Defensive tackle is an interesting position to consider for the Bengals heading into 2017. Geno Atkins leads the unit as arguably the Bengals’ best defensive player and, by most accounts, one of the two best defensive tackles in the NFL. However, he is joined on the starting lineup by Domata Peko, who severely under-performed in 2016 (37 tackles, zero sacks). His current contract will end on March 9, and there is a chance the Bengals will elect to move on from the 32-year-old defensive tackle when that happens.
If that happens, behind Atkins, the Bengals defensive tackles on the roster for next season include Pat Sims (coming up on his ninth year), DeShawn Williams (coming up on his third year), Andrew Billings (coming up on his second year after spending his rookie season on Injured Reserve), David Dean (who just spent his rookie season on the practice squad), Marcus Hardison (who spent his first two years on IR). Billings, in particular, has a chance to be the Bengals’ future at the position as he was seen as a first-round talent in the 2016 Draft, despite falling to the fourth for the Bengals to select. However, he suffered a torn meniscus during training camp and spent his entire rookie season on IR. So, the Bengals might want to bring in some competition to potentially give Atkins a solid partner on the defensive line. With the Bengals’ possessing the ninth overall pick, they will likely have a chance to select any of the following players from Mel Kiper’s top 10 prospects at the position, and might even be able to trade down for any of them.
*1. Malik McDowell (Michigan St.)
McDowell has always been known as a top defensive tackle prospect, noted as the No. 2 defensive tackle prospect in the country coming out of high school. At Michigan State, he proved he deserved such high praise by consistently showcasing his power, length, and initial surge. You will rarely ever see him take a play off, but it doesn’t seem to affect him as he plays with consistent energy throughout the game. However, pure defensive tackles aren’t valued as highly as tackle/end hybrids, so the Bengals can probably trade down to take him if he is their target, potentially increasing the value of the pick significantly.
*2. Caleb Brantley (Florida)
Brantley was known as a top defensive end prospect for a while, but it was his junior season that has everyone talking about him as one of the top defensive tackle prospects in the upcoming draft. He played in 11 games and recorded a career high 31 tackles, (9.5 for a loss), 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble in the process. As a pure defensive tackle/nose tackle, he will likely be taken late in the first round by a defensive tackle needy team like the Raiders or Patriots.
3. Carlos Watkins (Clemson)
The gap between the talent of the top two defensive tackle prospects and the rest of the class is significant enough that anyone not named McDowell or Brantley likely won’t be taken until the third round, at the earliest. However, don’t underestimate Watkins because he doesn’t come with the hype of the top two prospects. He recorded 50 tackles (13.5 for a loss), and 10.5 sacks in 2016 and was solid in Clemson’s playoff run. The Bengals might want to consider him in the third round if they are looking for a solid, battle tested defensive tackle to pair with Atkins.
*4. Elijah Qualls (Washington)
Qualls will likely be taken in the late third round, although there is a chance he could be available when the Bengals pick in the fourth round. He is a solid run stopper, but tends to struggle against the pass. However, that shouldn’t deter the Bengals too much as Geno Atkins is already such a great pass rusher that Qualis would just need to open up opportunities for Atkins on passing downs.
*5. Nazir Jones (North Carolina)
Jones has flown under the draft radar for the most part, despite recording 62 tackles (7.5 tackles for loss), 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three pass deflections in 2016, his junior season at UNC. Although Kiper ranks his value below tackles projected to be taken in the third round, some mock drafts have him going as high as the second round. If the Bengals were interested in him, they would almost certainly want to jump on him with their early third round pick, assuming he is still available.
Here’s the rest of Kiper’s top 10:
6. Jaleel Johnson, Iowa
7. *Charles Walker, Oklahoma
8. Dalvin Tomlinson, Alabama
9. Ryan Glasgow, Michigan
10. *Davon Godchaux, LSU
One asterisk denotes a junior, and two asterisks denote a redshirt sophomore for the 2016 season.