This move has been expected for over a week now after the Bengals failed to sign any defensive ends in free agency, while also losing backup Margus Hunt to the Indianapolis Colts. That put the Bengals in a position where they were almost forced to bring back Gilberry to have some semblance of depth at the position this offseason.
Gilberry was actually more effective than Hunt or fellow backup Will Clarke last year, despite the veteran not joining the team until November 3. That came after a failed stint with the Detroit Lions that led to him being released off of I.R. after landing there with an abdominal injury.
In four games games played with Lions last season, Gilberry made just three tackles. In five games played with Bengals, he registered eight tackles, 2.5 sacks and several QB hurries.
For the season, Clarke and Hunt combined for four sacks, and all four came by Clarke, three of which were recorded in the first four games. Their shortcomings are why the Bengals brought back Gilberry, and he rewarded them with good production in the limited snaps he got.
However, Gilberry is now 32 years old and clearly on the decline, so it’s unlikely his new deal will have much, if any guaranteed money, giving the Bengals the chance to easily cut him if they add more pass-rushers in free agency and/or the NFL Draft. This is a loaded class for pass-rushers, and it’s possible the Bengals grab several with their 11 picks.
Now entering his 10th season out of Alabama, Gilberry joined the Bengals midway through the 2012 NFL season after being cut that year by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 14 games, Gilberry would become an impact player on the Bengals defensive line while racking up 6.5 sacks and 24 tackles in his first season with the team.
Gilberry helped the Bengals finish with the sixth-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed before re-signing with the team the ensuing offseason. He went on to record 7.5 sacks and 24 tackles across 16 games (2 starts) in 2013 while helping Cincinnati finish third overall in total defense.
But Gilberry was doing the bulk of his damage as a situational pass-rusher who also would line up at defensive tackle on passing downs. That role faded away when Michael Johnson left in 2014, forcing Gilberry into a starting role, in which he struggled badly. In 16 starts that year, Gilberry had just 1.5 sacks and 48 tackles as the Bengals finished 22nd in total defense.
Once Johnson re-joined the Bengals in 2015, the thought was Gilberry would go back to his old role, and become similarly effective. But, that wasn’t the case as he struggled to make an impact. In 16 games in 2015, Gilberry had just two sacks and 23 tackles while struggling to generate pressure via the pass rush.
For now, Gilberry is probably the first pass-rusher off the bench behind Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, which tells you just how thin this position is right now. Gilberry will look to hold off Clarke and 2016 practice squad defensive lineman Ryan Brown for playing time next season.
It also helps that Gilberry gets occasional reps at defensive tackle, and that opportunity may increase with Domata Peko now in Denver. My early guess is Gilberry makes the 53-man roster, but that can quickly change depending on how the draft goes, not to mention there are other defensive ends that could be signed later this summer when they won’t affect next year’s compensatory picks.