It would be fair to expect a drop-off in Carlos Dunlap’s game. He is the third-oldest non-specialist on the team, and the defense has struggled terribly over the last five years.
But that decline still hasn’t happened.
The Bengals’ defense has been stuck in a rut of despair since 2018. If you chose to just watch Dunlap, you may not have noticed. Despite his week-to-week inconsistencies, Dunlap brings an exuberance that goes well with his all-around ability as a three-down edge defender.
The Bengals’ only two wins last year were in games where Dunlap had more than one sack. He remains an anchor for a defense that finds itself in a rebuild, and could be for a few more years.
In a time when the Bengals want to overhaul the entire defense, Dunlap is one of the few pieces they don’t want to touch. He could be one of the few to bridge the gap between the past successes of the Marvin Lewis era and the bright future of the Zac Taylor era.
Hometown: North Charleston, South Carolina
Experience: 11 years
Dunlap is in the third year of a four-year extension, where he is expected to account for $10.988 million in cap space. His dead cap is at $4.5 million this season, according to Spotrac.com.
Since he was drafted in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Dunlap has been a prominent source of energy and production for the Bengals’ defense.
It took him a few years, but Dunlap finally became a full-time starter in 2013. Even though he wasn’t a regular starter, he still recorded 20 sacks in his first three seasons, including a whopping 9.5 as a rookie.
He made his first Pro Bowl two years later when he had 13.5 sacks, 16 tackles for a loss, and 34 quarterback hits. His second Pro Bowl season came the next year when he had 15 passes defended.
Over his 11 years in Cincinnati, he is the franchise leader in sacks, tackles for a loss, and forced fumbles. He is also seventh all-time in passes defended, which is impressive for a defensive lineman. His 13.5 sacks in 2015 is a single-season franchise record.
While Dunlap is on the wrong side of 30, he’s still got some football left in the tank.
He has already proved himself to be one of the best pass rushers in Bengals history. Depending on how you rank Geno Atkins, Dunlap may even be number one.
Either way, Dunlap and Atkins are undoubtedly the best one-two punch the franchise has ever seen.
While the defense has taken a nose dive in recent years, Dunlap’s performance appears immune. He has dropped off only slightly, even while the rest of the defense plummets.
In 2019, he recorded nine sacks, eight passes defended, 21 quarterback hits, and 63 combined tackles. That’s an above-average season for him, and probably his best since his consecutive Pro-Bowl stints.
As the Bengals’ defense improves, so should Dunlap.
The offense should get better, meaning the Bengals defense won’t have to be on the field for so many snaps, which is a problem that has plagued them for years.
Additionally, D.J. Reader will be the new guy in town and should open up some holes on opposing offensive lines. Take that with extra experience and comfort in the system for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and another year of development for Sam Hubbard, and you’ve got a deadly defensive line.
While he may seem expensive, he is only the 17th highest-paid defensive end in the league, according to Spotrac. Getting a Pro-Bowl caliber defensive end for only $11 million is actually a bargain.
Dunlap is aging, but the Bengals have no immediate plans to replace him. Hubbard will start on edge while Dunlap has the other locked down. For now, while Dunlap is still playing like the Dunlap we know, the Bengals can be confident in sending No. 96 after the quarterback.