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Bengals must draft a defensive end by end of Round 2

The Bengals’ most pressing need is in the pass-rushing department and drafting a defensive end by the end of Round 2 must be the goal for Cincinnati.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Jets William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals will have several pressing needs entering the 2017 NFL Draft, but none more important than in the pass-rushing department.

After this was a strength of the Bengals in 2015, the pass rush regressed mightily last season. The team was only able to muster up 33 sacks through 16 games after yielding 46 sacks across 17 games (including playoffs) in 2015.

The drop in sacks and lack of pass rush came as a surprise after Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins combined for 24.5 sacks in 2015. The duo combined for a respectable 17 sacks in 2016 while playing at a high level, but they got very little help from the rest of the front seven.

Michael Johnson has just 12.5 sacks during his last three seasons, a far cry from his 11.5-sack campaign in 2012. The 30-year-old no longer looks like a suitable starter, even if he’s playing second fiddle to Dunlap.

But really, the Bengals were hurt most by having no help off the bench. Margus Hunt and Will Clarke were the two bench guys for most of the year, but they could only combine for four sacks, all of which came from Clarke. Wallace Gilberry did provide a late-season spark with 2.5 sacks, but at age 32, he doesn’t have much left in the tank. He was re-signed this offseason, but, the Bengals would be better off finding an upgrade for him in addition to Hunt who is now on the Indianapolis Colts.

The good news is this is shaping up to be a great draft for pass rushers, something the Bengals desperately need to upgrade this offseason. Between Stanford’s Solomon Thomas, Michigan’s Taco Charlton, Tennessee's Derek Barnett and Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, there should be an instant-impact defensive end on the board when Cincinnati is on the clock in Round 1.

Round 2 should also provide several pass-rushing prospects if one isn’t taken in Round 1. Guys like Ohio’s Tarell Basham, Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker, Missouri’s Charles Harris, and Kansas State’s Jordan Willis are all guys who could be in the running for Cincinnati’s 41st overall pick.

But after that, you’re looking at a bunch of projects who could end up being no better than Hunt, Gilberry of Clarke have been. There’s a chance one of these aforementioned guys fall to Round 3, but it’s not worth banking on.

One of the more promising guys who could be there in Round 3 is Derek Rivers, but can the small-school stud be an immediate upgrade to an NFL team?

Rivers should eventually add to that after he racked up 36 sacks over the last three seasons. While a lot of that came against FCS competition, that’s still an absurd number that should have him on Cincinnati’s radar. CBS actually have ranked 84th overall and grades him as a Round 2-3 prospect.

You’ve also got a big group of tweener-type pass-rushers who probably would be 4-3 outside linebackers in Cincinnati. We’ve seen teams adopt a hybrid role in their defense that sees 4-3 outside backers move to their more natural defensive end position on obvious passing downs.

Auburn’s Carl Lawson, UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley, Alabama’s Tim Williams, Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt, and Louisville’s Devonte Fields could fit that bill. But those kinds of players need a year to make that transition, so it’s hard to see them making an instant-impact for a team in desperate need of instant-impact pass rushers.

The Bengals could even add a pass-rusher in free agency that could be an upgrade over Gilberry and Clarke. Guys like Trent Cole, Paul Kruger, Dwight Freeney and Devin Taylor could all help this pass rush, even if guys like Freeney and Kruger are on their last legs.

And there’s always an outside chance at an in-house candidate rising up and having a breakout 2017 campaign. Marcus Hardison was a promising pass-rusher when the Bengals spent a fourth-round pick on him in 2015, but injuries have kept him on the sideline since then. If he could just stay healthy, Hardison should be a nice boost to the pass rush after racking up 10 in his final year in college.

Ryan Brown showed some promise last preseason as an undrafted free agent out of Mississippi State. He eventually landed on the practice squad, so he’ll have some experience in the system heading into the 2017 season.

But for now, the likeliest answer to this issue will come in the draft. This is a draft full of guys who can come in and make this defense better at pressuring quarterbacks, so hopefully they land the right one(s) throughout the draft.