The Bengals may be running a different blueprint on defense these days, but the specifications of the prospective players haven't budged one centimeter or kilogram.
"Corners and rushers, man. Corners and rushers," said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo before he went into morning meetings this week. "You have to be able to affect the quarterback."
With two weeks before free agency, Anarumo spends the mornings with staff evaluating scheme and overseeing analytical projects before heading into afternoon personnel meetings with the scouts as the club builds a board of college prospects and available veterans.
If there's one stat that has caught everyone's analysis, it is the lack of pressure. The Bengals have the fewest sacks in the league the past two seasons and the second fewest in the last four years.
"Absolutely," Anarumo said when asked if this passes for the offseason priority. "Look at the successful defenses in the league and what do they do? They pressure the quarterback and that doesn't mean blitzing. The more quality edge rushes you can have, the better you'll be."
It turns out the Bengals' best edge rusher is one of the consensus best available in free agency. Carl Lawson led the NFL in quarterbacks hit after they threw with 27, according to Pro Football Reference, and the next on the team is 10 from Sam Hubbard. The biggest fan debate of the offseason bedsides who to draft at No. 5 is if the Bengals should place the franchise tag on Lawson, cornerback William Jackson III or neither.
The team still appears to be mulling the options, but what's not up for debate is what type of player they want at defensive end. That's clear and simple.
A 4-3 pass rusher.
While the Bengals are running a 3-4 hybrid, they and everyone else align in some version of a 4-2-5 as much as 70 percent of the time to match personnel. And they're all packaged differently as reflected in this year's free-agent list.
At 6-2, 265 pounds, Lawson isn't far off the dimensions of the Ravens' 6-3, 261-pound Matt Judon. But he's a different cut than the 6-3, 250-pound Von Miller, the 6-1, 235-pound Haasan Reddick or the 6-4, 270-pound Bud Dupree.
Pro Football Talk rates it Judon, Lawson and Reddick among edge players and all come out of varying schemes. Then it goes the Saints' Trey Hendrickson (6-4, 270), the Rams' Leonard Floyd (6-5, 240) and Dupree, a trio that loses and gains 30 pounds in each ranking.
"But in the end, we're just going around in circles when you talk 3-4 or 4-3. They're rushing the passer on the edge no matter what," Anarumo said. "The bigger guys are generally more durable, but what matters is how much they affect the quarterback. Speed edge rushers are the guys that have always been the commodity you want and they come in all shapes sizes."
But usually not at starting cornerback. Thanks to A.J. Green and his legion of jump-ball artists during the previous decade (Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald blazed the trail), length has almost overtaken speed when it comes to scouting cornerbacks on the outside. When the Bengals grabbed one of the top free agent cornerbacks on the market last season, it was 6-0, 190-pound Trae Waynes.
The 6-0 Jackson is PFT's top free-agent cornerback on a list that seems to have more proven slot corners (Troy Hill, Mike Hilton) than outside people, which may boost his lot. When the Bengals last year grabbed Waynes and 5-10 slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander (a free agent again), they were looking for sure tacklers and they are again.
"Speed, change of direction, all that stuff is paramount," Anarumo said. "But length really allows you to be a good corner in this league. (Tackling) is in the top three (of traits). It's up there. You want guys that can run and cover. You want guys that have the right mentality and the right makeup so that they'll be able to get guys on the ground."
The 5-11, 183-pound Troy Hill, now with the Rams, broke in with the 2015 Bengals undrafted out of Oregon, and in the PFT rankings is rated one spot behind Jackson, the Bengals' first-round pick in 2016. The Bengals have battled the 5-9, 184-pound Mike Hilton (rated fifth) in the Steelers slot for the past several years. The 6-2, 196-pound Michael Davis (ranked third) and the 6-0, 191-pound A.J. Bouye hit the length specification for starters. Besides Lawson and Jackson, Alexander (at 94) is the other Bengal on PFT's top 100 list.
Although Waynes never got on the field last year with an injury, Anarumo doesn't see there being a problem getting him ready.
"He was in the meetings. There are a lot of similarities with what he did in Minnesota from a coverage standpoint," Anarumo said. "Trae will be fine. His body had a year off from getting banged around."
No question, between free agency and the draft, the next two months are going to define the 2021 defense. But Anarumo isn't putting any numbers on how far they are away from getting to where they want to be.
"It's a continuing thing. It's not we need three, four. It's not that we need one or two. To me, it's always evolving," Anarumo said. "We have to see how the roster shakes out. We still don't know what the (salary) cap is going to be. There are so many factors to determine all that. It's fluid."