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Youth re-energizes Bengals front

Posted Aug 23, 2017

Tackle Brandon Thompson’s release this week caught Pro Bowler Carlos Dunlap’s eye. “That’s a clear sign that upstairs is very excited about the young talent," up front, like nose tackle Andrew Billings (75).

Tackle Ryan Glasgow could very well be one of two rookie defensive linemen to make it, a rarity in Bengaldom.

Only once before in the six previous seasons of the A.J. Green-Andy Dalton run have the Bengals cut down their final roster to three defensive linemen with less than three years experience. But Pro Bowl left end Carlos Dunlap, a whiskered 28-year-old vet in his eighth NFL season is feeling the winds of change along his front.

“It looks like they can help us right away if you go by the tape of the preseason,” said Dunlap of the kids before Wednesday’s practice. “And it seem like they’re acknowledging it upstairs.”

Tackle Brandon Thompson’s release on Monday caught Dunlap’s eye. A six-year veteran who started the last seven games when Pro Bowler Geno Atkins went down with an ACL when the Bengals won the 2013 AFC North, Thompson shared time on the 2015 AFC North title line before he tore his own ACL in the finale. To no one’s surprise, old friend Hue Jackson grabbed him off waivers in Cleveland.

“That’s clear sign that upstairs is very excited about the young talent,” Dunlap said. “He played a lot of quality snaps when Geno went down. We know he can play football, but I guess they wanted to give him a chance to hook on elsewhere.”

Trust Dunlap when he says youth isn’t exactly the way the Bengals usually go about it. When he was a second-round pick in 2010, he set the Bengals rookie sack record the hard way. With all 9.5 in the last eight games.

“Four D-ends had to get hurt before I got activated,” said Dunlap, leering at rookie edge rusher Carl Lawson. “They still wanted to ride with the older guys. But I guess now they see young guys come and play quality snaps early and they want to do it now. You see with Carl they’ve put him in the No. 1 nickel right now.”

Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther plans to put the kids on display even more in Sunday’s pre-season game (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 19) at Washington. He wants his young speed rushers to go against Pro Bowl tackle Trent Williams and his young inside rushers to go against 2015 first-round pick Brandon Scherff at right guard.

“The most important thing for me is to get these guys in early against players who will be playing every Sunday,” Guenther said. “If we get anything out of this game, that’s it.”

Guenther has been with the Bengals since 2005, with the defense since, and he’s been the defensive coordinator since 2014. He has to agree. “It’s probably (the youngest ever) in the front and the linebackers are the same way.”

The front seven is a microcosm of what is going on here. The offensive line is getting younged up and so is the receiver corps with just not rookies, but improving sophomores and juniors. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis hasn’t always been seen as a fan of the young player. But on Wednesday he was the blowing the horn of the youth movement.

Jordan Willis hasn't disappointed with his as advertised motor and production.

“We’ve been pleased with — however you slice it — the 12-14 guys that are new,” Lewis said in his news conference. “Plus, a couple guys from a year ago that are expanding, so that’s good. And guys who got an opportunity to play more last year, whether it was their second year or first year, now have come into this season more mature and more prepared to seize the moment. You see that in the way they carry themselves, and particularly when the lights have been on.”

Lawson counts as a backer, so two rookies (sixth-rounder Jordan Evans) are probably going to make it there, where a second-year player, Nick Vigil, is going to start.

Up front, second-year nose tackle Andrew Billings looks to be in, as does rookie three technique Ryan Glasgow, a fourth-rounder, as they hover around Thompson’s spot. Neither has played in an NFL game. Also in the mix is second-year tackle DeShawn Williams, a veteran of four NFL games. At end, another rookie, third-rounder Jordan Willis, has received rave reviews, not to mention top grades from profootbalfocus.com in each game. That’s not even counting Lawson up front.

And the trade for rampaging rush end Chris Smith gives them a fourth-year player (there’s no way Smith can’t make it with 11 QB pressures in the two games), but he barely has a year of playing experience with 19 games. 

Veteran tackle Eric Winston has been blocking a lot of these guys since May and he’s seen the difference from last year. He also believes they can make an immediate impact.

“They drafted three really good guys on the D-line,” Winston said. “I think Glas has shown some ability to be a stout guy in the middle. Anytime you spend early picks on guys and you hit, you’ve got a good chance of transforming a unit on your team. I think the big key for Lawson will be to stay healthy and for those other guys to just come along and come as fast as you can. When you add that sort of athleticism and versatility, it’s important and they’ve got a chance to be even better than they were last year.”

They haven’t been this young up front since 2010 (the year before Green-Dalton), when Dunlap and Atkins were rookies and Michael Johnson was in his second season. But even then, Johnson was listed with the linebackers, the Lawson of his day. Except Johnson was back at right end very soon.

(Like Winston said, when you hit it in the draft …. Those three players were big factors as they evolved from 2011-13 and the defense went from No. 7, No. 6, No.3.  Not to mention all three got huge second contracts.)

Pro Bowler Carlos Dunlap embraces the youth movement.

They’re taking care of Lawson, limited to just 20 starts at Auburn in the wake of two significant injuries during his career. He dinged his shoulder early in the pre-season opener and kept him out last week. It looks like he’s ready for Sunday.

“Carl, Jordan, Chris Smith. All these young guys are getting a lot of hits on the quarterback this preseason,” Dunlap said.  “And we’ve rotated them in with the ones to see if they can do it again and they’ve still been consistent. It’s going to be exciting.”

Dunlap laughed. He wouldn’t have minded taking first-team nickel snaps as a rookie in his third pre-season game.

“Learn from your mistakes,” Dunlap said. “That’s a good thing. If a guy can help us now, I’m all for it. Put him out there and let’s go.”

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