At every turn this preseason, the Bengals starting defensive line has had people marveling at its ginormous talent. Staggering wingspans. NBA bodies and NFL experience. Track speed and barbell strength.
Carlos Dunlap is sounder. Michael Johnson is bigger and stronger. Geno Atkins is flat out better. Domata Peko anchors it all with the rock-hard consistency of stingy, brute strength.
So Friday night's 7:30 p.m. preseason opener at Paul Brown Stadium (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the big-named Jets offensive line is another stop on the road for what just may be the most talented front four in franchise history.
(It's early, but Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold's appointment with Peko and Atkins is a nice preseason morsel, along with Pro Bowl left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson fitting up with Johnson.)
The observers passing through range from a former NFL personnel decision-maker in Vinny Cerrato to CBS senior NFL analyst Pete Prisco to one of their own, former defensive lineman John Thornton, and it goes something like this:
» "You can disrupt rhythm with that kind of pressure up front," says Cerrato, now a Baltimore sports radio host. "All you've got to do it beat one-on-one. Because Atkins is going to get doubled. He's very good. He can get off the snap like that. And he's so big. They're all big men. They're not going to get knocked off the ball."
» "It's the best defensive line in the division," Prisco says of the hallowed ground that always had seed in Pittsburgh or Baltimore or usually both.
» "They've really got weapons ... superstars they've never really had here," Thornton says. "Geno is special. Domata is solid. Mike and Carlos, you just don't have guys built like that. Legit 6-7 ends that can go play."
Thornton says it all comes down to how Dunlap and Johnson adjust to full-time roles, as well as finding two to three players off the bench to keep the starters fresh.
With left end Robert Geathers undergoing a knee scope on Friday, Dunlap has officially grabbed the No. 1 left end job he's coveted since he came out of Florida in the second round in 2010. The 6-7 Johnson had the full-time snaps at right end last season in his third year, but the pounding put him back in the weight room to retool his game and body. He has emerged with about 13-15 extra pounds at 278.
"He's a lot bigger, stronger. He's kind of getting used to being this heavy," says defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "It's not like he's fat. He's so much muscular and has to get used to it."
During the offseason Johnson worked with Thornton's trainer in suburban Cincinnati as well as in Arizona with a group of NFL players that included Donovan McNabb and Darrelle Revis in concert with what Bengals strength coaches Chip Morton and Jeff Friday have given him in an effort to beef up the shoulder injury that nagged him last season.
"The key for him is to keep the weight on during the season," Thornton says. "With all the work he did in combination with what Chip has given him, it should really help him."
The big rehab project, of course, has been the 6-6, 283-pound Dunlap. Both emotionally, the coaches say, and physically, he says.
"We're still knocking on wood, but I'm happy. Last year it took him about four days before he started going down," says defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "Right now it's been eight or nine days or something and he's still going in the right direction, so that's a good thing.
"That whole being into it and immaturity and those kind of things. I'm not seeing any of that kind of stuff to this point. So that's good."
The coaches say Dunlap is going to need it to show them he can stand up against the run. As far as Hayes is concerned, Geathers is still his man on first and second down. Everyone knows Dunlap can rush the passer. In his last 20 games he's got all of his career 14 sacks.
"We have to see if Carlos can play those first and second downs and make headway. We know he can play third. It's a matter if he can play the run," Hayes says. "We're working on it. I think we're making headway but Friday will be a test because these guys will run the ball. The Jets are known for trying to run and hopefully we can get him in some third and longs and see what he can do.
"He's getting better in technique. Just those general things. He's trying to work at it and be a knee-bender. You can see him working at things that in the past he wouldn't be as interested."
If Dunlap is bending his knees, he's also bending the way the coaches are looking at him. After badly injuring his hamstring on the last sack-snap that sealed the Tennessee win in Week 9 last year, Dunlap ended up playing only 12 games, and he became so immersed in trying to stay healthy that he put together his own offseason regimen.
"It's all the little things. Pilates, working on your core, stretching, rehabbing. I was doing pre-hab and preventative stuff," Dunlap says. "I attacked it from every angle that I could. Stuff I learned from the vets and guys who had a history with it. I got with the trainers and got multiple opinions and drew up my own program and one that felt good from every angle and stuck to it.
"I kept a lot of the stuff that got me back on the field as far as a routine. I feel like if it got me back on the field it should keep me there. Just ask other guys, trainers and preventative stuff."
Morton gave Dunlap the ultimate compliment this week when he said that he was "the catalyst" in changing how the team warms up for practice now. During the spring workouts, Dunlap continued to use his rehab program to get ready for practices. He would lay out the rope ladder on the ground and hammer his legs through it back and forth.
"We took some of our components from the offseason program and incorporated it into the pre-practice warmup," Morton says. "The ladder gets the feet and hands moving quickly. It transitions the body to high activity and now we've got everybody doing it."
Like Zimmer, Morton has seen the maturity.
"He's got ownership. He's got a voice. That made all the difference at my end," Morton says. "It was just communicating. Just listening to the athlete and fitting it into what we're doing.
"He needed to increase his stability and strength through his mid-section. Knees to his chest. Core stability. He needs that. He had some issues that could be traced to a lack of core strength and he's realizing he needs to focus on that more."
Dunlap's commitment has been so great that he has tabled getting his degree in business management from Florida. After his rookie year, when the players were locked out, he took classes during the spring. But not last year.
"I'm going to go back once I establish myself in the NFL," he says. "When I went back to school I slacked in my job when I got hurt. I have to put my job first and then go back to my personal stuff."
Thornton says Dunlap's job has to be becoming a better run player because that's the M.O. of an every-down player. "You almost have to be a better run player," says Thornton, who also says Dunlap has nothing to worry about as a pass rusher.
"He can bull rush. He's so big. He's not so much a speed rusher. He beats a lot of people inside," Thornton says. "Whatever deficiencies he has, he can make up for it with size and speed. People are afraid of him.
"You just can't leave them alone. Mike is no slouch."
Thornton says if the defensive line is going to be the MVP again like it was last year, the Bengals have to find replacements in the rotation for Jon Fanene and Frostee Rucker to keep the starters fresh.
"Because you know Marvin is going to play the guys that can do it, no matter what," Thornton says.
But there's no question in anyone's mind that the first front four is something that can be special.
It's not only the observers that say it. Their teammates, the ones who always know first and best, can sense it.
"He could be the best if he wants to," middle linebacker Rey Maualuga said of Dunlap. "Very athletic for a guy his size. So young, I think he could be a monster. Ten sacks his rookie year he barely played the first half of the season. I look at him and Mike to make unbelievable numbers. They could be the best ends in the league if they put the work in."