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Evaluating the Bengals’ most under-the-radar position battle: Defensive tackle

The battle for snaps behind Geno Atkins hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Minicamp Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

If it weren’t for Geno Atkins’ 2015 resurgence, the Bengals would have more questions at defensive tackle than any other position group. Fortunately for Cincinnati, Atkins is still one of the league’s best at what he does, which makes life much easier for the guys around him. Atkins’ dominance, however, is masking a problem the Bengals have had for a while: they don’t seem to know who they have behind him on the depth chart. Just as a quick reminder, here’s a look at the Bengals’ current depth chart at the defensive tackle position (Note: we’re strictly talking defensive tackles, not nose tackles, as Domata Peko and Pat Sims are essentially locks for the 53-man roster with David Dean frontrunner for the practice squad):

Defensive Tackle (3-technique)

1. Geno Atkins

2. Brandon Thompson

3. Marcus Hardison

4. DeShawn Williams

Assuming he’s healthy throughout the season, Atkins will play more than 70 percent of the Bengals’ defensive snaps. Last year, when Atkins came off the field (which only happened on about 27 percent of snaps), Wallace Gilberry was the guy who would come in and replace him. With Gilberry now in Detroit, the Bengals will need to rely on one currently injured and two completely inexperienced players behind Atkins. That’s where things get tricky.

It’s interesting to contrast Bengals fans’ opinions on Thompson with James Wright, as the two have both been injury-prone throughout their respective careers but effective when on the field. Fans rave about Wright’s receiving potential but are much more soft spoken when it comes to Thompson, who was quietly dominant down the stretch of the 2013 season as Atkins was sidelined with a torn ACL. The MMQB’s Andy Benoit described Thompson as a “potential three-down force” who “plays with natural leverage and balance” as a 3-technique. Coming from Benoit, a football savant who understands film in a way few do, that’s very high praise.

The issue which has plagued Thompson, however, has been his inability to stay healthy. The former third-round pick has only played in 20 games over the past two seasons and is currently rehabbing an ACL injury. That being said, he’s the most proven defensive tackle behind Atkins. Thompson will likely start the season on the PUP list, but as long as he can get healthy, he’ll make the 53-man roster later in the year. The Bengals liked him enough to keep him on the roster over Devon Still, who will likely start for the Texans this year. That’s as long as the Bengals feel he’ll be the same player he once was pre-injury, which presents the dilemma of whether the Bengals should keep four 3-techs on the roster, and if not, which one of the three behind Atkins should get the axe?

2015 draftee Marcus Hardison (fourth round) seems to be a lock for the roster, which could leave DeShawn Williams as the odd man out once Thompson returns from injury. Last year, the Bengals only carried three players at this position on the roster. Williams stuck around in Cincinnati on the practice squad, despite an offer to play in New Orleans last season. Fans are rooting for him and hoping he does enough to earn a roster spot for the upcoming season.

“I knew where I wanted to be, and that was here [in Cincinnati, rather than New Orleans],” Williams said in an interview with Jay Morrison of Dayton Daily News. “The coaching staff really wanted me, so there wasn’t any need to up and leave at the first chance I got. Some people would have got greedy and took the money, but that wasn’t for me.”

The good news for Williams is that because Thompson figures to start 2016 on the PUP list, he’s a near-lock for the opening day 53-man roster. The bad news is that he has a long way to go before establishing true job security. The defensive tackle has totaled six tackles in 62 snaps over the first two games of the preseason, but the numbers don’t excuse what doesn’t show up on the box score: he was out of position on several plays and abandoned his gap on multiple runs in the Lions game. Williams hasn’t been able to consistently push the pocket in the passing game, and he’s yet to record a TFL or sack this preseason.

That’s not to say it isn’t possible for Williams to be a long-term fixture on the Bengals roster; he just has a ways to go before locking up a roster spot for good. On the bright side, if he ends up on Cincinnati’s practice squad in 2016, there’s a good chance opposing teams will come his way with offers of a promotion to their respective 53-man rosters.

Determining the future of the defensive tackle position behind Geno Atkins will be a tough job for the Bengals’ front office and coaching staff, as many talented players call Cincinnati home. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther definitely understands the gravity of this particular decision-making process.

“We’ve got to find out about the guys so that when we make the decisions, we’re making good ones,” Guenther told Morrison. “[Both Hardison and Thompson are] doing well, picking up right where they left off last year. In the next couple games we’re going to have to make some decisions about who’s staying and who’s going. There will be two big opportunities for them.”

Hardison and Thompson both understand the competition as well.

“I feel great about this season,” Hardison said via Morrison. “I know what I’m getting into this year. I’ve got a year under my belt where I learned a lot behind a veteran D-line, a great group of guys. I just have to trust the process. There’s some opportunity there.”

Williams has a bit of a different approach, while maintaining the same goal of proving his ability and earning a spot on the team.

“I know where I’m at,” said Williams. “There’s no comfort level. If I get comfortable, I could be the first one up out of here. I’m the same guy I was last year, a guy on the bubble trying to show coaches what I can do.”