For years, the Bengals’ defensive line has been one of the team’s bigger strengths. Since the mini-rebuild during the 2011 offseason, the Bengals have recorded top 10 sack totals in four of those six seasons. The team experienced lapses in 2014 (20 sacks - last in the NFL), and weren’t particularly impressive in 2016 either (33 sacks - 19th in the NFL).
If the Bengals can return to a state of competitiveness on the defensive line, the entire defense should improve. The Bengals’ best two seasons since the 2010-11 mini-rebuild were 2013 (11-5) and 2015 (12-4), two seasons which featured solid play from the defensive line. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the 2016 season (6-9-1) frequently showcased poor play from the defensive lineman not named Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. Two players can’t do it all, and the Bengals were rarely able to rely on Domata Peko, Michael Johnson or any of the backups to make a significant impact rushing the passer.
Two of the last three years, sandwiched between the 42 sack (10th in the NFL) 2015 season, have seen the Bengals’ defensive line take a downturn. From 2011-2013, the defensive line was dominant, that it often didn’t seem in need of attention. That was reflected in the Bengals’ draft strategy, only selecting four defensive linemen in the first three rounds of the draft since 2011 (Devon Still, Brandon Thompson, Margus Hunt, and Will Clarke). Of those players, only Thompson and Clarke are still with the team. Of those players, only Thompson has recorded any starts during his tenure with the Bengals, and only he and Clarke remain on the team.
Two other draft picks the Bengals have spent on defensive lineman, 2015 fourth round pick Marcus Hardison, and 2016 fourth round pick Andrew Billings, have yet to play a game with the team, both due to injuries. Undrafted free agent DeShawn Williams has managed to make an unexpected impact on the roster as a backup, but he alone has not made enough progress for the defensive line, as a whole, to remain competitive.
Heading into 2017, the Bengals’ starting lineup on the defensive line appears to be Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, and Pat Sims (or Billings). While Atkins and Dunlap are both high-performing Pro Bowlers, Johnson and Sims have been uninspiring since returning to the team after brief free agency departures. And, Billings has no NFL experience. A badly torn meniscus ended his rookie season before it began and 2017 will essentially be his rookie season 2.0. Hopefully Billings and maybe Clarke, too, will develop into starting-caliber players at some point, but the jury is still out.
That’s why it is imperative for the Bengals to focus on adding quality players to the defensive line. A position that was once seen as one of the most solid on the team has been allowed to decay from neglect and injury, making it a paramount draft priority. At first glance, free agency departures from under-performing players like Domata Peko and Margus Hunt seem like a good thing, until you realize they were part of the glue holding the unit’s depth together.
If the Bengals have a chance to draft a top defensive end prospect with the No. 9 overall pick, there should be no question before selecting him. A guy like Solomon Thomas, Derek Barnett or Taco Charlton could develop into an excellent partner for Dunlap at defensive end, while guys like Malik McDowell or Caleb Brantley would complement Atkins perfectly at defensive tackle.
Furthermore, with 11 picks in the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft, the Bengals should have plenty of opportunity to, at the very least, build depth on defensive line. More depth should push guys like Billings and Clarke to continue to develop as starters, and potentially even push a guy like Johnson to improve his overall performance. It would be great for Johnson to work through his issues and return to his 2012 form when he put up 11.5 sacks, 52 tackles, 2 pass deflections, 1 interception, and 1 fumble recovery in one season. But, free agency moves and injuries have contributed to derail his career and toward the end of 2016, he seemed far removed from what he used to be.
However, assuming Johnson continues to perform the way he has performed during the last two seasons, the Bengals will need to come up with a replacement plan for the 30-year old defensive end. The upcoming NFL Draft is loaded with talent on the defensive line, so Johnson will need to step up his game soon if he wants to keep his job. For the same reasons, the Bengals shouldn’t have much trouble replacing the depth lost by letting Peko move to the Broncos.
Between the talent currently on the roster and the players available in the NFL Draft, the Bengals have opportunities to improve the defensive line and ensure the unit returns to the threat it used to be. With Dunlap and Atkins already in place, the team just needs a few other players to step up and reach the potential the Bengals see in them.