The 2016 NFL season is right around the corner, and the Cincinnati Bengals look poised to make another postseason run. The Bengals will retain nine defensive starters from the 2015 season, and a couple of young players will aspire to fill the voids left from Cincinnati's offseason losses. Here's a look at the projected starters at each defensive position and if you haven't already, check out the projected offensive starters here.
Right Defensive End: Michael Johnson
Johnson may not be the explosive pass-rusher he once was, but he is still a quality player. Johnson is an excellent run-stuffing defensive end, and he has proven durable throughout his long tenure in Cincinnati. However, Will Clarke could eventually push for some of Johnson's snaps if he impresses coaches.
Nose Tackle: Domata Peko
Fans were ecstatic when the Bengals selected Andrew Billings in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, but the 21-year-old has a long ways to go before he's ready to start for Cincinnati. Peko figures to start early on in the season, and though it's likely he'll start for the entire year, there's a chance Billings could push for snaps if he really impresses the coaching staff.
Defensive Tackle: Geno Atkins
Atkins is the best player on the Bengals defense, so there's no surprise here. The defensive tackle is one of the marquee players at his position, and he looks to build upon a career year in 2015, a season in which he tallied 11 sacks. His career high for sacks came in 2012, when the defensive tackle accumulated 12.5 sacks.
Left Defensive End: Carlos Dunlap
After tallying a career-high 13.5 sacks in 2015, Dunlap looks to build on his career year. With virtually no competition from Margus Hunt, Dunlap will see a high volume of snaps in 2016. Hunt will try to finally prove himself worthy of an increased role, but it's not likely he'd take away from Dunlap's workload. Dunlap could be even more impactful if his backup can contribute, but for now, he's still be a solid starter who has the potential to become one of the league's top edge rushers.
Weak side Linebacker: Vontaze Burfict (Vincent Rey)
While Burfict serves a three-game suspension to start the 2016 season, Rey will likely fill in on the weak side. If he can stay healthy, Burfict will still have played more regular season games by the end of 2016 (13) than he played in 2015 (10). Burfict was recovering from microfracture surgery last season and started the year on the PUP list.
Middle Linebacker: Rey Maualuga
Maualuga is entering his eighth season in Cincinnati and figures to start at middle linebacker. Maualuga is a very effective run-stuffer, but he isn't effective enough in coverage to stay on the field for three downs. P.J. Dawson, Nick Vigil and others figure to compete with the veteran, but Maualuga will likely see his fair share of snaps next season.
Strong side Linebacker: Karlos Dansby
After losing Emmanuel Lamur to the Vikings in free agency, free agent acquisition Dansby figures to step in as the Bengals' primary coverage linebacker. He'll likely team up with Burfict in nickel packages and serve as the SAM backer in Cincinnati's base defense. Vigil, Dawson and Rey could potentially push for snaps, but for now, this is Dansby's job to lose.
Cornerback: Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard
With Leon Hall's free agency departure, Dennard figures to step in as the slot corner. Despite an up-and-down 2015 season, Kirkpatrick will likely remain the starter opposite Jones. After all, he's getting paid good money this season, and last year was his first year as the team's full-time starter. William Jackson III and Josh Shaw will see time in the rotation, but the expectations that either player will start should be tempered.
Safety: George Iloka, Shawn Williams
Reggie Nelson may be gone, but with Williams' extension, the Bengals have their starting safety duo locked up for the next half-decade. Derron Smith, Taylor Mays and Clayton Fejedelem will battle for the last two spots in the safety core and eventually push for rotational snaps, but Iloka and Williams are the clear starters. It's time for these two players to start forcing turnovers.