For some teams, the parts are greater than the whole, and for the others, it's the opposite. An interesting argument could be made about the Cincinnati Bengals' defense in that it exemplifies both stances. Stars like Geno Atkins and Vontaze Burfict are present, but on the other hand, a culture and system has bred career turnarounds like what we have seen out of Adam Jones.
Even so, there are a handful of players you can point to as the stars on the unit. Given the overall talent of the group, choices are plentiful, but it depends on preferences. Recently, Bill Barnwell of ESPN ranked the best defensive triplets in the league and used his own criteria.
I weighted past performance so that 2015 was each player's most important past season but not his only relevant piece of data. I projected injuries for players who don't have a pre-existing condition as if it would be a typical year of health. In cases where two defenses were relatively close, I leaned my rankings toward the team with the best individual player. And after running through the rankings over and over again before I came up with a satisfying list, I found myself in the same place where I began the last batch:
When ranking offensive triplets, usually one picks a group consisting of quarterback, wide receiver and running back. Defenses are a little trickier and Barnwell doesn't use a lineman/linebacker/secondary approach. That being said, Barnwell ranked the trio of Atkins, George Iloka and Carlos Dunlap at No. 13 in the NFL.
As is the case with the Vikings, the Bengals have a very good defense that benefits from a remarkable amount of depth. The long-awaited breakout season finally came for Dunlap, who hinted at a huge campaign when he finished second in the league in quarterback knockdowns in 2014 with 28, trailing only Watt. Dunlap promptly posted 13.5 sacks last season while jumping to 34 knockdowns. Atkins chipped in with 11 sacks from the interior, finally looking recovered from his torn ACL. The only other team in the league to see two players produce 10 sacks or more was Houston, and it has Watt.
Though 13th sounds a bit low, the good news is that the trio is by far the tops in the division by Barnwell's standards. Barnwell echoed my sentiments on the depth of the Bengals' defense, but there are a couple of other choices Barnwell could have gone with, yet he inexplicably didn't.
Was it a combination of age, suspension and volatile tempers keeping the duo of Jones and Burfict off of the list? Both have made recent Pro Bowls with the Bengals (Jones in 2015 and Burfict in 2013), and both are defensive catalysts. Hurting Burfict in this ranking could also be his missing of six games in 2015 and playing in just five in 2014, but he still played at a Pro Bowl level again last year when he returned from recovering from microfracture knee surgery. And, while Iloka played well enough to warrant a big new deal this offseason, there was still a dip in his production from 2014 to 2015.
Who would you use in your Bengals defensive triplet grouping? Would a different player being included put them in the top-10 in your estimation?