The Bengals defense was among the league's best last season, and it was thanks in large part to the emergence of Carlos Dunlap.
Dunlap, now entering his seventh NFL season, finished 2015 with a career-high 13.5 sacks to go with 55 tackles and two forced fumbles. That earned him a spot in his first Pro Bowl while also being voted as the 70th-best player in the league on the NFL's Top 100 Players show.
While some would be satisfied with all of that, Dunlap is far from ready to settle on his previous accomplishments. Instead, he wants to lead the NFL in sacks this coming season after finishing fourth in 2015. Dunlap also has his eyes set on the NFL single-season sack record, which is currently held by Michael Strahan, who racked up a record 22.5 sacks in 2001.
"Along with the team goals, you've got to have your personal goals that will help you obtain the team goal," Dunlap told ESPN's Coley Harvey. "My personal goals is to get that sack title at the end of the season, one, and then two, to get Strahan's record."
As good as Dunlap is, however, even he knows that may not be attainable when you've got as many quality pass-rushers as the Bengals do. After all, Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins has racked up 12.5 sacks in 2012, the highest mark of any defensive tackle that year.
But an ACL tear midway through the 2013 season led to Atkins not making as big of an impact in 2014, so much so that defensive coordinator Paul Guenther went as far to call Geno, "just a guy out there" for a Cincinnati defense that finished dead last in sacks that year.
Amid Atkins' struggles, Dunlap finished with just eight sacks in 2014. Once Atkins returned to form in 2015 while notching 11 sacks, his impact helped free up Dunlap on the edge to rack up those 13.5 quarterback takedowns. That's why Dunlap is keeping an open mind when it comes to his personal goals and overall team success.
"It's hard to get [20 or more]," Dunlap said. "Most of the guys who get those 20 sacks, they're like the only one [on their team] at plus-10. When you've got three guys who can get 10 sacks and a nose tackle who can get five, it's spreading the wealth. So that's good for our team."
It also helped free up Dunlap more when Michael Johnson returned to the Bengals after leaving for a one-year hiatus in 2014. Even a guy like Johnson playing on the opposite end can help affect opponents' blocking schemes that may result in more sacks for Dunlap.
Teams know how good MJ can be when given one-on-one chances to rush the passer, so it's a matter of pick your poison between Dunlap, Atkins and MJ. The matchups were more in favor of Dunlap last year, and he consistently made teams play.
That said, I wouldn't be surprised to see his production drop back below 10 this year, simply because teams are now game planning for him more now. Then again, dedicating a scheme and/or multiple blockers toward Dunlap could free up Atkins more, and we've seen how much havoc he'll raise.
And all of this isn't even taking into account what Andrew Billings can do. He's a massive man with incredible strength and the potential to be an upgrade over Domata Peko. That would make it more imperative for teams to dedicate their blocking schemes to preventing Billings and Atkins from wreaking havoc up the middle, so it's possible Dunlap is about to get even more quality shots at rushing the passer.
All of this is merely guesswork though until Week 1 kicks off in New York, but it is nice to think about just how good Dunlap and this pass rush will be in 2016. Here's to hoping it's record-breaking.