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Bengals’ front seven surprisingly disappointing in 2017

It’s hard to understand how a front seven with three of the NFL’s best players could be so unimpressive in 2016.

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Wild Card Playoffs - Cincinnati Bengals v Houston Texans Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

How can a unit that includes Vontaze Burfict, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap rank 19th in the NFL?

That’s likely the question you’re asking yourself when reading that Pro Football Focus graded every front seven in the NFL in 2016 and placed the Bengals in the bottom half of the league, at 19th overall.

Burfict even got recognition on PFF's All Pro team, with an honorable mention, but that wasn’t enough to elevate the Bengals’ front seven among the rankings. Players like Michael Johnson, Rey Maualuga, Domata Peko, Pat Sims and Will Clarke brought down the unit. Among those players, Sims had the “best” ranking from PFF this season, as the 78th best interior defender in the league (out of 127) with a 46.6 grade, which is “poor” by PFF’s terminology. Yes, four of the Bengals’ defensive lineman this season were considered poor by PFF. Peko was ranked as PFF's 104th interior defender (42.9 grade) and Michael Johnson as the 105th ranked edge defender (41.1 grade). Simply put, that’s unacceptably bad, which makes the Bengals’ reported interest in re-sign Peko a real head shaker. Not to mention, Johnson is under contract through 2018 and has a $5.125 million cap hit in 2017 and a $6.125 million cap hit in 2018. He just hasn’t been the same player as he was prior to leaving Cincinnati for Tampa Bay back in 2014, making the money the Bengals invested in him seem like a real waste.

Here’s what PFF had to say about the Bengals’ front seven in 2016:

19. Cincinnati Bengals

Top overall grade: LB Vontaze Burfict, 87.6

Lowest overall grade: DE Michael Johnson, 41.1

The talent disparity along the Bengals’ defensive line is quite amazing. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are both top-15 players at their respective positions, but the line didn’t feature a single other player with a competent grade in 2016. Michael Johnson, Domata Peko, Pat Sims, and Will Clarke all saw more than 350 snaps, with none of them grading higher than 46.6.

The Bengals’ defensive line lost a lot of its edge this season and Atkins and Dunlap can’t get the job done on their own. The Bengals need help along the defensive line to allow for Dunlap and Atkins to really shine. This ranking shows selecting a top tier defensive end in the draft would be a smart move and provide a big boost for the Bengals’ defense. Though, a linebacker could make sense, too. But, if the Bengals believe 2016 rookie Nick Vigil has starter potential, the front seven could be improved with his development and increased involvement going forward.

PFF didn't think too highly of Vigil either, but, he didn't play enough to get a position ranking by the service. He did get a 47.1 overall grade for his play in 2016, which is obviously bad, but the Bengals have faith in his continued growth and he showed some great effort toward the end of the season and promise for his future.

Overall, the linebacker group was better than the defensive line this season. Burfict ranked 7th among all linebackers while Vincent Rey ranked 14th, Karlos Dansby 47th and then Rey Maualuga an abysmal 85th with a 38.2 PFF grade. There’s no reason Maualuga should remain in Cincinnati next season and he has no dead cap hit if cut. If he does remain with the team next season, he’ll be owed $3.7 million. Maualuga has been part of many great Bengals’ defenses, but his time in Cincinnati has run out and the Bengals can’t afford to continue to employ him... Not for monetary reasons, but due to his inability to continue to produce at the NFL level and unworthiness to remain on the roster.

What’s your opinion on the best way the Bengals’ front seven can improve in 2017?