the position group. Cincinnati might also might express interest again around final cuts, especially if Hunt and Clarke don't show the growth they're hoping for this summer. Regardless, fans will be keeping their eyes on these three players and what their careers have in store for them this year.