It was a tough day in Bengaldom Tuesday, the first day of free agency. But like Halloween Night in Miami last season when they saw their two-time Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins go down for the year, that proud, battered Bengals defensive line that just may be the deepest in football, again rallied around each other.
Right end Michael Johnson, one of their anchors at right end, hit the number in Tampa Bay at nearly $9 million per year after five seasons of steel-belted reliability. But the Bengals are also looking at a kind of jackpot on their depth chart with three proven ends and a highly-regarded second-rounder that have already contributed to the rotation of a defense that finished in the top ten in four of Johnson's five seasons.
One option is moving left end Carlos Dunlap and his 27.5 career sacks that earned him a $40 million extension before last season to right end and replacing him with the veteran Robert Geathers. Or take Wallace Gilberry's suggestion and put his 7.5 sacks that shared the team lead with Dunlap at right end after he backed up Johnson there for two seasons. Or, another option is getting some snaps from rookie left end Margus Hunt over there.
With new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther pledging multiple personnel groups up front, it figures to be a combination of all options with everyone splitting up Johnson's 90 percent play time.
"As the other half of our BookEnd Tandem, it's going to hurt seeing him in another jersey," texted Dunlap Tuesday. "But with the nature of our business and the way our D-line rotates already, we're just going to have to spread his load throughout the rest of us.
"Gilberry and Margus Hunt have a great chance to fill the void. We've already seen and know what Gilberry has done since coming to Cincy. As well as Margus Hunt's potential in year two."
The knock is that none of the options are natural right ends. But Dunlap, big enough at 6-6, 280 pounds, is excited about the possibility of switching sides, which he always did until he got to the pros.
"Absolutely," said Dunlap when asked if he could play right end. "And hopefully that gives us opportunity to add to our rotation as a D-line. The NFL was my first time playing only one side. Moving around on the whole line is going to make it tougher for teams to game plan for us as well."
The energetic, relentless, and passionate Gilberry, who plays bigger than his 275 pounds with that weighty chip on the shoulder from not getting drafted and sticking in Kansas City and Tampa, says to look no further. After six seasons, 83 games, and five starts, the 6-3 Gilberry says he's ready to be the starter even though the numbers say he's too small to be an every-down player like the 6-7, 275-pound Johnson.
But he's looking at numbers like this: 14 sacks in 30 games as a Bengal. A total of 7.5 sacks in 520 plays this past season.
And he says he can play the left side like Dunlap says he can play the right side. And the numbers say he can. According to ProFootballFocus.com, 151 of Gilberry's 349 pass-rush snaps came from the left and the PFF pass rushing productivity ratio (combining sacks, hits, and hurries) had him 16th in the league on the left, 12th on the right.
Meanwhile, Dunlap rushed just 13 times from the right side and had one hit. But he thinks he'll adjust.
"It will be different. I haven't played over there in a while, but I'm looking forward to getting back over there some and rotating sides," Dunlap said. "With the repetition, I feel like there may be even more of an opportunity for me to get sacks. Rotating sides along with Geno coming back healthy."
Gilberry also thinks he can play both sides and has.
"It doesn't bother me. Some guys can only play the left side; some guys can only play the right. I taught myself to be versatile," Gilberry said. "I played offensive line, tight end…To me; all it is is switching your hand and your foot. It's kind of a challenge to some of them. Everyone is different. It's not easy to do. But if it helps the defense stay in the top five in the league, that's what we need to do. That's the biggest concern."
After missing all but two games last season with a shoulder injury, Geathers, Dean of the Bengals with 136 games, says he's ready for the start of offseason workouts April 21.
Geathers is most likely headed back to the left end spot where he has made 84 starts since 2007 while performing well against the run. He's viewed as a good first-and second-down player up and down the line and since he turns 31 in training camp, he won't be getting a heavy dose of snaps. Gilberry got about 50 percent last season and Hunt fewer than 200. The idea is they can string their strengths together to match Johnson's production.
Gilberry said the D-line – tackles included – is sending group texts and it won't stop now.
"We're all out there training. We're ready. Mike was sending them. He's ready," Gilberry said. "We're happy for him. The brotherhood remains. He's just in another color. The show must go on, but I don't think we'll (miss a beat). Robert, Carlos, me, Margus. We're all capable of doing the job no matter who says we're not. We understand it."
Hours before Tuesday's free-agency deadline of 4 p.m., ESPN reported Tampa Bay had reached a five-year, $43.75 million deal with Johnson.
It was Gilberry who compared it to the loss of Atkins halfway through last season.
"He came to work every day with a passion and effort that elevated the play of me and the other guys around him. If that deal goes through in Tampa they're getting a heck of a player and person," Gilberry said. "It's just like when we lost Geno. A lot of people expected the D-line not to hold together and it's the same situation here. Mike is one of the great players at his position, but we have the guys, myself included, that can step in and pick up the slack.
A source close to Johnson said the Bengals made it interesting at the late hour (figure five years at about $7 million per), but the Bucs made sure the Bengals didn't get close.
Atkins counts more than $10 million against this year's salary cap, Dunlap is working on an extension that averages eight million, and three linemen average at least $5 million per year, so the Bengals were hard pressed to repeat last year when they had the highest-paid defense in the NFL. With three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J Green and quarterback Andy Dalton looking at huge numbers heading into their contract years, at some point the Bengals apparently felt they had to leave some room for offense.
Plus, Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict and defensive tackle Domata Peko are also headed into their contract years after they re-signed Geathers and Gilberry and drafted Hunt all last offseason.
Johnson won't be lining up next to Atkins in Tampa, but Gerald McCoy is an excellent inside rusher with 18 sacks in four seasons. The plan looks to be to switch Adrian Clayborn, another young end with 13.5 sacks in 35 games, from right to left.
How good was that 2009 Bengals draft? Johnson, a third-round pick, was joined Tuesday on the Tampa line by seventh-rounder Clinton McDonald, a defensive tackle the Bengals traded to Seattle before the 2011 season who also became a first-hour free agent.