Reason for optimism

Posted Jun 21, 2011

Carlos Dunlap

One reason Bengals fans are anxious for the lockout to come to an end is to see how last year's rookies build on their impressive first seasons.

Earlier Tuesday we posted a question on our Facebook page asking which second-year Bengal will have the greatest impact this upcoming season (yes, we are optimistic there will be a full season). Interestingly, at the time of this writing, tight end Jermaine Gresham and defensive end Carlos Dunlap had an almost identical number of votes atop the list.

"Carlos Dunlap by a long shot, if he can get the playing time...9.5 sacks with limited play...he was a beast at Florida, he's gonna be GODZILLA if given the chance as a Bengal!" said Bengals fan Tim Brown on Facebook.

It's no wonder Bengals fans are expecting big things from these two promising players.

By registering a sack of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the 2010 season finale at Baltimore, Dunlap finished with 9.5 sacks to break the Bengals rookie mark of 8.5 that had been set by defensive end Justin Smith in 2001. Dunlap had more than three times as many sacks as his closest teammate—rookie defensive tackle Geno Atkins was second at 3.0—and Dunlap became the first rookie to lead the Bengals in sacks since 1990, when linebacker James Francis had 8.0.

Dunlap almost led all NFL rookies in sacks last season. For roughly 30-45 minutes on Jan. 2, he achieved his late-season goal of passing Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for the sacks lead among NFL rookies. With 9:11 remaining in the third quarter of Cincinnati’s 1 p.m. game at Baltimore, Dunlap dropped Flacco for an eight-yard sack, increasing his season total to 9.5. Suh, playing in a 1 p.m. game vs. Minnesota, was at 9.0, sackless for the day.

But with only 2:20 remaining in the fourth quarter at Detroit, Suh struck. It wasn’t spectacular, as he dropped Minnesota quarterback Joe Webb at the line of scrimmage, after Webb tried to avoid pressure on a shotgun-snap play. But the play was ruled a pass attempt, and the tackler on such a play is awarded a sack if the passer does not gain positive yardage. So it was one sack for zero yards, and Suh barely managed to claim the title, finishing with 10.0 sacks to Dunlap’s 9.5. Dunlap had entered the game at 8.0 to Suh’s 9.0, and Dunlap had increased his total to 8.5 on a first-half sack of Flacco that was shared by Atkins.

To be sure, Dunlap ended the season as the hottest pass rushing rookie in the NFL. He had 8.5 of his sacks over the last six games.

"I’m just looking forward to coming back and doing even better next year," Dunlap said in January. "I wish I could have played more games, but I had a couple little setbacks early and didn’t get quite as fast a start as I wanted."

It was anticipated that Dunlap would take time to develop as an NFL player. He entered the 2010 draft after his junior season at Florida, and he is the team’s youngest player. He didn’t turn 22 until this past Feb. 28. He did not post a tackle until Game 6, on Oct. 24 at Atlanta, but his playing time increased significantly over the last five weeks. He logged his first career sack on Nov. 14 at Indianapolis, dropping Peyton Manning for four yards.

Unlike Dunlap, 2010 first-round draft pick Gresham was expected to contribute immediately, and that's exactly what he did.

Gresham showed encouraging flashes throughout the preseason, and during the regular season, the former Oklahoma star clearly made the tight end spot more of a weapon in the Cincinnati offense.

But in other ways not as noticeable to viewers on the outside, Gresham convinced coaches and teammates that the Bengals scored in selecting him with the 21st pick in the draft.

"There is a learning curve for Jermaine in playing the position the way we need it played in the NFL," head coach Marvin Lewis said during the 2010 season, "but the most important thing at this point is how he works at it. He does not do everything exactly right at this point, but he does everything at full speed. His technique suffers at times, but he’s shown us he does not lack one bit in ability or 'want-to.' "

Grasham's 52 catches established a Bengals season record for a rookie tight end. He broke a mark of 44 catches by Tony McGee in 1993. His 471 receiving yards were the most by any Bengals tight end since 1995, when McGee had 754. The most yards in a season by any Bengals tight end is 910 by Dan Ross in 1981. The most yards by a Bengals rookie tight end is 639 by Bob Trumpy, in the 14-game season of 1968.

Gresham’s four TDs tied the most by any Bengals tight end since 1998. In 2004, Matt Schobel had four TDs.

Besides having excellent hands, Gresham has superior athleticism, which allows him to remain a viable option in traffic.

"The thing I have noticed about Jermaine is that he never falls down," Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said last season. "He may get knocked down
sometimes, but a lot of guys, if they miss a block, for example, they’ll go down and be out of the play. Jermaine stays on his feet and either finds a way to get in another block somewhere or stays open as a possible receiver."

With Dunlap, Gresham and a host of other promising second-year players such as Atkins, cornerback Brandon Ghee and wide receiver Jordan Shipley, as well as a strong 2011 draft class led by wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton, the future is certainly looking bright in Cincinnati.


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