In any business, you're always looking for a competitive edge and ways to improve even the strongest areas of your organization. Since 2009, the Bengals' defensive line has been one of the strongest points of their team and consistently one of the best in the NFL. Uncoincidentally, Cincinnati has six postseason berths in that seven-year span, proving with the Broncos' Super Bowl win this year that defense still wins championships.
Even with two Pro Bowl players on the line in end Carlos Dunlap and tackle Geno Atkins, the Bengals are facing major depth questions on the defensive line. While every starter from 2015 is under contract and three of the four inked until the end of the decade, Cincinnati has built its defensive beast with a solid rotation. Age and free agency are threatening the group that was a linchpin to their 12-win season in 2015.
What are the issues and how do the Bengals cope?
Atkins aside, this might be where the Bengals need to place the most attention this offseason. Domata Peko, though coming off one of the best years of his career, is going to be 32-years-old in the middle of the season and is in the last year of his deal. Behind him, Pat Sims and Brandon Thompson are both impending free agents, so the depth is a bit thin. If they both leave, unproven second-year players DeShawn Williams (who flashed in preseason) and last year's fourth round selection, Marcus Hardison, are the highest-slated remaining bodies.
It's also thin at the position in the non-traditional sense. The Bengals love versatile pass-rushers and have gone after the bigger ones who can get pressure off the edge or kick inside at tackle and disrupt on passing downs. Wallace Gilberry is one of those players and he is also slated for free agency. The Bengals believe both Will Clarke and Hardison will be able to supply similar skill sets, but the former hasn't progressed as far as they hoped, while the latter didn't appear in a regular season game in 2015.
After arriving in 2012 with the designations of draft steals, the Bengals seemed to have struck out on Devon Still in the second and Thompson in third rounds of that class. I'm not sure they want to rent Sims again and Thompson might not be a hot commodity in or out of the Bengals' clubhouse, so they might foray in free agency for help, as well as the draft.
This years rookie class at defensive tackle is loaded with talent. Two Alabama big boys might go in the first round (A'Shawn Robinson, and Jarran Reed), along with Louisville's Sheldon Rankins, Baylor's Andrew Billings and Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche. Pairing Atkins with the one who complements him the best and rotating Peko in might be a nice upgrade to the line.
In free agency, we have to think "Bengals-realistic". Last year, they were pretty interested in Nick Fairley, but totally left him in the cold to pursue Michael Johnson. Fairley signed a surprising one-year deal with the Rams, after the Bengals made it seem like he was asking for the moon. He's set to hit the market again and had a nice 2015 as a rotating player, so he could be a nice addition to the group as well. There are some other intriguing names out there, but age and scheme fit must also be considered.
Defensive End and Edge Players:
In the NFL, you have to get to the quarterback--period. It's also imperative in the AFC North with the immobile Joe Flacco and the elusive-but-not-fast Ben Roethlisberger on the schedule a collective four times every year. Cincinnati has great size and strength along the line, but few of them bring the speed element.
Dunlap and Johnson are safe as the starters at end, but a speedy hybrid linebacker who can play in space and/or drop his hand in the dirt while the other big boys take on the blockers might be a useful gadget in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's toolbox. Noah Spence of Eastern Kentucky and Shilique Calhoun of Michigan State are of the slighter variety at defensive end in the 250-pound range, while another interesting Swiss Army Knife kind of guy is USC's Su'a Cravens. At Southern Cal, Cravens played safety, corner and came off the edge as an effective blitzer somewhat frequently.
In free agency, the Bengals could do their usual bargain hunts for additional help with discarded former high picks. Chris Long isn't who he once was, but he'll also be taking a major pay cut from the $12.5 million figure he was due this season. Long also wouldn't play in the team's compensation pick formula, which they seem to like. Former first rounders Adrian Clayborn and Jason Pierre-Paul might be available and are just 27 years old, but they come with respective issues.
Another name to keep an eye on is Houston Texans end, Jared Crick. He's coming off of two decent seasons, is 26 years old and might not have a big price tag. Crick might want a full starting gig and he has played in a 3-4 defense before, but still might not command a ton with other bigger names on the market.
In-house, it's a gigantic year for both Margus Hunt and Clarke. Hunt has particularly been given a lot of rope as a project guy, and the Bengals are surely wishing that new defensive line coach Jacob Burney can get more out of the huge Estonian than Jay Hayes could. Clarke was drafted after the Bengals lost Johnson to free agency, but he still hasn't shown enough to get on the field consistently. Either Hunt and Clarke take big steps this camp or some other acquisitions might be pushing them out on the street.