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2023 Bengals Position Preview: Defensive Line

This defensive line has the potential to dominate in 2023.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports

Not only are the Cincinnati Bengals returning a talented corps of defensive linemen, they are adding a crazy-athletic first round pick on the edge as well.

Myles Murphy? He’s got two first names!

The Bengals have been runners-up in the NFL and in the AFC, respectively, over the last two seasons. Now there is only one goal on everyone’s mind, and “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

The Bengals have the potential to have a dominant defensive front, and that would go a long way toward bringing the Lombardi to the Queen City.


  • None

Key Additions:

  • Myles Murphy (First-Round NFL Draft Pick)
  • Tarell Basham (Free Agent)

Primary Roles:

  • Defensive End: Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Joseph Ossai, Myles Murphy, Cam Sample, Tarell Basham, Jeff Gunter, Raymond Johnson III
  • Nose Tackle: D.J. Reader, Josh Tupou, Jay Tufele, Domenique Davis
  • Defensive Tackle: B.J. Hill, Zach Carter

The Cast

Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson return as the starters on the edge for the Bengals’ defense. Joseph Ossai was the third man in the rotation in 2022, adding a bit of pass-rush juice on third downs. If Lou Anarumo wants to go fast, Ossai and Hubbard can be used as interior pass-rushers as well, adding more speed to the defense in what some call the NASCAR package.

This year rookie Myles Murphy will be added to that mix as well. Murphy has pass-rush potential. but where he really shines is stopping the run. Expect to see him in place of Hendrickson on early downs, allowing Hendrickson to save his energy to Shake N’ Bake with Hubbard in passing situations. Murphy will also likely be a part of the aforementioned NASCAR package as the team looks to develop him as a pass rusher. It’s exciting to think what it would look like to get all four on the field together.

But enough about Ricky Bobby, Cal Naughton Jr., Walker, and Texas Ranger. There are other edge defenders on this team. Cam Sample played a large role as a rotational player last season, and rookie Jeff Gunter looked promising prior to the injury. The team also brought in veteran Tarell Basham, who has a lot of unrealized potential.

More on this trio later. For now, let’s move inside.

Largely due to the pass-game-impact bias, D.J. Reader is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. He is a key piece who really makes the defense work in Cincinnati. Reader and B.J. Hill will continue to lock it down on the defensive interior, and Josh Tupou will join them when the teams runs odd fronts to stop the run.

The defensive line is well-suited for the AFC North and stopping fierce rushing attacks like they have in Cleveland and Baltimore, but they lack a strong interior pass rush.

Sacks are not the end-all-be-all of pass-rush effectiveness, but I will use them as an example here to make things more clear. The Bengals defense had 12 fewer sacks in 2022 compared to 2021. Some pundits have blamed Hendrickson, who had 6 fewer sacks in 2022 than the previous season, but the bigger problem was the loss of Larry Ogunjobi. Ogunjobi had 7 sacks in his lone season with the Bengals. Without him, they have not been able to generate much interior pressure.

With Hendrickson, Hubbard, and Ogunjobi on the prowl, there was no escape. Hendrickson and Hubbard can fold the pocket in on itself, but without interior pressure, the quarterback can step up and avoid the sack. Hendrickson and Hubbard didn’t regress, they just didn’t have the same support on the inside. The Bengals didn’t do anything to address this need this offseason, but maybe that’s because the answer is internal.

Zach Carter does not fit the profile that the Bengals generally look for in a defensive tackle. The 2021 3rd Round pick is listed at a mere 290 pounds on the team's roster. He had some impressive moments as a rookie, but most of them were as a run defender.

In fact, he only registered half a sack for the season. While his rookie season does not overwhelm you with confidence that he can be the key to generating more sacks, it’s important to remember that we didn’t see that much of him last year, but the coaching staff sees him every day.

While the Bengals front office is too disciplined to throw a pile of money at veteran defensive tackle out of desperation, they are pretty good about bringing in value players with unrealized potential. In fact, that’s exactly what Ogunjobi was. The fact they did nothing leads you to believe they think they can have an answer in-house. It could be a heavy reliance on edge versatility and a NASCAR package, or it could be Carter.

Ideally, defensive line coach Marion Hobby will get Carter all jacked up on Mountain Dew and have him coming at quarterbacks like a spider monkey.

Battles to Watch:

Cam Sample vs. Jeff Gunter vs. Tarell Basham

The Bengals would love to have Sample, Gunter, and Basham, but it’s doubtful they’ll find room for all three. Ironically, it’s a good problem to have. They have accumulated a lot of talent and will be forced to make some tough cuts.

Sample made a notable impact last season, but he was primarily used as a run-stopper on the edge. With Myles Murphy stepping into that role, Sample could be expendable. He has some experience on the inside, and that versatility could be what saves him, particularly if he can show some pass-rush potential from that position.

A 2022 seventh-round pick, Gunter was the August darling of many fans. He showed some potential as a pass rusher and is particularly adept at twists. In order to make the cut this season, he will need to show some major physical and developmental steps.

Just like Ricky Bobby putting a Fig Newton ad on his windshield, the Basham signing was very on-brand for the Bengals. He was a relatively high draft pick who has yet to find his footing in the NFL. When the team is likely to keep only two of three players, it is easy to count out the new guy, but I believe they have a plan for Basham.

Myles Murphy vs. Developmental Curve

Murphy has been billed as a developmental guy, but when the ball is snapped he isn’t just standing there saying, “I don’t know what to do with my hands.” Murphy can play, but he hasn’t reached his peak just yet.

That’s alright. That’s why you have coaches.

Although there is a talented trio of Hendrickson, Hubbard, and Ossai in front of him, I don’t see Murphy taking a red-shirt year like Dax Hill a year ago. We are going to see Murphy more and more as the year goes on, and the more we see of him, the better. Murphy is the future, but with a little fine-tuning in his pass rush, he could be a major part of this year’s Super Bowl run.

Joseph Ossai vs. Demons

Joseph Ossai was a big part of the team’s success in 2022, but at the end of the AFC Championship Game, he had a bad moment. I’m walking a Ricky Bobby, “Yep, through the air, this is not good,” kind of moment.

How will he respond?

He can’t let a temporary lapse in judgment prevent him from going fast again. He’s got to get back out there and establish himself as a dominant piece of the Bengals pass-rush puzzle.

The Dark Horse Devonnsha Maxwell vs. the Odds

Undrafted free agent defensive tackle Devonnsha Maxwell could be a diamond in the rough.

He’s 6’2”, 296, and was a dominant pass-rusher at Chattanooga. He had 37.5 sacks over the course of his career. He led the Southern Conference in sacks three times (12 sacks in 2021, his best season) and is the all-time leader in sacks for the conference.

While his production was impressive, Maxwell does have three rather large strikes against him. His production did not come at a high level of competition, he is not a particularly gifted athlete, and he is 24 years old. Still, keep an eye on him when the pads start crunching.

2023 Outlook

With the addition of Myles Murphy, the Bengals have excellent depth on the outside. Anarumo will find a way to use every piece he has and keep Hendrickson and Hubbard fresh for key moments of the game.

D.J. Reader is a force to be reckoned with on the inside, and B.J. Hill and Josh Tupou each bring unique skill sets to the table, but something is missing. The Bengals really need to find a way of generating consistent interior pressure from a base defense.

In my opinion, that needs to be Zach Carter. I don’t expect him to be a world-beater, but if he can generate somewhere in the neighborhood of half a dozen sacks, that would have a huge impact on this team. I think he is fully capable of doing that in Year 2.

The Future

Yes, even in an article about the defensive line, we have to mention Joe Burrow’s contract, but it’s not just him. The Bengals have a long list of upcoming free agents, including D.J. Reader and Josh Tupou. There isn’t much in the developmental pipeline behind them, so if the Bengals can’t work out a deal, that could be a big problem.

They have done a better job of adding youth and depth on the edge. While not a pending free agent, Trey Hendrickson currently has a cap hit of $17.5 million for the 2024 season, but cutting him would only incur a cap hit of $2.5 million. The Bengals are known for letting contracts play out, but that could definitely be changed with Burrow’s deal.

Joseph Ossai enters his third season and could be on the precipice of a breakout year. Myles Murphy could also take the reins and be The Magic Man by the end of the year (same initials), saying, “Now you see me, now you don’t to offensive tackles.”

Change is coming, and depth on the defensive line will need to be built back up inside and out. This year, however, they could be really fun to watch.

*If you haven’t seen the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, I apologize for this article making little sense.