With the state of the Cincinnati Bengals’ roster over the last few years, the NFL Draft has been more about the rich getting richer over satisfying desperate needs for the Bengals’ organization. It’s a nice change from the norm of the pre-Marvin Lewis years, but with so many entrenched starters already in place on their defensive unit, it’s hard to pin down some younger breakout players.
Muddying the waters further are the couple of recent injuries in the early part of training camp. Only one has been severe, but some others are bringing more caution—particularly in the secondary.
Breakout players on the defense might come with a new starter, as few of those as there are, but most will come with players looking for rotational roles to contribute in more of a platoon effort.
1) Josh Shaw, Defensive Back: The Bengals lost this year’s first round draft pick, William Jackson III, for an extended period of time with a torn pectoral early in camp, while another fellow first round corner, Darqueze Dennard, is nursing a sprained ankle. Throw in dings to Derron Smith in a recent practice, coupled with Leon Hall selecting the Giants over the Bengals and Reggie Nelson’s earlier departure in free agency, and things are a little more tenuous than originally thought at defensive back.
When Shaw was selected in the fourth round of last year’s Draft, scouts of teams either loved him or didn’t want him. Some of it had to do with an off-field issue in college, but some wondered which scheme he would best fit into. Apparently, Lewis and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther think enough of him to allow him to play both slot corner and safety in their scheme.
While he might be a special teams guy again in 2016, he’ll also see time at both spots on defense as a rotator. Shaw may not be fluid enough to be a long-term boundary NFL corner, but he’s got the speed and strength to match up with a number of different players in the slot, as well as make plays as a centerfield-type of safety.
2) Margus Hunt, Defensive End: Yes, Hunt. After such a disappointing first three professional seasons, the team showed a bit of faith in the big Estonian by not bringing in hefty competition in either free agency or the Draft this year—even after Wallace Gilberry’s departure. He’s vying for a rotational backup role with Will Clarke and seems to have taken this make-or-break year with seriousness, as evidenced by his spring workout regimen.
There’s a remote possibility that Hunt doesn’t even make the final roster this year, but I think the coaches want him to at least see his rookie contract through. In a contract year, Hunt could very well have one of those random years of good production and really help out the Bengals. He has some seasons under his belt now and is a physical specimen, so it’s just about putting it all together now.
3) Shawn Williams, Safety: The Bengals took a bit of a leap of faith on Williams, extending his contract in the offseason before his first year as a full-time starter. He’s a thumper and has always been a contributor against the run, but the knocks on him coming out of college revolved around his lack of pass coverage abilities.
Last year in spot duty covering for the injured Nelson and George Iloka, Williams showed great progress in the perceived area of weakness. He might be the most critical player for the Bengals on this list, in terms of needing to break out, because of his 2016 starting role and the big shoes he has to fill. If his growth continues this year, the Bengals could once again have a pair of high-quality starting safeties.
4) Andrew Billings, Defensive Tackle: Though he might be viewed as a “two-down player” by some pundits, the Bengals grabbed Billings three rounds after most mocks had him being selected. Billings might be the most obvious choice to place on this list, given his skill set and supposed role in 2016, but the hope is that he showcases his legendary weight room strength to the benefit of the team.
The Bengals have struck gold in the middle rounds with defensive tackles, particularly with Pat Sims, Domata Peko and Geno Atkins, so Billings has a lot to live up to, historically. Still, if he can get near the success of those three, the Bengals’ defense will be in good shape—not only in 2016, but in the years ahead.
5) Marcus Hardison, Defensive Line: Technically, Hardison is listed as a defensive tackle this year with the Bengals, but he played as a big end in college. He bulked up this offseason and will likely be another rotational backup in the middle of the line, but don’t underestimate his ability to get to the passer. After all, he did have 10 sacks as a senior at Arizona State in 2014.
As weird as it sounds because of the difference in Hardison’s body type from Gilberry’s, Hardison might find a similar way of moving around the line in different packages to get to the quarterback. Gilberry had 17.5 sacks in mostly rotational duty in four seasons with the Bengals, so if Hardison can somehow manage anything near the four-plus sack average Gilberry had, that would be huge for the defense.
Honorable Mention—Will Clarke, Defensive Lineman: If Hunt or Hardison won’t break out in 2016, maybe Clarke will. Though he isn’t the athletic freak the big Estonian is, Clarke does have the versatility gene that Hardison seems to also have at his disposal.
He’ll be grinding for a back end roster spot this year along with Hunt, and the team will likely be hoping they see his ability to rush the passer from the interior of the line in specific packages. After disappointing in his first two years, Clarke could be feeling the fire that coaches have lit under him and become a valued backup.