There was a time when the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive line was among the best in the NFL. From 2011-2013, the unit ranked top 10 in the NFL in total sacks, but then fell to dead last in 2014. The team rebounded, ranking 10th best in 2015, but was down again to 19th in 2016. A big reason for that has been inconsistency at the defensive end position. Left defensive end Carlos Dunlap has been an absolute monster and a stalwart at his position, but losing Michael Johnson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014 was devastating. He returned in 2015, but hasn’t been the same since leaving. Going forward, expect the Bengals’ defensive end position to change drastically — save for Dunlap — and, within the next few years, be virtually unrecognizable from the 2016 version.2016 roster.
As previously discussed, Dunlap is the one player keeping this unit from falling apart. In the last three years, he has totaled 172 total tackles, 29 sacks, 20 pass deflections, seven forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries, which have kept the Bengals’ defensive line afloat, despite little help from the rest of the unit. In 2016 alone, he recorded 30 total tackles, eight sacks, 15 pass deflections, and three forced fumbles. He has proven the Bengals were right to extend him during the 2014 offseason.
Status: Still on the team
A few years ago, Johnson was one of the Bengals’ most promising defensive players. From 2011-2013, he racked up 150 total tackles, 21 sacks, 17 pass deflections, three forced fumbles, and three interceptions. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a huge payday with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his time in Tampa Bay and he was back with the Bengals the following year. Things haven’t been the same since he originally departed. He recorded in 2015 only 42 total tackles, five sacks, two pass deflections, and three forced fumbles. In 2016, he regressed further to only 45 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, three pass deflections, and no turnover stats. He has two seasons left with the team under contract, but he will need to step his play up if he doesn’t want to be replaced by a younger, more promising player.
Status: Still on the team.
The Bengals made Hunt the 53rd overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, based on his potential as an athletic freak. It’s not that he failed to impress during his college career at SMU, but he was a project player with a lot to learn if he wanted to make it at the NFL level. After all, he had never played football in his life until he walked on to the team at SMU. After four years, he never developed the way the Bengals had hoped and only recorded 28 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, and three pass deflections, in addition to a few blocked kicks. Needless to say, the Bengals were willing to accept failure on this project and did not re-sign Hunt this offseason.
Status: With the Indianapolis Colts
The Bengals’ other development project at defensive end, Clarke, has only been marginally more productive than Hunt. Once compared to Johnson, the thought was he would learn for a few years before taking over a starting role. In three years, he has recorded 22 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, and two pass deflections. 2017 is the last year of his rookie contract and he will need to step it up big time if he wants to return in 2018. He’s expected to make the team, but is not a lock to make the roster, in the final year of his deal.
Status: Still on the team
The Bengals made a mistake in letting Gilberry sign with the Detroit Lions last offseason. Granted, he didn’t even last half the season before he succumbed to injury and was released from Detroit as a result. The Bengals picked him up for the final nine games of the season and in the five games during that time in which he played, he put up 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks. That’s not bad for a 32-year-old career backup who looked done halfway through the season. He won’t be a key part of the Bengals’ plans going forward, but he should help supplement production at defensive end.
Status: Still on the team
Jordan Willis drafted in Round 3
Defensive end was one of the Bengals’ biggest needs heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, but the team elected to shore up the offense in the first two rounds. The first defensive player taken was Willis, a defensive end out of Kansas State. He brings a very refined technique to the Bengals’ pass rush that you don’t often see from rookies. He’ll have some work to do when it comes to the timing of his rush and he could stand to be a more direct tackler, but if he develops as expected he could push for Michael Johnson’s roster spot in the next year or two.
Chris Smith traded away from Jacksonville Jaguars
The Bengals’ first move for an outside player in 2017 wasn’t exactly a big splash, but it was a low-risk, high-reward trade. Smith was drafted by the Jaguars with the 159th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and his production so far reflects that positioning. His numbers are comparable to Clarke’s with 19 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, a pass deflection, and a forced fumble. But, what is notable is he did all of that despite only being active for 19 games during the last three seasons. Don’t expect him to make a big impact with the team this year, but he could make a push for Clarke’s roster spot.
The Bengals’ shed the most disappointing member of the defensive end corps (Hunt) during the offseason and brought in a much more well-developed player (Willis) in his place. The Bengals either need Johnson to step up or for another player to take his place for maximum effectiveness, but the team’s edge rush will always be a threat when Dunlap is on the field. Gilberry and Smith should provide stability as backups, while the team waits to see if Clarke will finally step up and whether Willis can threaten Johnson’s starting role.