I may be in the minority, but I am more excited about the defensive line than any other position on the team. These nine guys will be the heart of the team, causing confusion for QBs and headaches for OCs. Even though they were already a good unit in spite of a couple of free agent losses, the Bengals still made themselves even better in the offseason.Safeties Starter On The Roster Camp Battle Long Shot Carlos Dunlap
Michael Johnson Robert Geathers
Brandon Thompson Jamaal Anderson
Derrick Harvey Nick Hayden
This will continue to be a unit that sees heavy rotation with plenty of capable players to man the trenches. Imagine opposing linemen with steadily climbing snap counts as they see this group stay fresh and rested as they swap guys every couple of plays.
Not only will the defensive line keep the team in games, but they will also play the role of closing pitcher, shutting down the other team’s offense to seal the victory or make room for the dramatic comeback. They will be fun to watch as they frustrate opponents all season.
Starter: Carlos Dunlap
Carlos was awarded a nice honor by being pointed out by ProFootballFocus for having the best performance among all 4-3 DEs in 2011. He has spent two years learning behind “Uncle Geathers” and should be ready to take over as the starter. (And look for him to put a decent dent in the extra salary cap space that the Bengals have right now next offseason.)
Starter: Domata Peko
Going into his 7th season, Peko has been a stabilizer on the field and in the locker room through all of the highs and all of the lows that this team has endured after Carson Palmer’s knee got Kimo’ed in Jan 2006. He has often drawn double-teams, allowing others to rack up the stats. I will be very interested in how he handles the rookies as they emerge and push for his starting gig. I am sure it will be with total class, but it also will not be easy, even though they will extend his career by reducing the wear on him.
Starter: Geno Atkins
Atkins was also given big props by PFF as he made the list of top 10 performances by DTs three times, singlehandedly matching the number of appearances as the entire NFC. He is a wrecking crew unto himself, and he will be an ideal model for Still and Thompson. (He will be making his own dent in Mike Brown’s wallet before too long.)
Starter: Michael Johnson
Last week’s assertion by Johnson that he and Dunlap “can be one of the best tandems in the league” might be posturing for a group of coaches who were displeased with his performance in 2011, or it may demonstrate a renewed focus now that he is the incumbent at the position. I hope it is the latter because, if it is, he could be right, leaving little room for the opposing backfield to hide.
Backup: Robert Geathers
Geathers has never come close to matching his 10.5 sacks from 2006. (He has only 9.5 sacks in the past four seasons combined.) But that does not mean he has not been a contributor. He has an important piece of the run defense for a number of years. However, as he enters his 9th season overall and the final of his current contract, and with Dunlap having emerged as a true force, a changing of the starting guard is inevitable. The big question for Geathers will be whether the Bengals try to bring him back next season or are content to let him go and draft another DE.
Backup: Pat Sims
Sims takes more flak from fans than I think he deserves, and the cracks in the run defense last year after he was lost to injury would argue in my favor. He is not flashy and does not get his name called a lot, but he does what he is supposed to do: plug holes and make RBs bounce around in the backfield.
Backup: Devon Still
I am really excited about what this kid will bring to the D-line. I truly believe that Still has the potential to be almost as big of a force as Geno Atkins against both the run and the pass. That will take time, of course, and he will have to pay his dues in the rotation. This is not a guarantee, but I will not be surprised if he replaces Peko as the starter sometime this year. I can’t wait to see the 3-pronged trident of Dunlap-Still-Atkins spearing and tearing offenses into quivering, cowering, sobbing shreds of humanity.
Backup: Brandon Thompson
Thompson was an absolute mauler in the running game at Clemson, which will get him onto the team, but his work in the passing game needs to improve quite a bit. I look for him to be one of the eight guys who gets deactivated early in the season, but he will see eventually get PT as the inevitable knicks and dings claim a victim. If the Bengals lose Sims to free agency next year, he will claim that spot.
Camp Battler: Jamaal Anderson
For the position of backup to Michael Johnson, Anderson would seem to be the early front-runner because last year he was beginning to show flashes of the potential that made him a top-10 pick. Learning for a year behind Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis ain’t a bad thing either. Everyone — Anderson, Harvey, the team, and most importantly the fans — will benefit from a hard, spirited roster battle between Anderson and Harvey all summer.
Camp Battler: Derrick Harvey
Harvey was selected one spot before the Bengals took Keith Rivers in the 2008 draft, and I recall a few Bengals fans hoping to see Harvey draped in orange and black that year. Which guy looks like the bigger bust now? It has to be Harvey by a nose. But I like the thought of giving Harvey some time with Mike Zimmer and Jay Hayes to peel back the layers of disappointment to see if they can bring back to light the guy who turned heads with Urban Meyer’s Gators. If he cannot edge out Anderson, a year on the PS might yield a low-cost, first round replacement for Robert Geathers.
Long Shot: Nick Hayden
Pure and simple, Hayden is the victim of numbers. He is not going to unseat any of the other five DTs listed above. Unless the Bengals look to trade him like they did with McDonald last year, he is facing either the practice squad or street status.
Of all the guys who make the roster on defense, the ones in this group will be the once that give Todd Haley, Cam Cameron and Brad Childress the greatest concern. This group will elevate the play of the entire defense, lifting them above the #7 overall defense from 2011. And the more playmakers that the coaches can sift out of the back 7, the more that group can raise the level of the D-line by giving them time to rip and tear.
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