The Bengals’ pass rush was an issue for much of the 2016 season. The team was only were able to generate 33 sacks throughout the season after yielding 42 sacks in 2015. The tumble in sacks and lack of pass rush came as somewhat of a surprise after Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins dominated to combine for 24.5 sacks just among the two of them in 2015. The duo combined for 17 sacks in 2016, but got very little help from the rest of the front seven.
The down year for the defensive line impacted the rest of the defense as the Bengals struggled for much of the season and often looked vastly different from the elite 2015 defense that helped the Bengals to a 12-4 record.
In this year’s NFL Draft, netting a highly talented pass rusher should be a top priority for the Bengals. Rightfully so, Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin spoke about the position and the Bengals’ stance on drafting a pass rusher in 2017 at the NFL Scouting Combine this week.
“It’s one of the hardest positions,” Tobin said of evaluating prospects. “You have to fit it within your scheme. Are you willing to take an undersized guy? Do you want to take a full sized guy? How often is he going to play? Is he going to be in the linebacker room or the defensive end room? Is he on the line of scrimmage or is he off? Is he going to be off the field on first down and on the field on third down? Or is he an every down player?”
There are certainly a lot of questions the Bengals’ scouting department and coaches will need to answer and review when making their draft board and ranking the pass rushing options.
“Ideally the higher you take a guy, you want them to be an every down player,” Tobin said. “But it certainly is an area where we’re looking at heavily. We need to increase our pass rush and I think we’ll do that in the draft at some point.”
Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is excited about this year’s crop of pass rushing prospects, too.
“It’s as good a pass rusher draft that I can remember,” Guenther told Bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson. “As far as inside guys, outside guys, linebackers, where guys are well schooled with moves and hands.”
But, the Bengals have a specific look they usually opt for when it comes to defensive ends, and not every prospect fits that mold. Take for example that Michael Johnson is 6’7”, 272 pounds, Carlos Dunlap is 6’6”, 280 pounds, Margus Hunt is 6’8”, 295 pounds, and Will Clarke is 6’6”, 280 pounds. Are you noticing a trend? But, Guenther says he’s not set on sticking to that same mold in 2017.
“If that (guy) is 5’11” and he can get there, I don’t care,” Guenther said. “For our defense to play every down, head up on the tight end, the outside part of the tackle, you have to hold up on the run. If you can hold up, there are guys in the league playing at 255 (pounds), 260. Plenty of guys.”
That’s good news as the Bengals shouldn’t feel the need to constrain themselves to a player who fits one specific body build. As the NFL evolves, the Bengals need to evolve with it and more athletic pass rushers are becoming a dominant force in the league. If the Bengals draft a dominating, athletic pass rusher (and let him play), the defense as a whole has the potential to improve significantly in 2017.
“You’re just looking for guys that have the traits you’re looking for,” Guenther said. “You’re looking for guys with a long reach, but they also have to have the quickness and burst, too. Not many 6’5”, 6’6” defensive ends that can play at a high level. They wouldn’t get to us at nine.”
Guenther added that he believes a pass rusher who fits what the Bengals are looking for will be available with the No. 9 overall pick.
“Hell yeah,” he said.