With free agency slated to start Saturday, we take a look at the depth chart of the three units starting with the NFL's third-ranked defense.
It lost its architect when Mike Zimmer became the head coach of the Vikings after the season. But a defense that gave up the fifth fewest points in franchise history returns relatively intact with the same playbook run by Zimmer's aide de camp, former linebackers coach Paul Guenther.
The three most pressing issues are the status of free agent right end Michael Johnson, the rehab of tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall, and the age of the secondary. Keep in mind that in the recent past they don't consider free agents from other teams much of an option until a few weeks into the process as they try to sign and extend their own first. And, at that point, free agency is for depth.
Developing sub-plots are tied up in some intriguing roster scrums and the heat that is going to be put on some recent high picks, such as 2012 second-rounder Devon Still and two from last season, third-rounder Shawn Williams at safety and fourth-rounder Sean Porter at linebacker. And, how young will they go at backer? It's believed James Harrison became their oldest Opening Day starter at linebacker ever last year when the 35-year-old beat out Reggie Williams by nine days.
(Denotes how many players the Bengals project to keep at this position on the 53-man roster and years of experience in 2014)
DEFENSIVE ENDS (4 or 5)
Starters: Michael Johnson (6), Carlos Dunlap (5)
Backups: Robert Geathers (11), Wallace Gilberry (7), Margus Hunt (2), David King (1)
Free agents: Johnson.
Johnson is the top priority to re-sign and they very nearly had a deal back in July before talks stalled and Dunlap ended up getting a very similar five-year, 40 million extension. Does the fact Johnson got $11 million as the franchise player help in a some kind of long-term deal, or is Johnson banking on a lot more than the Dunlap deal if he hits the market?
There's a lot to admire in Johnson. Only Dunlap played more snaps on the line last season and while his '12 sack total dipped from 11.5 to 3.5, he played all three downs, was huge against the run (where profootballfocus.com had him rated second among 4-3 ends last year), got his hand on nine passes, and is an impeccable leader.
If they can't re-sign him, they've got a variety of options with people already here. They could move Dunlap, Geathers, or Hunt from left end to right end. Dunlap and Gilberry each had 7.5 sacks last season with Gilberry playing about 50 percent of the time and occasionally moving inside. Dunlap ranked just behind Johnson in PFF's run defense at No. 4.
Geathers turns 31 in August and missed all but two games last season with a shoulder injury, but he is no potential cap casualty with Johnson a question mark and Guenther talking about being more multiple up front. Zimmer and head coach Marvin Lewis have always held Geathers in high regard as a versatile guy that can play up and down the line while also not being afraid to get in the faces of the young guys. He looks ready to be cleared for the start of the April 21 offseason workouts.
Geathers and Gilberry are at their best in a rotation. Hunt, the highest-drafted D-end on the roster when he arrived in the second round last year, is just starting his sixth year of football and still has some ground to make up. But after playing in 10 games as a rookie he did appear to get better the more he got work.
At last month's NFL scouting combine Guenther said the Bengals may have to go get someone to replace Johnson and it looks like there'll be defensive ends at No. 24. But there is optimism they can make a late run and keep Johnson.
TACKLES (4 or 5)
Starters: Domata Peko (9), Geno Atkins (5)
Backups: Brandon Thompson (3), Devon Still (3), Christo Bilukidi (3), Larry Black (2), Ogemdi Nwagbuo (4), Zach Minter (2).
Free agents: None.
The last time we saw Atkins he was getting helped off the field in Miami Halloween night after he suffered a season-ending ACL injury. No one quite knows how his rehab is going because the big fella never has much to say. But Lewis said at the combine he expects him back for training camp, a must if this defense is going to get off the ground quickly.
Peko, who doesn't turn 30 until late in the season, may have another extension in him. Some at Paul Brown Stadium thought he had one of his best years in 2013. They thought that Thompson showed up pretty well when he was forced to play for Atkins (particularly by showing a surprising pass rush at times) and he proved he'd play hurt, but his bum foot down the stretch hampered his production.
It's a huge training camp for Still. After getting a not so private it's-all-up-to-your-work-habits pep talk from Zimmer in training camp on Hard Knocks, a spate of injuries to his elbow and shoulder limited him to just 132 snaps in 2013.
Black, the Cincinnati product from Wyoming High School, is a guy to watch after he came out of Indiana undrafted last year. The hope is he'll continue his encouraging play after suffering a gruesome dislocated ankle in training camp.
They usually keep nine defensive linemen with at least one inactive on game day. The more versatile, the better.
Starters: WILL Vontaze Burfict (3), MLB Rey Maualuga (6), SAM James Harrison (11).
Backups: Michael Boley (10), Vincent Rey (4), Emmanuel Lamur (3), Jayson DiManche (2), J.K. Schaffer (2), Brandon Joiner (2), Sean Porter (2), Bruce Taylor (1).
Free agents: Boley (unrestricted); Rey (restricted)
Look for them to tender Rey, coming off his best year from scrimmage in the wake of season-ending injuries to Lamur and nickel backer Taylor Mays. But it's doubtful they'll go after Boley, turning 32 in training camp.
The Bengals could be looking for a shot of youth here with Harrison turning 36 the week before the draft. The Bengals are coming into the spring looking at a bunch of kids and the question is going to be, how young do they go?
Lamur, who missed all last season with a shoulder injury, is projected to play the bulk of the snaps in a tandem with Burfict in the nickel and can project to back up SAM or WILL. Rey can play all four spots (including nickel) and they have yet to see much of Porter and Joiner, victims of season-ending injuries in training camp. DiManche, an undrafted rookie, made his mark as the second-leading special teams tackler, but he has to find consistency backing up SAM or WILL. Schaffer came off the practice squad and pumped in six teams tackle while also gaining some experience backing up the middle.
Linebacker is always among the most heated derbies on the roster during camp and this looks to be no different, particularly if they decide to keep only five like they did heading into last year's Opening Day. But every cut is different. At the time they were banged up at safety and had to go heavy there, plus Mays was a swingman at safety and backer.
Cornerbacks: Staters: Leon Hall (7), Terence Newman (12).
Backups: Chris Crocker (12), Adam Jones (8), Dre Kirkpatrick (3), Brandon Ghee (5), Chris Lewis-Harris (2), Onterio McCalebb (1), Brandon Burton (4).
Free agents: Crocker (UFA), Ghee (UFA)
With Zimmer gone, it's hard to see Crocker, turning 34 later this week, resurrecting a third straight September. They may try to get something done with Ghee, although he remains a bit of a mystery since they took him in the third round in 2010 and injuries have limited him to fewer than 100 NFL snaps from scrimmage. They may have a better read on Burton, a fifth-rounder from that same draft (Utah) with 29 games in the league, mostly with the Vikings.
Newman was having a superb year at age 35 before he suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the year and though his Zim-mentor is gone, he and Jones expect to be challenged by Vance Joseph, the Bengals' highly-regarded new secondary coach. Joseph, a man-to-man maven, also has a project in Kirkpatrick, one of four first-round corners he's been dealt. Kirkpatrick has shown flashes of his Grade A talent. When Newman went down, Kirkpatrick played well enough to keep the defense stingy. But they need him to be consistent with technique (the double move has become his bugaboo) and they think Joseph is just the kind of technician to get it out of him.
Hall quietly rolls along in rehab and the good news is he's on pretty much the same track as two years ago when he tore his other Achilles'. The bad news is that he's pretty much on the same track as two years ago when he tore his other Achilles. Can he possibly have as good a comeback as he did two years ago? So far, so good.
The age factor (they'll have three corners of at least 30 when Hall turns The Big 3-0 late in the season), could be a factor in the draft, where they clearly don't mind taking one in the first round. But given that it seems to be a pretty deep crop of reliable guys, they could get a guy that can help at any point in the first several rounds.
Safeties: Starters: Reggie Nelson (7), George Iloka (3).
Backups: Shawn Williams (2), Taylor Mays (5)
Free agents: Mays (UFA)
Mays is a guy they'd probably love to have back. Good guy with a big body, it's important to him, and he takes up two spots as a nickel backer and safety.
With the return of a healthy Lamur and the emergence of a pair of younger safeties (according to PFF Iloka led the team with 1,048 snaps and Williams led them in special teams tackles), they're going to keep looking to upgrade.
They seek more turnovers from Iloka (one, pick, two forced fumbles last season), but here's a guy that played the most snaps for one of the NFL's best defenses and now has some valuable experience.
They'd like to get some depth back there and they're hoping Williams plays better from scrimmage now that the rookie woes are gone. With no Crocker around to bounce between safety and corner, that could be a spot on the wish list. A run at a free agent around the draft may not be out of the question.