The second half of the Bengals’ 2016 season saw a thundering resurgence on the defensive side of the ball, but it ended on a similar note as in year’s past in regards to getting to the quarterback. It’s been eight years since Michael Johnson, the most experienced defensive end on the Bengals roster, was drafted by Cincinnati. And during those eight seasons, only twice has the Bengals defense finished a season with at least one of their defensive ends recording a double digit sack year. In 2012, it was Johnson with 11.5 sacks, and in 2015, it was Carlos Dunlap with 13.5.
Johnson and Dunlap have been great foundational pieces for the defense, but in the Bengals’ efforts to invest in players to complement and/or replace them, the findings have been lackluster to say the least. In 2013, the Bengals drafted the 6’8” Margus Hunt in the second round of that Draft, and a year later, they selected 6’6” Will Clarke in the third round of that Draft. In the 79 combined games Hunt and Clarke in which they played, the duo combined to record a total of 6 sacks. There should be a noticeable pattern here.
There’s an undeniable fact that the Bengals’ Draft selections at defensive end have led to a clear lack of depth. Prioritizing size and physical requirements over ability and translatable skills at the position has not worked. By getting some very solid years out of Johnson, and with Dunlap being one of the best 4-3 defensive ends in the league, the Bengals became content with going after the same body type and upside both players possessed coming out of college, in hopes of striking gold twice more. The problem is, the dominant edge rusher doesn’t look like a skyscraper in today’s NFL.
There were 16 players, all edge rushers, who finished the 2016 regular season with 10 sacks or more. The average height and weight of those 16 players?
6’3” and 258 pounds.
The tallest two players were Joey Bosa and Chandler Jones, who both stand at 6’5”, and only one player, Bosa, weighs more than 270 pounds.
Now I know what most of you are thinking... most of those players are outside linebackers or play in 3-4 defenses and wouldn’t fit in the Bengals’ traditional even man front. And you’d be right.
My question is, why is that a good thing?
If the reason why the Bengals refuse to bring in smaller and quicker edge rushers is because they don’t fit the mold of their traditional ends, then why are they still using that size requirement as a make or break tool? Shouldn’t the Bengals want to evolve with the rest of the NFL? And it has nothing to do with being a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense, which are both very outdated terms.
This Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI, and it will feature the league’s leading pass rusher in Vic Beasley, who stands 6’3” and weighs 246 pounds. (The Falcons deploy a four man front with all four having their hands in the dirt too by the way).
Were the Falcons thinking out of their minds taking Beasley with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft because he didn’t “look” the part of a traditional even front edge player? Or, did they take him because they realized he has the proper tools and capabilities to win at the next level, regardless of his size.
My money is on the latter.
The list doesn’t stop at all after Beasley. Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Markus Golden, Lorenzo Alexander and Dee Ford all had vastly productive years as edge rushers, and none of them are an inch over 6’3”.
I understand the retorts to this, because not all great pass rushers do well in terms of run defense and setting the edge. But being tall and therefore having a long wingspan to go with it, don’t equate to using those assets well in terms of countering against run blocking. You could say the best two run defending edge players in the game are Mack and Brandon Graham, and neither have particularly long arms.
Does it look like Graham’s size and lack of arm length impacted his play here?
This is in no way saying that having size at defensive end is a bad thing, look no further than Dunlap himself. But the aspect of only targeting players with preferable size at the position, and therefore glossing over smaller and better players in the process, is where the issue lies.
It shouldn’t be about how big a player is, and saying he’d fit into the scheme because of what he looks like and could be. It should be how that player plays for that size, and utilizing his strengths. If the recent trend of successful edge rushers doesn’t tell you that, nothing will.
I can’t know for sure that the Bengals haven’t been recently interested in smaller edge players, but what I do know is they haven’t been interested enough.
The Bengals need a pure pass rusher on the edge, and he doesn’t HAVE to be a towering human being. The team has more than enough size at defensive end on the roster, and in a great edge rusher class with players like Derek Barnett, Carl Lawson, Tim Williams, Charles Harris, Takkarist McKinley and many others, the Bengals have a great opportunity to add diversity to the position, and in turn, add a new dimension to their defense. But, the team can only do that if it’s willing to deviate from the norms that put them in this hole to begin with.