There have been ebbs and flows to Marvin Lewis’ head coaching reign with the Cincinnati Bengals, but one thing most can agree on is his ability to find effective defensive tackles. Sure, there have been rental free agency deals on guys like Sam Adams, but Lewis and his staff have used a number of mid-round draft picks on guys who have become some of the better players under his watch.
Geno Atkins has become one of the best players in the entire NFL and was a fourth-round pick, while Domata Peko, another fourth-round pick, played 11 seasons for the team. Pat Sims, another productive player who is beginning his eighth of 10 NFL accrued seasons with the team, has been a valuable member of many stout Bengals defensive units. And Brandon Thompson has also contributed after being selected in the same round in 2012.
However, this year, the crowded interior of the defensive line will be marked with some changeover to youth. Last year’s fourth round pick, Andrew Billings, appears to be the front-runner to fill the vacancy left by Peko and a number of other mid-round and undrafted talents from the past few drafts are clamoring for a roster spot as training camp starts in a few short weeks.
Roster locks: Geno Atkins
Players to watch: Andrew Billings, Ryan Glasgow, Pat Sims, Marcus Hardison, DeShawn Williams, David Dean, Brandon Thompson.
Potential wild card: The 350-pound Josh Tupou. A pre-draft scouting report from NFL.com had Tupou as a potential Round 5 or 6 pick in April, even though the Bengals nabbed him after he went undrafted. He is now listed on the team’s roster at 25 pounds over his college weight, and his size could be effective as a run-stopper in the tough AFC North.
Early Outlook: This is going to be one of the most heated competitions in camp and one that is so hard to predict right now. Like the situation at wide receiver, might the team go heavy at the spot with so much high-potential talent, while skimping at another position?
For now, one might be inclined to believe that Billings, should he flash the same way in this year’s camp, will be in on early downs next to Atkins with others rotating in often. But, who will those other guys be?
The position is really split into two types of players: the quick penetrators and the mammoth lane-cloggers. Dean, Hardison, Williams and Glasgow fit the former category, while most of the others like Tupou, Billings, Sims and Thompson hover around the 330-pound range in the latter category.
Even when the Bengals seemed to have a very stacked roster, some late-round and/or undrafted players have snuck their way onto the final roster. This may be a position where that happens but guys like Dean, Williams and Tupou will really need to shine more than a productive guy who Lewis trusts like Sims or Thompson.
It seems as if the training camp battle at defensive tackle will come down to versatility and who makes it out of August healthy. Because of those two factors, a lot of eyes will be on Hardison during the next two months.