When Bengals training camp gets underway at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky., next week, all eyes are going to be on The Ocho, his band of receivers trying to find an NFL niche, and that big tall guy wearing No. 9 throwing the ball to them.
But don’t sleep on the defensive side of the ball. There is just not one massive roster fight, but three and they are led by the position that used to always come up last in such discussions.
“We don’t want to be the ones where everybody is always frowning on us,” says Frostee Rucker, one of those new breed of Bengals down linemen that can play anywhere at any time. “We have a good cast. If we all play like we did in the OTAs and minicamp, we’re going to make decisions hard for the coaches.”
It already is and the first practice is still 10 days away.
With one of those new breed, defensive end
That would then allow them to keep the standard 10 defensive backs and give them 25 players on defense in an even split with the offense to go with three specialists.
“Our defense is stacked. We’ve got a lot of linebackers and a lot of DBs and they don’t want to go anywhere,” Rucker says. “It’s going to be a real competitive camp and we should see a lot of big plays throughout the whole preseason.
"That’s what it’s looking like. We just want to continue to set the tone and be the force on the team. We’re all hungry. We’re not satisfied with any of the rankings because we know it doesn’t mean anything right now.”
Which means for the first time since - when? - there is going to be a group of talented linemen cut. Rucker can tell you. He has quietly been around and is coming off an even quieter career year. He arrived in 2006 when the starting lineup had Bryan Robinson and Justin Smith at end and Sam Adams and John Thornton at tackle. Four years might as well be 40. Rucker has seen the old (Shaun Smith) and the new ($30M man
“And it’s just not young guys,” Rucker says. “I’m going into my fifth year. Robert (Geathers) is going into his seventh. So are Tank and Antwan. These are guys in the prime of their careers.”
Rucker, the 6-3, 280-pounder out of USC, should be there, too. At 26, he’s finally healthy for training camp (his second since his rookie year) with the confidence of a club that gave him a new deal in March. He’s coming off a career-high 12 games, 22 tackles, a sack, and a bunch of big plays that contributed to the defense’s No. 4 NFL ranking while moving between end and tackle. After the spring practices finished last month, he went home to California for a week and came back to Cincinnati to work out.
“This is five years. I’ve been through it. I’m not worried about being on the bubble,” Rucker says. “It’s about maturity. Knowing exactly what’s expected of you. I know that being able to play up and down the line brings value and to play at a high level brings even more. That’s what I’m trying to reach.”
Rucker can play tackle on passing downs and end on first down and, really, anywhere on the line if needed. Even though he was limited in his first three seasons with play time and injuries, he developed a reputation for making a high ratio of plays to snaps. Last year in the absence of the injured Odom he led the line with four tackles against Baltimore at home, picked off a deflected pass in Pittsburgh that was the turning point in the 18-12 win, and had four pressures of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
“You don’t even think about the numbers (of players) heading into camp,” Rucker says. “You control what you control. So many things can happen during a season with injuries and everything else. You just have to stay ready.”
A brief look at the Bengals defensive line heading into camp, not counting SAM linebacker Michael Johnson:
No. 67 DE Rahim Allen, 6-3, 251, R: A free agent out of LSU who has some pretty good quickness but it looks like he’s playing for a practice squad spot.
68 DE-DT Jon Fanene, 6-4, 292, 6th season: Just gets better and better. Very strong and athletic. Had a career-high six sacks last season when Odom went down and can line up at end or tackle as a rusher.
92 DL Frostee Rucker, 6-3, 285, 5th season: One of these guys that doesn’t have great stats but when he plays he always seems to do something big and positive. And since he can play both end on first down and tackle on passing downs, his versatility is a big plus.
94 DT Domata Peko, 6-3, 318, 5th season: Don’t know when it will happen, but he’ll be the first Bengals Pro Bowl defensive lineman since Tim Krumrie in the late ‘80s. Nearly led all NFL DTs in stops in ’08 and his knee injury in the last month of the season shows how much the club missed his athleticism and upper body strength against the run.
96 DE Carlos Dunlap, 6-6, 277, R: Great size and speed. Good enough measurables to be a second-round pick but he’ll have to sell the coaches on his down-to-down intensity once the pads go on.
97 DT Geno Atkins 6-1, 293, R: Fourth-round pick with first-round nickname. “Taz,” as in the Tasmanian Devil because he’s flying around and never stops. The coaches raved about his quickness as a pass rusher from the inside during the spring. But there is some concern about his small size and his ability to be able to fight off holds and other offensive line techniques. But there is no question the Bengals think they may have a gem here with a kid that’s got great makeup.
98 DE Antwan Odom, 6-5, 280, 7th season: NFL sack leader with eight when he went down with a ruptured Achilles in last season’s sixth game. Got back in time for the spring and there were some encouraging words about his ability to push off, the key for any pass rusher. Most of his sacks were when he went inside on third down, making the additions of Johnson and Dunlap in the past couple of drafts intriguing.