Veteran defensive linemen Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson have seen plenty of faces come and go in the Bengals defensive line room.
Through all the turnover in the front four, the trio has a combined 18 seasons of starting experience together. 2009 was the turning point for the Bengals defense going from the cellar to the ceiling of the NFL; and Johnson’s arrival that year, followed by Dunlap and Atkins joining him in 2010, were huge factors in the defensive revival under former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
It’s hard to believe for a young person like me that Johnson’s 11.5 sack season was six years ago, and that Atkins and Dunlap are 29 and 30 years old respectively. All three long-time starters are entering the final year of their current contracts, and there’s a minuscule chance that all three will return in 2019.
By all accounts, 2018 is Johnson’s last year in Cincinnati. There’s always the outside chance he would return on a one-year deal as a reserve, but we should treat this season of his as his farewell tour. The plan is for the team to extend both Atkins and Dunlap before the start of the season, but they will likely be the last major deals the team gives to each of them.
In preparation for Johnson’s exit, the Bengals have actively invested in young depth at defensive end, and also seemed to snag a true backup to Atkins at 3-technique. Most of them will be counted on as critical depth in base and nickel packages, and since Atkins nor Dunlap have agreed to extensions yet, they all could be starters in some capacity in 2019.
Unless you want to count last year as cornerback William Jackson’s rookie season, Carl Lawson had the most impressive rookie season for a Bengal since A.J. Green’s Pro Bowl rookie year. Leading all members of the 2017 draft class in sacks with 8.5, he made Pro Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie team, and proved he probably shouldn’t have lasted as long as he did in the draft.
Averaging just under 30 snaps a game last year, Lawson was used almost exclusively as a pass rusher off the right edge of the defensive line. Due to his short frame, Lawson struggled against the run when he did have to set the edge and shed down blocks, which matched the overwhelming majority of his college tape.
Becoming at least a serviceable run defender is crucial for Lawson to take the next step and become a three-down starter, but he has the necessary qualities that can help him become an outlier for an edge with his frame.
For starters, he focused his training this offseason on gaining upper body strength and appeared noticeably more muscular when he arrived for OTAs (see picture above). That added vigor coupled with his already advanced hand usage should yield to better performance against the run, it’s up to him to start showcasing it as soon as possible.
The edge defender drafted before Lawson last year, Jordan Willis, was almost the opposite of Lawson in 2017. He got on the field specifically because of his proficiency against the run, and made little to no impact rushing the passer due to a lack of refinement in his process.
Willis has upper-tier athleticism for his size. His advanced ankle and hip flexibility makes it easy for him to stay under blocks and control the point of attack, as well as getting low and rotating his torso while running the arc on a speed rush. He does a good job of keeping his hands above his eyes to maintain leverage, but when setting up a pass rush, he’s often late and unprepared. This where Willis has to make a leap forward this year.
Because of his experience playing at right defensive end on base downs late in the year, Willis will also have a chance to compete for that starting spot over Johnson and Lawson. How he fares against new left tackle Cordy Glenn as a pass rusher will be something to monitor to see any progress he’s made this offseason.
Sam Hubbard joins Willis and Johnson this year as one of the five defensive ends drafted in the third round since Johnson was drafted 70th overall in 2009. As a cog in Ohio State’s ultra-productive front four, Hubbard produced at a modest rate compared to how much the entire team did in his three years playing for the Buckeyes. His explosion, flexibility, and technique-versatility are going to make it tough to keep him on the bench too long.
Because he’s a rookie, we’ve only heard, not seen, where Hubbard will spend most of his time on the defensive line. There was buzz that he could push for reps inside on 3rd down and effectively fill the vacancy Chris Smith left behind, and if he does, he may be the favorite to win that role. Ideally, he’s given a shot to make some noise there, and is Dunlap’s reserve at left defensive end. What defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has him doing over the next few weeks will be an intriguing question.
The player likely to play the least, if at all, of this group is Andrew Brown. A fifth-round pick, Brown is likely behind four defensive tackles as camp begins, the starters in Atkins and Chris Baker, with Ryan Glasgow and Andrew Billings behind them. The advantage for Brown however, is he’s the only true 3-technique besides Atkins out of that group.
During the week of the Senior Bowl, Brown was practicing as a 1-gap penetrator and turning heads each and every day. He spent his time at Virginia playing over the tackle as opposed to being a true interior pass rusher, and the move closer to the center did wonders for him. That’s where he’ll continue to work on his craft, and if he shows enough, the Bengals may end up carrying 10 defensive lineman.
There’s justified optimism surrounding the collection of talent the Bengals defense has up front. The future appears bright for the unit to continue to anchor the defense with most of its familiar faces leaving, or entering the second half of their careers.
Once the pads come on a few practices into training camp, we’ll get to see how talented their depth has become.