Back in 2013, the Bengals had both Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap entering the final year of the their rookie contracts. Both players had established themselves as the two best on the defensive line, and it was the top priority for the team to sign both to new deals before they became free agents.
That summer, Atkins and Dunlap both agreed to five-year contract extensions that have kept them side by side and destroying offensive linemen ever since. They were modest deals at the time, and salary cap inflation diminished them even more as the years went on.
The defense wouldn’t have been prepared to lose either player the following season. The Bengals drafted a couple defensive tackles in Devon Still and Brandon Thompson the year prior, and just drafted defensive end Margus Hunt in 2013. Other than that, Atkins and Dunlap carried the pass-rushing unit up until that point, sans an 11.5 sack season for Michael Johnson in 2012.
It was very noticeable how differently the Bengals prepared for contingencies as Atkins and Dunlap again entered contract years in 2018. Because this time, the players weren’t at the beginning of their primes, they were in the middle of them.
Since 2017, the Bengals have added Carl Lawson, Jordan Willis and Sam Hubbard to come off the edge and Ryan Glasgow and Andrew Brown to rush up the middle. Lawson became a rookie sensation, and Willis and Glasgow began to grow into their niche roles as well.
The additions of Brown and Hubbard, a 3-technique defensive tackle and a strong-side defensive end respectfully, were clear contingency selections for Atkins and Dunlap, in case either player began the 2018 season without an extension and threatened to leave the team in 2019.
So what do these extension mean for the players on the depth chart behind Atkins and Dunlap?
For years, the team has failed to surround Atkins and Dunlap with talent on the defensive line. The aforementioned picks in 2012 and 2013 all busted. They drafted defensive end Will Clarke to replace Michael Johnson in 2014 and cut Clarke last year. They drafted defensive tackle Marcus Hardison in 2015 and also cut him last year.
Since then, the Bengals’ fortune in developing defensive lineman has switched and the team has added quality young talent to a group that now compensates its two best players at a worthy level.
And more opportunity is still on the horizon even with Atkins and Dunlap locked in for the foreseeable future. With those deals now on the books, it’s essentially guaranteed that Johnson is on the way out in 2019, which will vacate his starting spot at defensive end and nickel defensive tackle. Guys like Hubbard and Willis should be fighting for those jobs, pending on how they perform this year behind the veteran.
And Lawson, even though he’s not a starter in the base defense and may never will be, will still be able to provide efficient production on a per-snap basis.
For Glasgow and Brown, the release of Chris Baker prior to Atkins’ extension all but confirms their roles on this year’s team. Glasgow figures to be behind both Atkins and nose tackle Andrew Billings, and Brown will likely be a weekly inactive. Billings will also get to play next to Atkins for at the very least another year as well.
Brown is still very much an unknown and while Glasgow has shown to have improved his pass-rushing ability this preseason, the difference between Atkins and him is staggering. That’s why Atkins is (expectedly) getting one of the highest guaranteed amounts of any defensive tackle in the league.
The Bengals did more to prepare for the potential exits of their two best defensive lineman than they did last time around. The impact of losing both Atkins and Dunlap would’ve still been major regardless, but they also had every intention of extending both players for the second time in their illustrious careers.
The young guys behind them could be playing on sizable deals of their own by the time both leave for good. Until then, the unit will form one of the league’s best defensive fronts. And the Bengals never spent a first-round pick to build it.
The process is finally paying off.