With key starters like Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler and Dre Kirkpatrick set to hit the free agent market very soon, Cincinnati has many questions surrounding the team. One decision the team doesn’t need to make surrounds a less heralded players, Brandon Thompson, who after spending the entire 2016 injured, remains an intriguing figure for the team and will see his 2016 contract roll over to 2017, preventing him from hitting free agency.
The former third-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft torn his ACL in the final game of the 2015 season, but was still signed to a one-year contract last offseason. With a very modest salary, the Bengals could afford to carry him on the Physically Unable to Perform and Injured Reserve lists, and after not being activated, he’ll remain under contract for 2017. The Bengals can either keep him for $775,000, per Over the Cap, or cut him and not owe him a cent.
While the Bengals will hopefully see Andrew Billings healthy for next season after missing his entire rookie campaign, Domata Peko is a free agent and he’s been too ineffective when on-the-field for too long. Pat Sims is under contract for one more year, but none of his salary is guaranteed and the Bengals can clear more than $1 million in cap space by releasing the veteran. Geno Atkins remains one of the best tackles in the NFL, but depth is shaky at best behind him. Other names, like DeShawn Williams and David Dean are not sure things, and Marcus Hardison has yet to play one single game two years after being drafted, due to injury.
The Bengals coaching stuff clearly values Thompson, as they know what they have in him and they were willing him to keep him even during a long rehab the saw him miss the entire 2016 season. Coming out of Clemson, Thompson’s best asset was his ability to stop the run. Cincinnati was clearly planning years ahead in 2012 when they picked him and fellow defensive tackle Devon Still in the second round. While Still never panned out, Thompson actually found a niche after replacing Atkins when he went down with a torn ACL in the 2013 season, even leading the Bengals in tackles in their Wild Card loss to the Chargers with eight.
Thompson was never the kind of double-team eater the Bengals fancied for their nose tackles though, so they were never comfortable with him taking over Peko at that spot and even bringing back Sims from Oakland. He was also unlucky with injuries, as in 2014, fresh off backing up Atkins in their Playoffs run, he missed five games, and then he and Sims alternated activations in 2015.
While never being elite against the pass, Thompson has always been quick and athletic for his size, and an impressive force against the run. That athleticism could be lost for good after his terrible injury, as it’s really hard for a big guy to recover from a torn ACL. Without his quick first step Thompson could be in real trouble to get a push in the trenches, and the Bengals don’t need a guy with that type of issue. Still, Thompson is only 27, and will be more than one year removed from his injury when training camp starts. Meanwhile, Peko and Sims are already on the wrong side of 30.
Ideally, the Bengals draft another defensive tackle with one of the 11 picks they will have, preferably one that can rush the passer, while keeping one or two of their veterans as mentor and security blanket for Billings. If Thompson can play, he should get a chance to compete for that spot. In 2014 he showed flashes of his potential as run-stopper, and that would have come in handy last season. Per ESPN:
It was during the 2014 season when he played a key role in the Bengals' rushing defense. According to ESPN Stats & Information, in games when he wasn't on the field that year, the Bengals allowed 4.6 yards per rush. In games that season when Thompson was on the field, the Bengals allowed just 3.1 yards per carry.
Since his contract allows him to remain with the team this year, Thompson will have this summer to attempt to show the Bengals he still has that run stuffing ability that was on display before his injury. With no guarantees in his deal, the Bengals have a great opportunity to see if Thompson can be a contributor on the team this year, with little downside attached to the situation.
We know the Bengals value familiarity, as we saw during their bye week last season when the team added Wallace Gilberry back to the roster. Thompson fits in with the team nicely, and the coaching staff has always seemed to like him. After re-signing with the team last offseason, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther made his feelings on Thompson clear. “Brandon has helped us get where we are and he will keep getting better. He’s been raised in our system, and it’s another case of being glad to bring back a guy who has shown he’s very coachable to do things the right way,” Guenther said.
The Bengals can use Thompson’s veteran experience for depth and as plan B in case Billings needs time to develop and make a comeback from his injury. Thompson should get a strong look, considering what he could bring to the table before his injury. I’m no doctor, but after signing him in 2016 so he could recover in town, the Bengals probably know he can still be a factor. The 20st highest-ranked rushing defense by DVOA could have used a player like Thompson last year. Now, we’ll need to wait to see just how much he can provide to the Bengals moving forward.