Line of succession

Posted: 12:15 a.m.

If the secondary is the most talented part of the defense, then what about the line? That's where the three highest paid defenders reside in ends Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom and newly-minted tackle Domata Peko.

Coming off a season in which the Bengals finished last in the league generating sacks per pass, the departure of one of the club's all-time sackers, right end Justin Smith, and the arrival of a new defensive coordinator guarantees that this line will have a different look and feel.

But the Bengals need to pick though the depth chart to bring into focus a position where they usually keep eight players. If Peko, John Thornton and third-rounder Pat Sims are givens and Geathers, Odom, Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker are the four ends, does that leave everybody else fighting for one spot inside?

Or does ex-linebacker Eric Henderson become the ninth man swinging as an end and outside backer? Where does fifth-rounder Jason Shirley end up since he can play only tackle at a raw 6-5, 340 pounds?

It's why they have training camp.

But line coach Jay Hayes isn't going to totally blow off what he saw the past month as underwear football and worthless for his big guys. Granted, no declarations can be made until the big men put on the pads but Hayes says the spring camps "give you an idea what guys can do. You don't have the collisions, but it's somewhat close to what you're going to get," he says. "You can see who uses their hands well, who can react. But you've got to see them in pads."

With that first training camp practice now less than six weeks away, Bengals.com continues to look at each position group.

A LOOK AT THE BENGALS DEFENSIVE LINE

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Antwon Burton (6-2, 325, Third Year, 7 NFL Games with no sacks)
A very large, strong man who just turned 25 and flashed his experience this past month. He had eight tackles in six games before ending last year on Denver's practice squad. He played in one game after Denver signed him as a free agent out of Temple in 2006. Burton's experience is intriguing in a matchup with Shirley, the raw draft pick.
 

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Angelo Craig (6-5, 242, Rookie)
After an offseason of rapid weight loss and gain, Craig looks to be close to the weight he anchored the University of Cincinnati line as an edge pass rusher, highlighted by his two sacks and two forced fumbles in the Hula Bowl.

"I think that's what he's going to have to do and there is a place for guys like that," Hayes says.

Craig's development has been hurt by his ability to participate in just five practices with the veterans because of UC's graduation date.

 

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Jonathan Fanene (6-4, 295, Fourth Year, 21 NFL Games with one sack)
The Bengals quietly signed him to an extension back in February because they see his versatility and intriguing athleticism as major pluses. After injuries limited him to seven games in his first two seasons he played double that in '07, mostly on passing downs at tackle.

"He can be a left end on first and second down, and he can play some tackle on all three downs," Hayes says. "He's naturally very strong and he puts that together with some real athleticism for a guy that size."

So if Fanene is a swing guy tackle-end, room could open up for another tackle or end.

 

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Robert Geathers (6-3, 272, Fifth Year, 62 NFL Games with 20.5 sacks)
For the second time in his four seasons during '07, Geathers moved positions after having a big year rushing the passer and didn't get the sacks. After a rookie year he bolted off the edge for 3.5 sacks as a rush end despite not playing regularly until the second half of the season, he was moved inside on passing downs in '05 and had just three sacks even though he started all 16 games.

When he switched to left end in '06 on all downs he became the first double-digit sacker for the team (10.5) in 14 years before injuries at linebacker last season forced him to start four games at SAM for the first time in his life during a year he finished with just 3.5 sacks.

Geathers, the Bengal named "Junior" and widely viewed as the most versatile and athletic player on the defense, took that one for the team. Now that things have settled down at linebacker, he should be back to doing some damage. Remember, he's racked up nearly half of Justin Smith's 43.5 career sacks before the age of 25.

 

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Eric Henderson (6-2, 256, Second Year, 0 NFL Games)
The coaches continue to be extremely impressed with this guy's work ethic and burst even though he missed all of what was supposed to be his breakout year last season with a severely dislocated wrist in a preseason game.

He suffered the injury as a SAM linebacker after an offseason he was switched from defensive end. Hayes is glad the Bengals have switched him back to the line and is leering at Henderson as one of those guys that can both drop as a linebacker in a zone blitz and rush off the edge. This is a guy whose ACC career sack numbers at Georgia Tech aren't far off what Mario Williams had at North Carolina State.

"I think it's good for him to be back with us," Hayes says. "He's a natural pass rusher and he's as strong a guy as I've got in the upper body. We can use him in different situations. He might be the best guy we have both dropping and rushing next to Junior."

Before Henderson got hurt, he had been a force on special teams and his presence makes one wonder about the roster makeup. The conventional wisdom says keep 15 guys in the front seven, with seven usually parceled out to linebacker to help out special teams coach Darrin Simmons.

But if Henderson can swing as the last D-end and last backer as well as be a force on special teams, could it be a breakdown of nine D-linemen and six backers?

 

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Michael Myers (6-2, 300, 11th Year, 138 NFL Games with 15.5 sacks)
Hayes and the other coaches love this guy's professionalism and experience, typified by his diving interception off a tipped ball on the goal line that saved the Opening Night win over Baltimore last year.

"He's been there, done that," Hayes says. "Obviously for a guy to play that long, he knows what he's doing and how to go about it."

Myers arrived as a free agent from the Broncos last year and had a solid 40-tackle season in a rotation that put him in the game a lot on passing downs.

Working against him is his age, 32. Working for him is that the former Cowboy is the only Bengal who has played for new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

 

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Antwan Odom (6-5, 260, Fifth Year, 52 NFL Games with 12.5 sacks)
When the Bengals went to replace Justin Smith, they dropped their biggest dime ever in the first 72 hours of free agency on Odom, rated by consensus as one of the top two ends on the market.

He's coming off an eight-sack season (something Smith did once in the last six years and twice in his career) and one of the two big questions is if he can produce without monstrous Albert Haynesworth next to him. Odom is saying he'll be up to 270 pounds by camp via three peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches a night, so the other big question is if he can hold up against the run like Smith did.

The Bengals certainly liked their first glimpses of Odom this spring.

"Antwan's a tough guy. He's experienced. I think we'll be OK against the run with what he brings and how we'll be set up," Hayes says. "He's real slippery. He's very long and lean and is a fine pass rusher. He will give us a different tempo over there. Smitty was a hard-charging guy. Antwan has a different style, but at Tennessee he always played on rush downs. That's what he did."

Hayes also sees Odom joining Geathers and Henderson as a guy that can also drop into coverage and roam off the line.

 

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Domata Peko (6-3, 325, Third Year, 32 NFL Games with four sacks)
He earned his recent five-year extension with nearly $1 million per game, but those 32 games have been productive-filled with 114 tackles, 60 of them solos. After the deal was signed last week, his agent suggested that the Bengals are now ready to play him in their nickel and dime packages as well as on first and second down.

"We probably should have used him more. He'd be standing next to me saying, 'Put me in,' and we probably will a lot more," Hayes says. "He's getting better and better. He has great effort. You never have to worry if he's going hard enough."

 

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Frostee Rucker (6-3, 280, Third Year, 5 NFL Games with 0 sacks)
One of the bigger mysteries of last season is Rucker not playing for six straight games after he had four tackles and forced a fumble that led to a fourth-quarter field goal in Baltimore. When he did play again, it wasn't until the finale and two of his four tackles were for losses.

Well, you should see him plenty this year. If he's not spelling Odom or Geathers in the running game, he very well could be rushing next to them as a tackle on third down.

"He has ability to get in and out of blocks. He's got good quickness and he uses his hands well," Hayes says. "He has an opportunity to get some more snaps."

At least one veteran has been impressed. John Thornton has been comparing him to Kevin Carter.

 

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Jason Shirley (6-5, 338, Rookie)
He has spent very little time here in the camps because of his legal problems back in Fresno, Calif., and that's not going to help him as he tries to master the fundamentals. They like his gargantuan size and his raw ability, but it seems to be too raw right now to be of any significant contribution right away. The Bengals may be faced with making a decision between the experience of a Myers or a Burton and the potential upside of a fifth-rounder like Shirley.
 

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Pat Sims (6-2, 320, Rookie)
The third-round pick out of Auburn is making his presence felt with size and quickness. How important is he? If he becomes the kind of player he did in college, people will forget Shaun Rogers, Sedrick Ellis, and any other DT the Bengals could have had this offseason.

But Hayes needs to see some things at training camp.

"He's got to turn it up a notch, he's got to learn our tempo and when he does that he'll be OK," Hayes says. "The most important thing he has to do is learn how we do things, not how he has been doing them. And I'm not saying those were bad things. He's a wide guy that has quickness to him. He needs to be more timely on his get-offs instead of being delayed."

 

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John Thornton (6-3, 297, 10th Year, 128 NFL Games with 24.5 sacks)
Hayes says Thornton has showed up this spring looking as quick and as athletic as he has the past five seasons he has been the starter. That means he gets the last laugh because he ribs reporters who constantly mention his age (32 in October).

Voted defensive captain by his peers last season, Thornton commands respect in the room and prides himself on showing the younger guys how he goes about his business.

At the end of last season, he was playing primarily only on third down. But he took a bunch of snaps this spring with the first base defense. It's hard to see the Bengals keeping his $4 million salary if he's not going to be playing more, but they aren't looking to cut him because of his salary. They want to keep him because of his experience and leadership if he is still going to play like a starter and all indications have been he will.

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