On Wednesday we kicked off a three-part Bengals.com series by examining the offensive players from the 2013 rookie class. Today, we take a look at the defense.
New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther takes over last season's third ranked defense from longtime DC Mike Zimmer who departed for the head coaching job for the Minnesota Vikings. Guenther has been with the Bengals since 2005 and served the previous two seasons as linebackers coach. This marks his first assignment as an NFL defensive coordinator.
This piece will inspect the 2013 rookie defensive players and how Guenther views the group going forward. That group includes three draft picks: defensive end Margus Hunt, safety Shawn Williams and linebacker Sean Porter, and four college free agents: LB Jayson DiManche, defensive tackle Larry Black, cornerback Onterio McCalebb and LB Bruce Taylor.
"I think it was a good group, a group that helped us win some games last year," said Guenther. "A lot of guys are going to have to take a jump from year one to year two."
One guy the Bengals hope can make that jump is second round pick Margus Hunt. Hunt's story has been well documented since coming over from Estonia and he is still relatively new at playing football. Guenther expects Hunt to help fill the void of losing starting DE Michael Johnson to free agency.
"With the loss of Michael, Margus Hunt is going to have to step his game up this offseason. This offseason is going to be big for him in training camp just to get his techniques down. Overall, football is new to him and now jumping to this level, I think he got a year under his belt that will pay dividends for him going forward knowing what to expect. We're looking for big things out of him, obviously."
Hunt was inactive for six of the first seven games last season but played in the final nine, as well as the Wild Card playoff. While he did not see a lot of action, he still played far more than any of the other rookies on the defensive side of the ball. Hunt finished the season with four tackles including a shared sack and seven QB pressures. While he knows there is still a lot for Hunt to work on, Guenther feels that he will be ready to contribute more next season.
"I expect Margus to be an every down player," said Guenther. "We rotate our guys enough but when he goes in there, he needs to have the knowledge of the system, have the overall understanding of what's going on in front of him, be able to improve on his technique and become more of a violent type of rusher. Those are the types of things I'm looking for."
While Hunt was the only rookie to see any sort of significant time on defense last season, Shawn Williams and Jayson DiManche both served as core special teams players. Both guys are looking to expand their roles for 2014 and Guenther is giving them an opportunity to do so.
"If they earn the spot, they'll absolutely play more," said Guenther. "The one thing I always tell them is about winning and the best guy is going to play. The things I'll tell the players is you can just look at the way the linebacker room was last year. We'll prepare those guys to go out and play, and whoever is the best guy will play, if somebody goes down the next guy goes in and we're not leveling off the expectations."
Williams, a third round pick out of the University of Georgia, was in a training camp battle for the starting strong safety spot with Taylor Mays and George Iloka. Iloka ended up winning the starting job, but Williams was determined to still make an impact as a rookie. He did just that, leading the team with 14 special teams tackles. While he played minimally on defense during the regular season (two tackles), he did rank second on the team with 18 tackles during the preseason and hopes to get more of an opportunity this season.
"Shawn Williams was a guy who helped a lot and was a core special teams guy for us," said Guenther. "He showed some promise in training camp as far as the knowledge of our system. The natural maturation of all of our players is that you come in and learn what we are doing on defense, then you're a core special teams guy if you're not a starter on defense. That's where Shawn is now. He's going to battle for one of the safety spots. I think he has ability and the mentality for it."
Jayson DiManche, out of Southern Illinois University, was the only college free agent to make the Bengals opening day roster a season ago. DiManche played a bit more defense than Williams due to some injuries in the linebacking corps, recording six tackles and a pass defensed. He also was a core special teams player ranking second behind Williams with 12 tackles.
"Jayson DiManche was not a drafted guy but we knew he had a chance to develop for us like some of the other guys we had at the at position," said Guenther. "He got a good chance to play on special teams last year. He had an opportunity to play some linebacker and he showed being a former defensive end, standing up and being able to drop, he did a good job of that. The offseason will help him as well now that he knows what to expect."
Sean Porter was drafted in the fourth round out of Texas A&M but suffered a torn labrum in training camp which ended his season. Guenther views 2014 as a chance to start over for Porter.
"Unfortunately Sean Porter suffered an injury but for the limited time that I had him on the field, he knew what to do, he understood and he was a smart guy," said Guenther. "Hopefully this will be a re-do of his first year because he got hurt last preseason. This will basically be a starting over point for him with the special teams and other things. We're going to look for big things from him."
Fans who saw HBO's Hard Knocks last year will not forget the story of college free agent Larry Black. Black, a Cincinnati native (Wyoming High School) and Indiana University product, had impressed coaches with his play and desire early in training camp. In only the sixth practice of training camp, Black suffered a gruesome injury--a leg fracture and dislocated ankle--ending his bid for the roster before it really even got started. Black rehabbed all season and now into the offseason and hopes to crack the Bengals roster in 2014.
"Larry Black was doing well," said Guenther. "He was one of those guys in training camp last year that really was flashing until he got hurt. Hopefully he can come back healthy and continue to go along that trail."
Two other college free agent signees, CB Onterio McCalebb and LB Bruce Taylor are on the Bengals offseason roster. McCalebb was a running back for the 2010 National Champion Auburn Tigers but has been converted to CB after being signed by the Bengals. He tied for the second-fastest 40-yard dash time at the '13 NFL Combine (4.34). McCalebb spent the entire 2013 on the Bengals practice squad as he learned the nuances of playing a position that was new to him.
"Onterio McCalebb is a speed demon," said Guenther. "He was a running back in college so he's new at the corner position. Hopefully with some of the offseason technique work he can improve there because he has the raw abilities to play the position."
Taylor was with the Bengals through the preseason and logged 10 tackles but was waived in final cuts. He was not originally placed on the Bengals practice squad and signed to the Arizona Cardinals practice squad for Games 4-5. After being released by Arizona, Taylor was eventually signed to the Bengals practice squad prior to Game 10 and remained on it the rest of the season. The Bengals liked what they saw from him to bring him back.
"Bruce Taylor was a guy that didn't make our club initially last year but we saw good enough things about him at a deep position," said Guenther. He went to Arizona but they released him and we felt like he would be a good fit for our practice squad because he knew what we were doing and he was a smart. Again, he's another player who's right in the mix of guys who can potentially make the team."
Guenther worked very closely with Zimmer during his tenure with the Bengals as defensive coordinator and looks to have the same amount of success as his former mentor. The growth of these young players from year one to year two could be crucial for Guenther's unit for years two come.