Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are two of the best players at their positions. And Michael Johnson is making too much to get cut or benched. But with Domata Peko now in Denver talking trash, that leaves one starting spot open on the defensive line.
Then there is the plethora of young players who are vying for backups spots, including Andrew Billings, Marcus Hardison, DeShawn Williams, Will Clarke, David Dean, Ryan Glasgow, Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson. So, who starts and who sees time off the bench?
We discuss in the following video:
All signs point to Billings starting at nose tackle in Week 1. Should he continue to stay healthy, coming off the meniscus injury that sidelined him for all last year, he’ll more than likely justify that decision. You can expect Billings to be given around the same number of snaps as Peko played last year, only with more production and effectiveness due to being younger and more talented. And Glasgow, if active on game days, will rotate in with Billings in those personnel groupings.
Perhaps the biggest competition will be for who comes on the field for Billings on third-down as the team’s interior nickel pass-rusher. Margus Hunt, now with the Indianapolis Colts, was handed that spot in the beginning of the season and predictably underwhelmed, so much that the team reunited with Wallace Gilberry in the middle of the year after he was released from the Detroit Lions for his poor performance. Gilberry has lost the step that got him a three-year deal with the team way back in 2013, but they brought him back anyway last year in free agency to add depth. Clarke got a shot, but didn’t do much better than the aforementioned two.
When it’s all said and done, that spot will come down to Clarke, Gilberry, Hardison, Pat Sims and Williams, with potentially the older two, Gilberry and Sims, fighting to even stay on the roster. Even Willis could get a shot if they feel he justifies receiving as many pass rushing opportunities as possible. Lost in that competition is Brandon Thompson, who at this point, can’t be counted on for anything, unfortunately.
Dean is an intriguing two-way player from last year’s preseason squad. He’s an enticing athlete who can play a pinch of 3-technique and 1-technique, but it’ll take a couple guys going down for him to have a real chance at a roster spot. Still, keep an eye on him this summer.
On the edge, things are more clear. Willis can be safely projected at strong-side defensive end behind Dunlap ,considering the vast majority of his snaps and production at Kansas State came from that side. Clarke figures to uphold his spot behind Johnson on the other side, mainly because Lawson will (in all likelihood) not be counted as a true defensive end. But make no mistake, Lawson is a pass-rusher through and through and will be used as such on obvious passing situations as opposed to Clarke, unless the fourth-year veteran unexpectedly becomes a late bloomer.
The Bengals have a lot of options now with essentially four talented rookies (Willis, Glasglow and Lawson plus the expected debut of Billings), no Peko eating up cap and playing time, and Hardison (hopefully) finally healthy. While Marvin Lewis tends to be as conservative as it gets when it comes to playing younger guys, don’t be surprised to see that trend change this year, for two reasons.
1. The defense clearly needed an influx of youth and athleticism. Thus it was no surprise Peko and Rey Maualuga were finally shown the door. While this largely happened this offseason because of cap reasons, it may also have to do with the changing demographic of the roster.
This is the first time in the Andy Dalton - A.J. Green era that the corps of talented contributors on the team is approaching 30. Believe it or not, Atkins (29-years-old) and Dunlap (28) are now wily veterans, both still extremely productive, but no longer considered young players. While, in the past, it might have made more sense for Lewis to rely on perhaps less talented veterans (one of whom seems to have forgotten he was lucky to be on the team... I’ll just say his first name rhymes with “stomata”) to help younger players break into the league, Atkins and Dunlap should now be fully capable of handling the locker room.
2. Judging by the aggressive approach in the draft, Lewis seems to be shooting for the stars in what may be his last chance with the team. Yes, he is basically like family to Mike Brown, but Lewis (now 58-years-old, and entering his 15th season with the Bengals) may not be able to find the motivation to continue if the Bengals suffer another deflating playoff loss — or even worse, don’t make the playoffs. After drafting high-risk/high-reward players like John Ross (injury concerns), Joe Mixon (public image concerns) and Lawson (injury) who can actually help right away, this may just be the season where Lewis lets loose and tries to put the most talented roster out there on the field, as opposed to the guys with whom he feels most comfortable. Of course, that’s a lot of conjecture. So we really won’t know what the defensive line will look like until well into the preseason or, more likely, Week 1 of the season.