With Margus Hunt (above) and Will Clarke, the Bengals hope to generate some pass-rush solutions internally.
INDIANAPOLIS - Not a bad NFL scouting combine for the Bengals.
Since it looks like reliable tackles, fast receivers, and productive pass rushers can be had in the first three rounds or so of the April 30-May 2 draft, they can pluck what falls to them and keep the rest of the league guessing on what they'll take when.
With the defensive line set to work out Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock christened it "the best edge class in years."
He's thinking back to 2011 when the first round yielded a Pro Bowl crop of potent pass rushers darting off the edge to torture quarterbacks great and small. Houston's J.J. Watt, San Francisco's Aldon Smith, Denver's Von Miller, and St. Louis' Robert Quinn have dominated and wouldn't it be nice if the Bengals could get an enforcer like that after a season they generated a NFL-low 20 sacks?
But projecting college defenders into 4-3 ends is one of the more difficult exercises of this gig. With the collegiate game now spread out from here to Texas, they're playing with 240-pound ends and that makes it tough on a Bengals team that recently built its best defenses bookended by ends averaging 6-6 and 265-280 pounds and put their hands on the ground. And if there are long lanky guys, a lot of times now they end up as tight ends.
"They exist," says Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. "Typically the high-level guys that have the dimensions for a true 4-3 and they are very good players, they go quickly. When you are looking at maybe a guy who is a 3-4 linebacker, those guys will be sprinkled through the draft, but there are guys in that group that can project as they get bigger if they have the dimensions. Maybe not the weight or the size or something like that, but he can become that. True 4-3 ends are like really good corners. The guys that are plug and play type guys tend to go really fast. "
Just look at the first three ends projected to come off the board long before the Bengals pick at No. 21. Nebraska's Randy Gregory showed up here at 235 pounds. Missouri's Shane Ray is listed at about 245 pounds. Ray and Florida's Dante Fowler are 6-3.
"Historically, Cincinnati goes for the really long, big athletic guys, and there's just not a lot of them," says draft analyst Rob Rang of CBS Sports. "They have gone with guys that are a little raw and need a little more polish."
Two of those guys, taken in the last two drafts, may be part of the answer as the Bengals try to build back up to that seven- and eight-man rotation that was the key to the previous three seasons in which they averaged 46 sacks. The rotational ends, Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry, never really found a rotation. Margus Hunt, a second-round selection two years ago, and Will Clarke, last year's third-round pick, played only a combined 251 snaps as they grappled with the loss of three-down end Michael Johnson while dealing with raw players. Hunt was limited to 187 of them because of an ankle injury that took him out of four games.
"We've got some young guys that probably needed to play some more," says Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "I thought Margus was coming on and developing but the injury slowed him down a little bit. All my guys have worked into the mix. Robert Geathers, Carlos (Dunlap), Mike (Johnson). None of them played a lot right away. You have to earn your time."
Both Clarke and Hunt figure to play more in 2015. For one thing, even Geathers, who turns 32 in training camp, had a sense after the playoff loss that he might not be back after 11 seasons. For another, Hunt is healthy and Clarke, drafted at about 270 pounds or so, figures to be closer to 290.
But they could use somebody else. Mayock and Rang say there'll be edge guys beyond No. 21. Indeed, Mayock says they are sprinkled throughout the draft. Rang says they're not as talented as the Dunlaps and Johnsons yet, but Mayock points to Mississippi State's Preston Smith, a 6-5, 270-pounder, and UCLA's Owamagbe Odighizuwa, a 6-4, 266-pounder, as potential second-rounders.
Rang thinks Kentucky's Alvin "Bud," Dupree is a potential fit for Cincinnati at No. 21 at 6-4, 270 pounds even though he's listed as an outside backer. He's got a knock for not being stout against the run (he's compared to former Cleveland tweener Kamerion Wimbley), but he's got the Bengals' specs and he's played both 4-3 end in a three-point stance and has stood up.
"I think they've got me at linebacker because they've seen me do the three-point stance," Dupree said this week of the Combine. "I've got a lot of film in the three-point stance and standing up. I think any team can see that I can play both positions." Dupree's tag-team partner in Lexington, Za'Darius Smith, a 6-5, 270-pound basketball player who didn't start playing football until his senior season in high school, is another name. He's been projected as high as the third round and Rang thinks he fits the Bengals.
But he's not as high on another former basketball player, Oregon's Arik Armstead, a guy committed to football only for the past year after he left the Ducks' basketball team. At 6-7, 296 pounds, Armstead, projected somewhere between late first round and the second, is the quintessential project in the Hunt mold. In fact, Rang compares his body to Hunt's, but he sees his style as more geared to a 3-4 backer.
"I know," said Armstead with a smile Saturday when he saw a Bengals pullover. "Carlos Dunlap is tall and wasn't Michael Johnson with them? I'd say it's a fit."
But don't forget those two guys they just drafted, too. Hunt and Clarke.
"A player or two," said Hayes when asked how far away they are from another full rotation. "It could be guys in the building if they take care of their business."