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2018 Bengals position review: Defensive line

Without extensions for Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, this would be a completely different offseason, but the defensive line still has some concerns.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The perceived biggest asset on the Bengals’ roster entering last season, the defensive line endured a wild season of ups and downs.

Their two best players received contract extensions before Week 1 and proved early on that they were still at the top of their game, but the injury bug that plagued Cincinnati took residence in this position group more than most.

The majority of the unit is still very young, and Cincinnati is in a great position to add talent this offseason without losing much in the process. Here’s what it looks like right now.

Key players:

  • Geno Atkins
  • Carlos Dunlap
  • Carl Lawson
  • Andrew Billings
  • Michael Johnson
  • Sam Hubbard
  • Jordan Willis
  • Ryan Glasgow

2019 potential free agents:

  • Michael Johnson
  • Josh Tupou
  • Adolphus Washington
  • Kasim Edebali

2018 Summary

Prior to the start of the season, the Bengals managed to work out extensions for their two most established defensive players in defensive end Carlos Dunlap and defensive tackle Geno Atkins. This was an impressive move for the Bengals, who set out from the beginning of the offseason to get this done.

Dunlap had a decent 2018, recording 8 sacks. It was a disappointing sophomore season for Carl Lawson across from him. First off, Marvin Lewis stuck to his word about not having a larger role for Lawson in year two. Lawson had 8.5 sacks in limited snaps as a rookie in 2017. In 2018, he had a lot of QB pressures, but struggled to get home on his pass rushers. He only recorded one sack in seven games before being lost for the season with a torn ACL.

The Bengals played around with a few players for the dual role of early down edge player/interior pass rusher. Veteran defensive end Michael Johnson played the run well, but did not impress as a pass rusher. Jordan Willis failed to establish himself in the role in his second season as well. The Bengals also tried to use rookie Sam Hubbard in this role, but the injury to Lawson forced them to play him more outside later in the season. He looked much more comfortable on the edge and ended up finishing the season third on the team with 6 sacks.

Atkins was the team’s sack leader with 10, and even at the age of 30, he continued to be one of the best interior pass rushers in the league. Andrew Billings looked very capable next to him, and Ryan Glasgow was impressive in a very much abbreviated season.

2019 Outlook and Need

Extending Dunlap and Atkins was a huge move for the Bengals. The duo is now 30-going-on-31 years old, and could see a drop off in play over the next few years. Dunlap is now under contract through 2021. Atkins is signed through 2022, but the Bengals have a potential out in 2020.

The Bengals will hope to grow Lawson into a dominant pass rusher, but it is concerning that he has now torn both ACLs in the span of a few years. Hopefully Lawson can recover and stay healthy in 2019, and new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo can find a way to make him a defensive centerpiece in his third year.

Hubbard will continue to have a large role, and the team will likely continue to try moving him inside and out. Johnson is a free agent, but seems like someone who could definitely be back.

At defensive tackle, it will be good to have Glasgow return and see what rookie Andrew Brown can do. Billings played well, but is primarily a run stopper.

The Bengals still need a second interior pass rusher to couple with Atkins. This could be a need they look to address in the middle portion of the NFL Draft, but they have come up short so far drafting Willis and Hubbard in the 3rd round in 2017 and 2018 respectively, It may be time to take a bigger swing at filling this need.

Overall, teams can never have enough good pass rushers. Just look at how the Eagles built and continue to build their defensive front. They added notable players like Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata to an already talented group. The Bengals should view the position the same way if the opportunity presents itself.