Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in an eight-part series previewing the Cincinnati Bengals draft needs by position group. Today’s look is at the defensive line.
Roster (contract length): Defensive Ends – Carlos Dunlap (2018), Michael Johnson (2018), Wallace Gilberry (2015), Margus Hunt (2016), Will Clarke (2017), Sam Montgomery (2016); Defensive tackles – Geno Atkins (2018), Domata Peko (2016), Brandon Thompson (2015), Devon Still (2015), Pat Sims (2015), Kwame Geathers (2016).
Analysis: The return of Johnson marked one of the most important free-agent signings in Bengals history.
Not only did it give the team a top-tier edge rusher to put opposite Carlos Dunlap, it’s a move that comes without all the standard questions of whether the guy can learn and fit the system, as well as fitting into the locker room.
It also has a tremendous ripple effect as it moves Gilberry back to the reserve, 30-snaps-per-game role where he excelled in 2012 and 2013.
Johnson’s return also comes at a discounted price thanks to Tampa Bay still owing him $7 million. And on top of all that, the Bengals get an extra third-round compensation for “losing” Johnson to the Buccaneers.
But there still are plenty of questions on the interior of the defensive line. Can Atkins return to Pro Bowl form? How much does Peko have left? Can Still balance his daughter’s cancer battle and football well enough to live up to his second-round draft status? Is Thompson capable of taking the next step and pushing for a starting job or is he destined to be a role guy? And can Pat Sims be more than just a big — a really big — body in the middle?
The Bengals believe they have a pretty good idea what those answers are, and how soon in next week’s draft they start adding tackles will be a strong indication of what they are thinking.
The Bengals haven’t drafted a defensive tackle since 2012 when they took Still in the second round and Thompson in the third. Never in the Marvin Lewis era had they gone back-to-back drafts without addressing the position, so it’s clear that will be a focus.
Needs: The Bengals need to infuse some youth at defensive tackle. The question is how soon. While it appears to be one of their more pressing needs, there is plenty of quality out there, which could tempt the Bengals to take some early passes.
There are eight defensive tackles projected to go in the first two rounds, something that hasn’t happened since 2011 with teams loading up in the secondary to defend the pass-first trend offenses are moving toward. Landing one of those eight should be a priority, so the question will be how many are left when the Bengals are up in the second round with the 53rd overall pick.
The return of Johnson gives the Bengals a quality group of ends, with the proven Dunlap, Johnson and Gilberry and the promising Hunt and Clarke. But you can never have enough edge rushers in today’s game, so going after a guy in the mid to late rounds shouldn’t be out of the question.
With the top two ends, USC’s Leonard Williams and Missouri’s Shane Ray, expected to be long gone before the Bengals pick at 21, and with the greater need being at tackle, let’s focus on the top interior guys in the prospect watch.
Top 5 prospects
1 . Danny Shelton, Washington
An Academic All-American with a nose for the ball, Shelton had five fumble recoveries and 16 tackles for loss for the Huskies last year. He would be an ideal fit for those run-dictated December games in the AFC North.
2. Arik Armstead, Oregon
He’s listed as an end, and at 6-foot-7 with long arms, he fits the prototype of a Bengals edge rusher. But some scouts see potential for Armstead to move inside, and that kind of versatility is something defensive coordinator Paul Guenther would love.
3. Malcolm Brown, Texas
A finalist for both the Bronco Nagurski (outstanding defensive player) and Outland (top interior lineman) trophies, Brown made a huge leap last year at Texas and is seen as a player who still has a huge upside.
4. Eddie Goldman, Florida State
Explosive and powerful, Goldman is exactly the type of run plugger the Bengals will be looking for. The only knock on him is limited pass-rush ability, but that would be aided by Atkins taking on double teams.
5. Michael Bennett, Ohio State
The Bengals haven’t drafted a defensive player from OSU since taking Dan Wilkinson first overall in 1994, but Bennett could be their target in the second round. He’s known for his great burst and violent hands, while the only knock is he tends to get fatigued easily. But that’s something that might not be as big of an issue with the way the Bengals rotate on the D line.
David Parry, Stanford
Parry plays with a mean streak from years of having to prove people wrong. The former walk-on is projected as a third-day pick primarily because of his shorter, stubbier arms and legs. But another Bengals defensive tackle whose unconventional build caused him to slip to the fourth round has turned out just fine with Atkins going to three Pro Bowls.
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