Leading up to the start of training camp for the Cincinnati Bengals on July 29, we’re breaking down each position group.
Today’s look is at the defensive line, which has been one of the deepest and most talented position groups on the team the last few years.
>>>> RELATED: Offensive line preview
After going with just nine defensive linemen in 2014 and 2013, the Bengals kept 10 last year and are likely to do so again this season. There is a lot of young talent the coaches are high on, and if the team goes with nine that 10th player may not survive waivers to come back on the practice squad.
But whomever the 10th man might be, he could end up just being as place holder as tackle Brandon Thompson is likely to start the year on the Physically Unable to Perform list after tearing his ACL in the 2015 season finale.
Here are five things to know about the defensive line:
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap is coming off a record-breaking season that saw him earn his first Pro Bowl berth. Dunlap’s 13.5 sacks in 2015 were a modern-era franchise record, topping the 13 Eddie Edwards recorded in 1983. Coy Bacon had 22 in 1976 (14-game season), but that was before sacks became an official stat.
In six seasons, Dunlap has recorded 49 sacks, which ranks four on the Bengals career list. A repeat performance of 13.5 in 2016 would move him into a tie for second with Reggie Williams. Dunlap is still 33.5 behind Edwards for the most in club history.
Dunlap’s 13.5 sacks were fourth in the NFL and third in AFC last year, the highest-ever rankings by a Bengal (since the stat became official in 1983).
Geno Atkins returned to his Pro Bowl form in 2015, and his peers took notice. Atkins ranked 29th in the recent ranking of the NFL’s Top 100 Players, a list that was voted on by players. Atkins was the second-highest ranked defensive tackle behind St. Louis’ Aaron Donald (14th).
BENGALS NEWS NOW: Like our Facebook page to join the conversation
Coming off a 2013 ACL injury, Atkins had a disappointing 2014 season, but he had one of his best seasons in 2015 with 11 sacks, which tied for the NFL lead among interior defensive lineman. Atkins also was voted first team All-Pro by the Associated Press for the second time in his career and earned his fourth Pro Bowl berth. Only Lemar Parrish (six) went to more Pro Bowls among Cincinnati defensive players.
Atkins 11 sacks last year give him 43 for his career, which is a half sack shy of Justin Smith for the fifth most in franchise history.
Advanced analytics site ProFootballFocus recently ranked all 32 front sevens, which of course includes the linebackers as well as the defensive line, and the Bengals came in a middling 14th.
PFF’s Ben Stockwell wrote, “Geno Atkins’ return to his best form boosted the entire Bengals’ defense last year, but a lack of quality depth not only limits this defensive front, it also increases the risk of a fallback season if Atkins can’t replicate his top-tier play. On the defensive line, the likes of Michael Johnson and Domata Peko need to be pushed to improve—or pushed out of the lineup. Johnson was at least strong in run defense, but a lack of production as a pass-rusher put the pressure on Carlos Dunlap and Atkins to shoulder the load. At linebacker, the acquisition of Karlos Dansby (Browns) could improve the Bengals’ coverage in sub-packages, an area Cincinnati struggled with a year ago.”
Defensive end Margus Hunt, the team’s second-round pick in 2013, enters the final year of his contract with something to prove after injuries and slow development have resulted in him playing sparingly in first three seasons.
Hunt has appeared in 29 games with just 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks. A back injury forced him to miss the first seven games last season, and he only appeared in more than 15 percent of the snaps in a game once after his return (24 percent in the 37-3 victory against Cleveland in Week 13).
This also could be Domata Peko’s last season in stripes as he enters the final year of his contract. Even though the 32-year-old Peko is coming off a season in which he posted a career-high five sacks, the Bengals have several younger – and cheaper – defensive tackles behind on the roster, including this year’s fourth-round pick, Andrew Billings.
Peko has played in 102 consecutive game (including postseason), which is the longest streak on the team. His string of 101 consecutive starts ended with the wild-card playoff loss to Pittsburgh in January when he was on the sideline for the first snap as the defense began the game in a nickel package.