The Cincinnati Bengals’ front seven experienced significant turnover this offseason. The team lost three starters in Karlos Dansby, Rey Maualuga, and Domata Peko. And though the hope is for their replacements to become instant-upgrades, it remains to be seen how the Bengals’ front seven will perform in 2017.
With lingering questions surrounding the unit, it can be easy for analysts, like Louie Benjamin of Pro Football Focus, to underestimate the Bengals’ rebuilt unit.
Benjamin ranked all 32 team's front seven units heading into the 2017 season and ranked the Bengals at the bottom of the group as the 23rd best front seven in the NFL. This is a group that boasts Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict, yet, PFF sees it as one of the NFL’s worst front sevens in the league.
23. The Bengals are solid at seemingly four of their front seven positions. Geno Atkins, Vincent Rey, Vontaze Burfict and Carlos Dunlap all graded at an 83.7 or higher last season, and each ranked in the top 15 of their respective positions. Cincinnati brought in LB Kevin Minter from Arizona who had a career-year as they’ll hope he can keep that up. Outside of the aforementioned players is where the Bengals struggle. Michael Johnson graded out as the 105th ranked edge defender, out of 109 qualified EDs. Wallace Gilberry and Pat Sims who each finished with their worst, and second-worst graded seasons, respectively, last year. Can one of their rookies or second-year players emerge for Cincinnati?
Clearly, with new additions like Minter, Carl Lawson, Jordan Willis, Ryan Glasgow, and Jordan Evans in addition to returning talents who were out in 2016 like Brandon Thompson, Marcus Hardison, and Andrew Billings, this is an easily debated perspective. You can see why PFF would be skeptical of the Bengals’ line with so many young, untested talents thrown into the mix, but at the same time, there are many key veterans, which Benjamin alludes to.
At linebacker, second-year player Nick Vigil is expected to take over Dansby’s vacated starting role. All reports from the Bengals’ camp so far have been positive, and Dansby struggled last year anyway; there’s reason to believe the athletic second year linebacker could be an upgrade over the veteran who returned to the Cardinals this offseason. PFF already noted Minter’s potential, and Burfict rounds things out to highlight a very encouraging starting linebacker corps in 2017. Furthermore, Rey is available to fill in should something go wrong with those positions.
Along the defensive line, Peko is already gone, forcing the Bengals’ hand on putting a young, inexperienced player next to Atkins. Billings was highly touted coming out of college, but his ability in the NFL remains to be seen. Sims is the logical veteran option, although Benjamin already specifically pointed him out as a reason to be skeptical of the unit. But, could it really get worse than how Peko played last season?
It’s unlikely all three of Johnson, Gilberry, and Sims make the roster and have the freedom to continue to underperform with so much young talent chomping at the bit. Sure, Johnson has been entrenched in a starting role with the Bengals every year he has been in Cincinnati, save for his rookie year. But, Willis has the talent to steal snaps from Johnson and push him to perform better. Johnson will need to do so if he wants to keep his job.
It’s impossible to deny the Bengals have a lot of questions regarding their front seven. But, tagging them as one of the worst units in the NFL seems silly. The unit performed poorly in 2016, as did the rest of the team, but, that is why these changes were so important.
Is the Bengals’ front seven a bottom 10 group in the NFL? It doesn’t seem like it. Basing a ranking off of the projected impact of incoming players can be difficult, but the sheer amount of talent from the veterans in addition to what guys like Willis and Lawson bring to the table should be enough to put the Bengals, at the very least, in the middle of the pack. That’s especially true considering teams like the Jets, Buccaneers, and Titans all rank ahead of Cincinnati on this list.