Roster Projections is a series that’ll look to break down and discuss each of the Cincinnati Bengals’ position groups, then project how they’ll look at the end of the 2018 offseason. In this series, we’ll look at players’ 2017 seasons, analyze them as they currently are, and predict how they’ll spend 2018 with the Bengals. The sixth edition of this series will cover the Bengals’ defensive ends.
A dominant pass rush has become a must-have for NFL teams with the league’s movement towards pass-heavy offenses. If a team wants to have a playoff level defense, they must have a strong group of edge rushers. In the 2018 Bengals’ defensive end group, there’s an intriguing mix of youth and veteran leadership. They must find a way to efficiently deploy their talent from recent drafts alongside the stalwart veterans.
Carlos Dunlap is the clear-cut leader of the group. He’s the most consistent sack artist among the defensive ends since being drafted in 2010. His 7.5 sacks in 2017 don’t jump off the stat sheet, but Dunlap’s myriad contributions aren’t always easily measurable. Constant quarterback pressure, stonewalling opposing run games, and all-around consistency don’t appear in the box score. He should enjoy another solid campaign in 2018 as this group’s leader.
The starting spot across from Dunlap has become a bit of a question mark heading into the season. Michael Johnson is the incumbent starter, but he’s regressed with age in recent years. He’s still an incredible run defender, but doesn’t bring much rushing from the edge. Last season, we saw Johnson periodically line up as a defensive tackle in nickel packages. With the other options the Bengals now have at end, we’ll likely see Johnson there even more in 2018.
2017 third-round pick Jordan Willis and 2018 third-round pick Sam Hubbard should see those snaps at end. Willis saw plenty of playing time last season, subbing for Johnson on certain downs or through other players’ injuries. Willis showed himself to be a freakish athlete at his NFL Combine, but his on-field ability has yet to catch up. His reaction time off the snap must improve this season if he wants to avoid offensive tackles locking him down. Additionally – on plays where that happens especially – Willis might have an issue with effort.
Effort will never be an issue for Sam Hubbard. The rookie is technically sound, very intelligent, and a ‘hustle’ player. Not giving up on plays is among the things he was most known for at Ohio State. Hubbard has seen time in camp as both an edge rusher and an inside rusher in nickel packages. Look for him to make a splash in both of those roles in the 2018 season.
The rising star of Cincinnati’s edge rushers is undoubtedly 2017 fourth-round pick Carl Lawson. The 6’2″, 260-pound wrecking ball tallied 8.5 sacks last season despite playing less than half of the Bengals’ defensive snaps. Lawson only came in on passing downs, but was an impact player on just about all of them. Fans are clamoring for him to see more of the field, but the Bengals don’t seem enthused about overexposing Lawson. Perhaps the pass-rush specialist finds a bigger role in 2018, but it won’t happen out of the gate.
As things currently stand, these are the only five defensive ends on the Bengals’ roster. It’s overwhelmingly likely that all five make the team.