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Analyzing the outlook of the Bengals’ defensive line in 2017

What was once the strongest unit on the Bengals’ team for years has come under scrutiny after a mediocre performance in 2016. What should the priorities for the defensive line be this offseason?

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In their disappointing 2016 campaign, the Bengals exuded many deficiencies in their once-proud mini-empire. Whether it was a house of cards seen in their supposed depth, their offseason sluggishness in free agency or draft picks not growing up as fast as many had hoped, it was a perfect storm that led to a disappointing 6-9-1 finish.

One of the mainstays in Cincinnati’s five straight postseason berths from 2011-2015 was the play of the defensive line. After being drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Geno Atkins quickly became a star, with his fellow class member, Carlos Dunlap, rounding into a very good all-around edge player. Michael Johnson has had his moments and the Bengals had some nice contributions from rotational players Frostee Rucker, Jonathan Fanene and Wallace Gilberry.

After finishing 10th in quarterback sacks in 2015, Cincinnati fell to 19th in the category in 2016, with much of the positive ground being made up in the final handful of weeks (Atkins had 4.5 sacks in the final four weeks). The inconsistency from the front four has caused many to question the future of the group, whether it’s the impending free agency for Gilberry and Domata Peko, the unknown potential of Andrew Billings or questions about Johnson after a subpar statistical season this year.

So, what does the future hold for the Bengals on the defensive line? Many predict that they’ll take one of three top defensive ends in this year’s draft, but with needs at linebacker, wide receiver and potentially offensive line, that’s far from a sure thing.

On this week’s episode of The Orange and Black Insider, Scott Schultze and I discussed a number of issues with the defensive line in 2017. Should the pick at No. 9 be an edge rusher? Are the consistency issues from 2016 simply a product of a lack of quality rotating linemen? What’s the one position on the line that most needs an upgrade this year?

Scheme fits and preferred defensive line personnel molds:

Tennessee’s Derek Barnett is a hot pick for the Bengals at No. 9, but his 6’3”, 265-pound frame doesn’t seem to be in the mold of the type of defensive ends the Bengals usually covet. Johnson and Dunlap are in the 6’6”, 280-pound range and while the two haven’t been consistent double-digit sack guys, they bat down passes with regularity and set the edge well against the run.

For quite some time, I’ve been on the record in promoting the idea of the Bengals employing a speedier option to complement the skill sets of the behemoths up front. Barnett fits that mold, but he’s also looked at as possibly the third-best defensive end, so is the value truly there when you’re taking a player who’s down in the positional rankings with the ninth overall pick?

Given his size (6’3”, 291 pounds) and possible ability to shuffle along the line and get to the passer, Alabama’s Jonathan Allen fits the Bengals’ mold. Questions on his availability remain though.

Possible impact of unproven players on the roster:

We already mentioned Billings, who has all of the measurables to be a good NFL defensive tackle, especially when flanked by Atkins, but he’s coming off of major knee surgery and we have yet to see him play a professional snap. Peko has been a valued member of the organization since his arrival in 2006, but it seems to be Billings’ time to shine in 2017.

Another young player the Bengals appear to be high on, even though he has barely seen the field himself, is Marcus Hardison. A college defensive end who got to the passer often, Hardison has added weight to his frame as the Bengals converted him to an interior lineman. Still, his knack for getting to the opposing quarterback could make him a bigger version of a Gilberry/Rucker/Fanene type of player in certain packages.

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