Cincinnati Bengals: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown, Depth Chart Review
A new era is about to begin for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Gone is defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, off to finally and rightfully assume a lead role for a franchise. In his place is Paul Guenther, a first-time coordinator who has been with the franchise since 2005 as an assistant and is said to live by the same principles applied by his former boss.
Luckily for Guenther, the transition should be relatively smooth, with only one major loss this past offseason to speak of but seven new rookies to tinker with.
The importance of his unit's success cannot be overstated for a franchise that has gone to the postseason three years and running, primarily relying on the group to carry the team when it matters most.
It's early, but let's take a look at the depth chart and list the critical elements at each position before taking a deeper dive to figure out how each spot will play out.
Note: Depth chart based on the one provided by Ourlads.
Left Defensive End
The key cog for the Cincinnati Bengals defense is the deep rotation along the line that flusters opposing lines as the game wears on, although the effectiveness in this regard will be stressed next season.
For the purposes of actually nailing down a depth chart, second-year defensive end Margus Hunt makes the list here behind Carlos Dunlap, although he, like most ends on the roster, can play at any spot.
Of course, the spot primarily belongs to Dunlap, who got his act together against the run last season and wound up as the No. 9 overall 4-3 defensive end, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
For now, Sam Montgomery gets the nod on the depth chart because all other things pushed to the side, he remains an elite talent. Should he get his act together off the field, he'll play a critical role in the rotation next season.
Right Defensive End
The right side is where Michael Johnson spent the majority of his time for the Cincinnati Bengals before departing for Tampa Bay, and the void opens a world of opportunities.
Conventional wisdom says Margus Hunt and Wallace Gilberry will share time there, but coach Marvin Lewis loves his veterans and may want to get Robert Geathers on the field in certain situations. Will Clarke makes the list as a developmental piece who isn't likely to make a ton of contributions as a rookie.
The beauty of the roster, though, is that several names at linebacker can also put their hand in the dirt when asked, so even more possibilities are out there should Paul Guenther want to get creative.
Right Defensive Tackle
In Cincinnati, the 3-tech spot belongs to Geno Atkins once he gets healthy. One of the best overall players in the NFL a season ago before going down with an injury, Atkins registered six sacks and his loss had an obvious effect on the rest of the unit.
Devon Still has yet to break through in the little playing time he has received, but the potential remains there and he will get plenty of opportunities this preseason. Christo Bilukidi is an underrated young (24) name to monitor as a surprise entrant on the 53-man roster, should he have a strong preseason. He joined the roster last year to help fill the void when Atkins went down.
Domata Peko is far from done in the heart of the Cincinnati Bengals defense, folks.
Like it or not, Peko plays the run well at times and is a critical cog in a locker room that is still quite young despite postseason runs. He'll continue to be especially important in helping to develop the youngsters behind him.
One is Brandon Thompson, who for brief flashes last season looked downright dominant. He's a few years out from being able to hold a spot down on his own, but the talent is certainly there. Larry Black is a fan favorite after his dramatic injury on Hard Knocks a season ago, and he's a player who will make final cut day in the Queen City very difficult.
Strong-side linebacker is one of the more interesting spots on the roster this year, but let's clear the air on something first—Rey Maualuga isn't moving to the spot barring a drastic change, even if his best two years as a pro came there, not in the middle.
With that out of the way, the nod for now goes to the talented Emmanuel Lamur, who spent most of OTAs as the starter. The problem is Jayson DiManche certainly has enough talent to push for the spot, so there is a chance the staff decides to rotate the two quite a bit.
Brandon Joiner is quality depth who would play well enough in the system if the injury bug hit. The spot is rarely on the field in passing situations, so no matter who starts, they'll be protected if proved to be a weak link.
Let's also throw Marquis Flowers in here, although he may end up on the practice squad. The Arizona product is the staff's answer to Taylor Mays' injury, and like the former USC star, he can play the hybrid linebacker-safety role in certain packages. It wouldn't be the biggest upset in the world if he winds up beating Mays for the spot.
Like it or not, Rey Maualuga seems to once again be the man in the middle for Cincinnati—even if he did whiff on 14.8 percent of his tackle opportunities in 13 games a season ago, per Pro Football Focus.
Although the staff seems hesitant to make a full-on switch, Vincent Rey has certainly flashed the ability to be an every-down starter in limited appearances. He'll eventually break through somewhere, but for now, count on him to be a rotational or situational piece at each spot in the corps.
Local product J.K. Schaffer will remind some of former backup Dan Skuta, and that's nothing but high praise for those familiar with his elite special team skills output and ability to soak up quality starts when asked.
From former diamond in the rough most wouldn't touch to one of the best in the NFL at his position, there is not a soul on the Cincinnati Bengals roster who will steal the starting gig from Vontaze Burfict.
Ranked the No. 4 overall 4-3 outside linebacker a year ago by Pro Football Focus, he managed to rack up tackle totals like he plays in the middle (170 total last year) and was still sound in all aspects.
A fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft, Sean Porter is quite the unknown after landing on injured reserve last August, but one can be assured the coaching staff will keep him around based on potential alone.
For the sake of simplicity and the simple fact specific cornerback positions are always in flux depending on the situation, let's keep all of the corners on a single depth-chart sheet.
Leon Hall is the obvious No. 1 by definition, although technically he is Cincinnati's best slot corner. That said, coming off a second Achilles tear puts his future performance in a bit of doubt.
Terence Newman and Adam Jones, perhaps much to the disappointment of the fanbase, will see the field the most after Hall. Simply put, both are violent against the rush and have quality bodies of work. The coaching staff's affinity for veterans will shine at this position.
Dre Kirkpatrick is further along than Darqueze Dennard, although both will surely be used sparingly and the rookie overtaking the third-year player would not be some sort of jaw-dropping moment.
To round out the spot, Chris Lewis-Harris is criminally underrated and might start on other teams around the league, Victor Hampton is a wild card given his talent but iffy off-field status and Onterio McCalebb can make the final roster solely as a returner.
But hey, this is cornerback, the position that for the past few years has been routinely run roughshod by injuries. By the time the season rolls around it may look entirely differnt.
The safety position in Cincinnati is very much a rotation like the line in front of it.
Technically speaking, Reggie Nelson can likely be classified as a "free" safety, although he does it all within the confines of the Bengals scheme, whether that's blitzing, playing in the box or applying some sort of coverage.
Behind him, one has to think the staff will keep Shawn Williams around based on potential alone. Some snaps in running situations is not out of the quesstion.
George Iloka is the starter across from Reggie Nelson, although the two are interchangeable at any point in time. He's a better run defender than a coverage man, but he is still a rather young developing player at this stage.
Danieal Manning was brought on to act in the Chris Crocker role as an extra defensive back in passing situations, but can contribute against the run, too. Taylor Mays is the aforementioned hybrid player who will be all over the place, should he make the final roster (a common theme on both counts for the entire defense).