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Fixing the Bengals’ defensive line problems

The Bengals have plenty of talent along the defensive line, but couldn’t make it work in 2016. That can’t remain the case in 2017.

NFL: DEC 24 Bengals at Texans Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Bengals can be a very confusing team when you start analyzing particular aspects of their play. For example, in 2016 the Bengals had a Pro Bowl defensive lineman in Geno Atkins and another player who probably should have made the Pro Bowl in Carlos Dunlap. But, that wasn’t enough for the defensive line to be a strength for the team. The Bengals finished the season ranked 19th in sacks with 33 after finishing 10th in the category with 42 just last year. What was a strength for the team and made the rest of the defensive unit look better in 2015 was quite different in 2016 and made other issues among the defense more clear.

2016 struggles

Across the NFL, Atkins and Dunlap ranked 18th and 22nd in total sacks this year, though Atkins had more sacks than any other defensive tackle in the league. But, the team as a whole only ranked No. 19 in the NFL. That’s because the Bengals’ other starting defensive end, Michael Johnson had only 3.5 sacks on the season, while the Bengals’ other starting defensive tackle, Domata Peko, didn’t record a single one. Not even half of one.

Peko was actually outplayed by backup Pat Sims this season, although Sims’ production didn’t come close to that of a starter (15 tackles, 1.5 sacks). At the defensive end position, the Bengals also saw a mild amount of production from backups in Margus Hunt (seven tackles), Will Clarke (10 tackles, 4 sacks), and Wallace Gilberry (8 tackles, 2.5 sacks). But, totaling all of the production outside of Dunlap and Atkins this year, it just didn’t amount to what you want —and need— to see from your defensive line.

Therefore, the Bengals clearly have some work to do next year. They are lucky to have great players in Atkins and Dunlap, but at some point those two need some semblance of help. The Bengals took a gamble and lost on Michael Johnson, who was productive in his first stint with the Bengals but flopped as a free agent with the Buccaneers and isn’t the same player he was during his younger years in Cincinnati. The Bengals haven’t invested as much in Peko, whose $3.725 million cap hit in 2016 was nearly half of Johnson’s. But, he still took up a valuable starting spot this year with virtually no return on the Bengals’ investment. Peko is now a free agent and should not be re-signed after one of his worst seasons of 11 with the Bengals, in 2016.

How to fix the defensive line

In the Bengals’ defense, depth players like Marcus Hardison, Brandon Thompson, and Andrew Billings were on Injured Reserve all season. Hardison has raised a few eyebrows in the limited chances he’s had in the preseason, while Thompson is an experienced veteran and Billings was hailed as an absolute steal for the Bengals in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

Not having all three of those players and all of their potential, the situation was understandably tough, especially considering long-time defensive line coach Jay Hayes left for Tampa Bay in the offseason. His replacement, Jacob Burney, was tasked with a tough job in his first season as the Bengals’ defensive line coach.

Heading into 2017, the Bengals have a few options for continuing to build a formidable defensive line. Returning players like Hardison and Billings should help, but there is also the draft. The Bengals have the No. 9 overall pick, so guys like Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, Florida’s Caleb Brantley, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, and Missouri’s Charles Harris could be available. If the Bengals are lucky, they might even have a shot at Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, although he will almost certainly be a top-three pick unless his stock falls in the coming months.

There are also multiple talented defensive linemen who could be available later in the draft like Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson, Notre Dame’s Jarron Jones, Michigan’s Chris Wormley, and LSU’s Lewis Neal. Personally, my hope is that the Bengals use their lofty draft positioning to their advantage. In my mind, Brantley would be the best fit for the Bengals of all the potential first rounders, but they can probably trade down to the No. 15 spot or even lower, netting more draft picks and still getting their guy. They wouldn’t want to trade down if they were targeting Garrett, Allen, or Barnett, but otherwise it would be a great way to set the team up with even more draft choices, which is a valuable commodity for a team like the Bengals who rely so heavily on solid drafts.

There will also be the free agent market, although the Bengals are not known for making big splashes in this area. Young, talented players like Jabaal Sheard, Dion Jordan, and Dontari Poe will be on the market, if they do not reach extensions with their current teams. Although, if the Bengals do pay much attention to the free agent market, they will most likely look at players like Alan Branch or Charles Johnson, guys who are a bit older but shouldn’t require the Bengals throwing money and promises at them in a desperate attempt to court them to Cincinnati.

There is also former Lion Nick Fairley, whom the Bengals expressed interest in during the 2015 offseason. But, ultimately, he ended up with a $5 million contract with the Rams, who did not re-sign him this past offseason. That said, he had the best season of his career in 2016 with the Saints, so there is a chance the Bengals will have to compete with other teams for his services.

Regardless of how it happens, it is clear that the Bengals need to upgrade Johnson and Peko on the defensive line. Until that happens, the unit will likely struggle to find consistent production, much like we saw in 2016.